An outsider and a visionary

The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield’ by Dan Rottenberg

3 minute read
Wheeling and dealing. (Photo of Greenfield by Roy Stevens via Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
Wheeling and dealing. (Photo of Greenfield by Roy Stevens via Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Dan Rottenberg has told a must-read, fascinating story about The Outsider, Albert Monroe Greenfield (1887-1967), a Ukrainian Jew who became the ultimate 20th-century Philadelphia insider. He had the vision; the real-life, self-acquired, comprehensive knowledge; and the never-say-die leadership qualities needed for success in his adopted home, earning him the nickname “The Philadelphian.”

The book paints an inspiring picture of a man who not only overcame his immigrant roots, but also targeted the anti-Semitism of the Protestant establishment. Refusing to accept bankruptcy even when the banking elite would not help save his bank during the Depression, Greenfield showed the self-determination and intelligence that lead to good fortune and a powerful comeback. His real estate investments benefitted Philadelphia Jews and Irish Catholics; in addition, he bravely integrated his hotels and housing for African Americans. In this way, he made Philadelphia live up to William Penn’s dream of making this a city of brotherly love.

His real estate dream was to eliminate the sleepy Philadelphia image, while preserving historic facades and locations of properties, such as Bonwit Teller, the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, and the Bellevue–Stratford Hotel. In the early 1950s, new mayor Richardson Dilworth chose Greenfield to chair the City Planning Commission and realize his Independence Hall neighborhood redevelopment dream. In turn, Greenfield capped his career by turning Independence Hall and its neighbors into an attractive destination for tourists interested in early American history, preserving and redeveloping colonial dwellings at reasonable costs. The result: middle- and upper-class residence suburbanites returned to the district.

An example of intelligent leadership

A biography that stays within the traditional chronological approach to an iconic life like Greenfield’s cannot fully capture that life’s significance. If the author had taken advantage of current research about leadership, and the brain and its different forms of intelligence, we could get a better perspective on what kept our subject ahead of his time.

Better understanding of his leadership style became possible in 1966, the year before Greenfield died, when the World Future Society was formed. Its founders represented government, the private sector, and higher education with the intention of exploring and applying the concepts of anticipatory leadership or systems thinking. These visionaries solve problems by designing and capturing mental model solutions attractive to both left- and right-brain thinking, then add the financial resources necessary to turn the model into a profitable, beneficial reality.

Greenfield’s accomplishments reveal both left- and right-brain skills in a combination that was second to none and superior to most. Left brain functions include sequential processing, problem solving, reading, analysis, mathematical calculations, and language. Right brain functions include spatial ability, artistry, emotional expressions, pattern recognition, and perceptual skills.

A worthy subject for a case study

An analysis that looked at the ways the Independence Hall neighborhood redevelopment project worked in both spheres could have given us a chance to appreciate Greenfield’s accomplishments much more fully. Through such an analysis, it becomes clear that he was more than just a leading Jewish-Russian immigrant businessman; he was one of America’s most fully self-aware, multi-intelligent, powerful, and unforgettable real estate leaders regardless of background, race, and ethnicity — and the ups and downs of business.

I’d also like to see some consideration of the work of the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, through which Greenfield’s anticipatory leadership legacy continues. The foundation has funded not only individual students at Philadelphia schools, from elementary schools to colleges, but scholarly and historic societies, museums, libraries, and diverse learning experiences. His comprehensive philanthropy deserves special attention. There must be a rich collection of inspiring untold human interest stories demonstrating the gift of anticipatory thinking. Another Greenfield book — one that is more contemporary and legacy driven — could be easily justified.

Note: The author of The Outsider, Dan Rottenberg, is the founder and senior editor of the Broad Street Review. This review was edited and posted by the current editor in chief, Judy Weightman.

What, When, Where

The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment, by Dan Rottenberg. Temple University Press, 2014. Available at Amazon.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation