By Lou Mancinelli
How can a former civil rights attorney, a child of the ‘60s, a man who in his youth was inspired by — and at age 55 still is inspired by —progressive social theories work within the capitalist system to earn enough money to make positive social change?
Twenty-plus-year Northwest Philadelphia resident, Ken Goldenberg, who now lives in Chestnut Hill with his wife and four children, (two are stepchildren), in the 1980s founded retail development firm The Goldenberg Group, which now owns almost five million square feet of retail space. His goal was to earn enough money to be able to fund charitable public interest work later in life.
Goldenberg has a “we’re all in it together” mindset combined with a big vision. His vision is evident in the places his Blue Bell-based firm develops. They built Columbus Commons on Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia, home to a number of big-name national stores like Ikea, and Best Buy, and the Metroplex on Chemical Road in Plymouth Meeting (Guitar Center, Michael’s, etc.). They also own the site of the former Gimbels department store at 8th and Market Streets that burned down in the 1970s. Right now, they’re building 100 high-end homes behind Haverford College.
Once a month, Goldenberg “shuts down” his retail firm, and its staff of 30-plus participates in one of Goldenberg’s two self-financed public interest projects, People Helping People/Philadelphia. (His other is People Helping People/Kenya; more on that later.) They go into the community and do “good works,” like cooking for the home-bound or sick, assisting in local schools and rebuilding little league fields. Two years ago, they rebuilt a little league field in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. Additional companies have joined Goldenberg over the years, and he hopes the charity will grow to become nationwide.
“It’s not just good works,” said Goldenberg during an interview outside Cosimo’s Pizza Café on Germantown Avenue, across the street from the old Borders one evening in late April. “There’s a certain solidarity, conscious building and breaking down of stereotypes that comes when people come together, and go in to the community and work shoulder to shoulder with people less fortunate than them.”
Raised in Elkins Park, Goldenberg attended Germantown Academy and Trinity College in Connecticut before graduating from Harvard Law School in 1981. Before beginning his real estate ventures, Goldenberg was a D.C. civil rights attorney for two years at the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which he helped start in Washington. (He was the center’s first Fellow.)
He worked on litigation with the San Louis Obispol Mothers for Peace, against the firm Pacific Gas & Electric on the Diablo Canyon Nuclear case, making sure the California nuclear plant, about 150 miles north of L.A. built on the San Andreas Fault, was built to specific levels that ensured its structure would be safe from natural disasters.
The recent crisis in Japan sheds new light on the importance of those litigations. He also helped bring a National Environmental Policy Act challenge against the Department of Defense regarding its controversial plan to deploy MX nuclear missiles in a racetrack configuration in the desert in Utah.
But the 1980s marked the beginning of a new conservative era in America political life. It was the Reagan years, a time of massive increases in the Department of Defense budget, and Goldenberg was “frustrated [he] wasn’t able to participate in the agenda” at the Center for Law in the Public Interest. “The big, politically motivated nature of some of the center’s activities sometimes missed the point about the people it was actually trying to help,” he said.
So he left his public interest legal work in Washington, grabbed his backpack and went to Hong Kong for a year with his ladyfriend at the time. He needed to see more of the world, and time to think about his future. He was 26, and it was one of the best and “most eye-opening” years of his life.
When Goldenberg came back a year later, he was not sure if he wanted to continue being a lawyer. He decided he was going to travel around the world and write books. He thus enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania as a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. But funds were scarce.
When his father, himself a real estate businessman who in the 1980s sold the Penn-Jersey Auto stores chain founded by his own father, offered Ken the chance to earn money in and learn the real estate business, the youngest Goldenberg figured it was “an opportunity to raise the annuity” he needed to one day fund his own public interest group. So he switched from studying anthropology to the MBA program at Penn’s Wharton School. That was 20 years ago.
About four years ago, Goldenberg created People Helping People/ Kenya after a friend put him in touch with a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with HIV-positive children in a town north of Nairobi, Kenya. When the NGO left, Goldenberg stayed.
Now, he travels to Igoji, a town about four hours north of Nairobi with one tarmac road, two to three months a year where he works with nuns from the Little Sisters of Don Orione. The Italian convent was founded in the 19th century to help the “neediest of the needy,” and is now comprised of mostly Kenyan nuns.
There, he uses his annuity to send children to school, helps build chicken coops, is helping to rebuild a school for the handicapped, and assists other groups and projects in the health and religious fields. He’s also involved in a new effort to help the Little Sisters of Don Orione to create a non-profit organization in the Ivory Coast, where the Sisters recently reported they were being shot at in the midst of a Civil War, and have little food for the handicapped and other children they care for.
“Even though you’re talking about almost incomprehensible conditions in terms of health, sanitation, water, electricity, roads, housing, the macro economy, politics and certain social and cultural challenges created by these pressures and their efforts to modernize,” said Goldenberg about the situation in Kenya, “you’re also talking about one of the most beautiful places on earth in terms of the land and the animals. But especially the people, with their smiles, their kindnesses, their generosity of spirit and the remarkable richness of their wonderfully varied cultures and traditions, where in many cases they are still living as they did 10,000 years ago.”
And while Goldenberg has traveled around the world, Chestnut Hill is truly where his heart is. “They’ve really got that ‘it takes a community to raise a child,’ idea going on here,” he said, adding that being a father has been the “single most important” thing in his life.
Not surprisingly, given his interests, Goldenberg is constantly thinking of ways to improve the culture of the neighborhood. He recently became a partner in the new Gravers Lane Gallery, 8405 Germantown Ave., and he dreams of somewhere to put a movie theatre along the Avenue, like the one in Ambler.
Goldenberg has a palpable sense of how lucky he is to have been born and raised in America, where living conditions are far better than many Americans realize who have not seen the squalor in which so much of the world lives. Two years ago, Goldenberg took his youngest son, Hank, then 17, with him to Kenya.
“He said ‘Dad, no matter how much you described this to people, and how many photos you showed them, they’d never understand it unless they were here.’” For more information about People Helping People, or to donate to the Ivory Coast initiative make checks payable to People Helping People/Ivory Coast, and send it to Ken Goldenberg at The Goldenberg Group, 630 Sentry Parkway, Suite 300, Blue Bell, PA 19422.
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