A 20th-Century Civics Lesson

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A new biography highlights the sweeping impact Albert M. Greenfield had on Philadelphia in the 20th century.

For a city with a long history of, well, being historic, it is only natural that some layers of Philadelphia’s milestones are subsumed by the weight of accreted events over the past four centuries, leaving just the faintest outline of their legacies.

Exhibit A is for Albert M. Greenfield. Beyond the Center City elementary school named after him and his eponymous foundation’s grants for student musicians and to the Philadelphia Zoo, there is virtually no public awareness of the critical role that Greenfield played in the history of 20th-century Philadelphia.


Almost from the time he opened his first real estate agency in 1905 up until his death in 1967, Greenfield impacted the development, both physical and civic, of the city in ways like:

Remaking neighborhoods by lending immigrants the money to buy their own homes when no other banks would; bringing high-profile events like both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions to the city for the first time; becoming the first large-scale landlord to racially integrate his rental properties and hotel rooms; spearheading the dismantling of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s infamous “Chinese Wall” that choked off Center City development for decades; and leading the effort to transform Society Hill from one of the worst neighborhoods in the city into one of the most desirable ZIP codes in the country.

Dan Rottenberg knows Greenfield’s story well. Rottenberg is the author of the upcoming biography of Greenfield titled The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment. The longtime journalist, whose online arts periodical, The Broad Street Review (broadstreetreview.com), is located in Greenfield’s old Bankers Trust building in Center City, likes to take his time telling a story. He readily acknowledges that he worked on his latest book — his 11th — in some fashion for 38 years.

According to Rottenberg, the book didn’t take an unusually long time to come to fruition — only 15 years longer than it took to complete his 2001 book, The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, and 12 years less than the process for writing his 2008 book, Death of a Gunfighter: the Quest for Jack Slade, the West’s Most Elusive Legend.

“I always have several books on the back burner,” he explained. “I research these things in a desultory fashion, and then one day everything bubbles to the top.”

In this case, “everything” was Temple University Press asking him in 2011 to write what became The Outsider. The book will be officially released Sept. 22. For Rottenberg, who first wrote about Greenfield in a 1976 Philadelphia Magazine article, it was the ideal way to merge two subjects he had long wanted to tackle in long form: the rise of the Jewish business class and the fall of the Protestant establishment.

Greenfield’s story is, ultimately, the story of both. Born Avrahm Gruenfeld in Lozovata, a small town in what is now Ukraine, somewhere between 1884 and 1887, he came to the United States with his family in 1896. Just 10 years later, at the age of 17, he had already embarked on the first of what would be a lifetime of real estate ventures.

It was through his real estate dealings that Greenfield found his way into the banking industry. He realized that the real money wasn’t to be made in sales, but in the financing of those purchases. He came along at the perfect time: For many immigrants, the ability to own their own piece of land was something they had dreamed of being able to do their entire lives. This was especially true for his fellow Eastern European Jews, who were forbidden in many places to own property.

It was through Greenfield’s expansion into banking that his fortunes quickly — and calamitously — merged with those of Philadelphia’s ruling Protestant class. Although his bank, the augustly named Bankers Trust, enjoyed tremendous success throughout the 1920s as a result of Greenfield’s real estate acumen, the Great Depression put a tremendous strain on its resources. In that period, people not only defaulted on mortgages and loans but also began pulling out their deposits either because they had lost their jobs or because they were afraid that the bank would become insolvent — an increasing likelihood in those pre-FDIC days.

As a result of an unrelenting wave of withdrawals in December of 1930, Greenfield found himself at the mercy of the Clearing House Committee, the group of Philadelphia’s leading bankers — all of whom were Protestant. If they chose to lend his bank the money to weather the run, the accounts of its 100,000-plus customers would be saved. If not, it would have to close all of its branches, leaving all of those people devoid of their savings — and Greenfield himself, as the bank’s biggest depositor and shareholder, virtually penniless.

In a scenario that proves how history repeats itself, the committee voted against the loan, and the bank closed its doors — setting off a chain reaction of closings in the city — including many of the committee members’ own banks — much like the United States government’s decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers in 2008 resulted in its implosion and the escalation of the Great Recession.

As Rottenberg’s meticulously researched book details — there are 52 pages of notes, as well as a rundown of the dramatis personae and an index — Greenfield rebounded so quickly that there was barely time for an intermission before he emphatically disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that “there are no second acts in American lives.”

By leveraging his remaining assets, Greenfield created an empire that, over the course of the next 40-plus years, included department stores, candy manufacturers, apartment buildings, hotels and, for a brief period in the 1940s, ownership of the Jewish Exponent. His ability to overcome his losses and successfully adapt to the new economic and  social environment was emblematic of the success enjoyed by numerous other fellow immigrants — and stood in stark contrast to the failure of the city’s Protestant elite, which soon found itself on the outside looking in after the Great Depression, both in terms of business and civic leadership.

Rottenberg covers Greenfield’s professional success, but he also spends a great deal of time focusing on what he accomplished away from the business pages.

“I really feel that what is lasting about him is that he redefined the notion of citizenship,” Rottenberg says, “that no matter where you are, you can make a difference in your community and the world if you set your mind to it.”

Greenfield lived up to this assessment through actions like buying this newspaper and then selling it for a nominal sum to a forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia. He was a tireless and effective fundraiser for civic ventures like the rebirth of Society Hill, Jewish charities and political figures. He was so effective at this last task that he became a trusted confidant of Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Rottenberg has crafted a biography that delves into not just well-known historical figures and events, but the more unfamiliar names and places as well. Readers will learn that Vare isn’t just the name of an exit on the Schuylkill — William Vare was one of the state’s most influential politicians of the first half of the 20th century; that Stotesbury, before it became the name of a regatta, was the surname of the most powerful banker in the city; and that without Greenfield’s last-minute authoring of a statement of support for Israel read by Harry S. Truman just before the 1948 presidential election, Dewey really could have defeated him.

“When you write a biography,” Rottenberg says, “it has to be about something more than a fascinating individual. Why should we care about Albert Greenfield?”

After reading The Outsider, how can we not?

IF YOU GO
Dan Rottenberg
will be speaking about his new book at a number of events in the coming weeks, including:

Historical Society of Philadelphia,
Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m.

The Gershman Y,
Sunday, Sept. 21 at 11:00 a.m.

The Union League
Wednesday, Oct. 8 at 6:00 p.m.
Chestnut Hill College Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m.

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