Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
Behind the Continental, one of culinary impresario Steven Starr’s oldest and most recognizable “concepts,” two decaying buildings sit on South Second Street in Old City. In stark contrast to the surrounding block — alive with bars and restaurants, infamous for its weekend hordes — the buildings at 9 and 11 S. Second St. are boarded up and dark, with rusted, mangled security grates warding off passersby. The blight, now half a century in the making, seems inexplicable, situated as it is on a prominent corner in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s oldest, most iconic and, arguably, most desirable neighborhoods.
Today, a South Philadelphia-born electrician named Gianni Pignetti says he wants to develop the buildings on behalf of the owners, Herman and Lillian Snyder. He says he was introduced to the couple “through friends” and describes them as “old, simple people, not mega-real-estate types like Bart Blatstein.” Between obscenities hurled at an uncaring city bureaucracy and a vicious parking authority, Pignetti weaves a story of a victimized couple who were simply overwhelmed by mounting tax bills on properties — recently assessed at a combined $1.37 million — that they couldn’t afford to renovate on their own.
Why not just sell? “They want to keep [the properties] in the family,” says Pignetti, adding that his work on other Old City developments made him an obvious point man for the desperate couple. He has already turned the lower floors of two other long-rotting buildings — 27 and 29 S. Second St. — into a beer distributor and a convenience store. “It’s difficult to do business here ’cause of all the government processes and the Historic Commission,” says Pignetti.
But Pignetti’s hard-luck story is about as hollow as the notion that Lillian and Herman Snyder have much of anything to do with these buildings, aside from acting as a legal shield for the numerous citations and at least 21 lawsuits associated with the buildings over the last 10 years alone. Their evasion — and Pignetti’s story — is particularly impressive given that records indicate that Herman Snyder has been dead for more than 40 years and Lillian, if she’s alive, turned 103 this year.
In reality, the names Herman and Lillian Snyder have served as a smokescreen for their secretive, 79-year-old son, Theodore Snyder. Hardly a simple old man, Ted Snyder is one of the most prolific slumlords in Philadelphia history — and still the biggest single one in Old City today — with a troubled real-estate empire stretching through Northeast Philadelphia to the Wildwood boardwalk and south to Florida.
Snyder and Pignetti are just a few in the rogues’ gallery of property owners — along with speculators, admitted ivory smugglers, failed museum operators and suit salesmen — who for decades have let their buildings fall into disrepair and kept the neighborhood from fulfilling its potential. Together, they own approximately 37 blighted buildings and vacant, unimproved lots over the 15 square blocks from Front to Fifth Street, Race to Chestnut.
But these blightlords — the worst of whom, ironically, were raised in the very neighborhood they’ve helped deface — have their own side of the story. It’s a tale of victimization by an imperious neighborhood association stacked with NIMBY sentiment, and of an oppressive, corrupt city government that has smothered development. Their explanations are laced with an unspoken implication: Only an idiot would play by the rules in this town. These landholders may not be among the most reliable of sources, but they do offer a contrasting vision for the neighborhood — a bouncing entertainment district, far from some residents’ dreams of quiet, rowhouse blocks, fine-dining restaurants and upscale boutiques — and an alternate explanation for its stunted evolution.
This unresolved clash between what may well be the neighborhood’s two longest-standing and most-invested contingents, its hands-off “investors” and its highly guarded residents — all watched over by a city government that has failed to intervene — in large part explains why Old City’s identity remains tangled and its outlook uncertain.
The story of the Snyders is the story of the rise and fall of Old City’s commercial fortunes. The family was part of the largely Jewish merchant class that came to dominate Old City during its latter years as a business mecca in the mid-20th century. Herman Snyder worked as an auctioneer selling bulk goods from the ships docked along Delaware Avenue — probably in the building that now holds Pignetti’s beer distributor but earlier contained one of the many auction houses scattered across the neighborhood. He sold to the “jobbers,” or wholesalers, dealing in textiles, tobacco, shoes and other merchandise. Fading remnants of this legacy remain, like Benjamin Stein & Son Wholesale Dry Goods on Third Street, today still run by the titular son, Gene Stein.
Herman Snyder, long deceased, and Lillian Snyder, who would be 103 if she’s still alive, are nominal owners of 9 and 11 S. Second St. Electrician Gianni Pignetti says he is working with the Historical Commission to rehab the properties, but his proposal was rejected.
Stein, 77, remembers the bustle of the old days. “Fourth Street used to be the hub for all the shoe people at one time. From Fourth and Market to Race, nothing but wholesale shoes,” Stein says. “It was all taken up by manufacturing and warehouses.”
But the modernization of shipping in the 1950s and ’60s, accompanied by the consolidation of the city’s antiquated pier system into marine terminals in Port Richmond and South Philly, started rendering the old warehouse district obsolete. Property values dropped as families divested from the area. Some, like Stein, hunkered down for the long haul. Others, seeing opportunity in decline, snapped up cheap properties.
“You coulda bought property out there dirt cheap,” Stein says. “At Fifth and Delancey, we’re talking $2,500 apiece in 1962!”
Some heirs to this last generation of merchants, like Ted Snyder and his sister, Arlene Arrow, inherited portfolios containing numerous, sometimes enormous, aging properties, picked up for pocket change.
At their peak in the 1970s, the Snyder family owned at least a dozen properties in the neighborhood, and Ted Snyder had established himself as a real-estate baron in his own right. Deeds — and lawsuits — from the 1970s and ’80s reveal that Snyder, in the prime of his life, was one of four principal investors in Victory Investments, the multimillion-dollar holding company of the late, great Center City slumlord Sam Rappaport.
Rappaport was one of the biggest property owners in Center City, known for his ostentatious style (he sported a Rolls Royce emblem for a belt buckle and was fond of diamond pinky rings) and extensive portfolio of large, high-profile buildings, many of which he let fall into ruin. His philosophy, perhaps shared by Snyder: “I wanted to prove I could do whatever I wanted,” he told an Inquirer reporter in 1974.
Today, many of Rappaport’s former assets, or at least those that weren’t lost in legal disputes with the city and his other two former partners — Snyder’s neighborhood pals Elias H. Stein and Leon Silverman — remain yawning parking lots, the asphalt legacy of Victory Investments.
The partnership dissolved in the early 1980s with a messy court dispute. But now Snyder was experienced. The passing of his father (Lillian Snyder is listed as “widowed” on a deed from 1975) and his mother’s advancing age left him as the de facto manager of an untapped real-estate empire in Old City — and beyond.
Cape May County, N.J., records indicate that Lillian Snyder had bought or inherited boardwalk properties in Wildwood, along with several amusement piers. Ted apparently decided to give the entertainment business a go, and opened an arcade in his family’s building at 37 N. Second St., back in Old City. The only thing was, Snyder was better at owning buildings than actually doing anything with them. “My kid used to play in that arcade. That place was a dump,” Gene Stein recalls.
The site of the seedy arcade is now — perhaps unsurprisingly — another surface parking lot, operated by Pignetti, who has ignored a covenant with the neighborhood association to keep the lot’s perimeter landscaped.
Snyder’s other properties fared about as well. A vacant property he owned at Third and Market turned up in the papers in 1989, when accumulated graffiti and overflowing garbage on his land hampered the efforts of youth volunteers to clean up an adjacent park. The boardwalk stores went up in a mysterious blaze investigators said was intentionally set in 1993, and the pier is now mostly disused. The Snyders’ remaining holdings are crumbling, four-story echoes of a bygone era — a memorial to one man’s misadventures in real-estate speculation.
Ironically, Ted Snyder doesn’t officially own a single property in the city of Philadelphia: The eight properties the family has left — valued at $6.5 million — are all in the name of Ted’s sister or his possibly deceased parents. But his fingerprints are all over documents related to the land. The mailing address for several of “Lillian Snyder’s” Second Street properties links to a post-office box in Bala Cynwyd owned by Gene Savell, Ted’s old accountant. Savell, now retired, was only a little surprised to learn that. “I don’t even know how many properties he put my address [on]. Ted used to do stuff like that all the time. … But he never called me or got authority to do that,” says Savell, who noted that he hasn’t seen Snyder in “probably 10 years.”
“Occasionally, I’ll get bills or they’d track me down and say they wanted me to pay for his properties. I sorta got used to it over the years,” he added. Like virtually everyone else who dealt with Snyder, Savell described him as extraordinarily private. “He’s a very secretive person. He’s the kind of guy where you ask him, ‘What time is it?’ and he has to think it over before he answers you.”
Elias Stein, now a lawyer in Center City, was also not surprised to hear that his home address in Stratham, N.J., had been used by his ex-partner on official documents, and then by the city for failed court summons. “He’s a very closed-mouthed guy who keeps to himself and doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He has his idiosyncrasies, but he values his anonymity.”
But Snyder’s numerous court battles paint a picture of a more aggressive character. Although Snyder has hidden behind his parents’ names and phony addresses, he doesn’t seem to have trouble finding his way to court as a plaintiff. Court records indicate that, since 2008, “Lillian Snyder” has been suing her neighbors, EFL Partners, who own the half-renovated 31 and 33 S. Second St. The documents indicate that Ted Snyder has been standing in for her in court due to her advanced age, in a claim alleging that EFL’s construction activity “punched multiple holes into the plaintiff’s property.” The Snyders asked for $76,560, including $4,194 worth of work by Gianni Electric, Pignetti’s firm.
Snyder, in keeping with his secretive reputation, did not respond to inquiries. (Elias Stein claims to have been in touch with Snyder recently, but says his ex-partner “doesn’t communicate with the press.”)
Nobody interviewed could explain Snyder’s decision to let his buildings rot for decades instead of developing or simply selling them. “That was part of his mystique. You’d sit down with him at a table and say, ‘Why is this property derelict?’ and he’d go on for two hours with his explanation. At the end, you’d look back at your notes and they’d make no sense,” Savell says. “I don’t know why he did it. Financially, it made no sense to own properties and just let them dissolve.”
Snyder may be the most elusive blight-holder in Old City, but he’s hardly alone. Some of the district’s conspicuous surface parking lots and decaying buildings can be traced to outside speculators, others to developers whose ambitions were stalled by the economic crisis.
A prime example is the massive Trenton China Pottery complex at 105 N. Second St., virtually untouched since it was purchased by John Azran in 2011. Then there’s The National, a landmark on Second Street that has a committed developer but hasn’t seen movement in some time. There are also some government-driven failures, like the buildings at 223-227 Chestnut St. These structures, with rusting, boarded-up ground floors, were leased by the federal government to the struggling United American Indians of the Delaware Valley (UAIDV) museum and gift shop from 1976 to 2006. The terms of the lease included the transfer of the building to UAIDV’s control after 30 years; the nonprofit promptly sold the structures for a cool $2 million to Silica Investments. The developer approached Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC) for assistance in financing the redevelopment. It didn’t pan out. PIDC executive director John Grady says his organization “made a loan to [Silica] to begin to redevelop the building,” but that group defaulted halfway through renovations. PIDC has spent the last year trying to foreclose on their lease and regain control of the buildings through sheriff’s sale.
At least there have been attempts to do something with these properties. Trenton China has allegedly been sold off to a new developer, while other notably vacant buildings, like the former Suit Corner and Bookbinders, are nominally for sale.
But when it comes to old-guard slumlords like Snyder, it seems there is no plan — and if there is, it doesn’t make sense to anyone but them.
The same could be said for another longtime Old City property owner, Victor B. Gordon. Gordon runs a business at 31 N. Third St., advertised as “the most unusual store in Philadelphia.” The address is a crumbling, if at least occupied, four-story mercantile warehouse with boarded-up windows on the upper floor — he says because the Historical Commission wouldn’t let him install the windows he wanted. The shop’s crowded confines are packed with carved statues in African motifs, swords and old clocks.
“This was a wonderful city, with plenty of industry and plenty of jobs. This always had the possibility of being one of the best cities in the world,” says Gordon, 70. “Now, you see, you have a number of vacant properties. I have one, too.”
Although, as Gordon says, he owns only one empty building, his other properties include two massive dirt lots. Altogether, he owns five properties in Old City, worth an assessed $2.52 million. His father, Julius Gordon, operated an auction house at 240 Market St. for 30 years. The massive structure burned to the ground in 1987, causing $1.7 million in damage to surrounding structures. Julius, who had been storing a drum of kerosene there, was convicted of endangerment. Victor Gordon now refers to the dirt lot as “the family property” without a hint of irony.
Gordon has had his own criminal problems. His dealings in African tribal art landed him in hot water last year when he pled guilty to ivory smuggling and was fined $150,000. He declined to talk about any subjects related to ivory, but it’s hard not to wonder if he’s learned his lesson and, more to the point, why he doesn’t just sell some of his valuable holdings to pay off his fines and legal fees.
“I don’t want to: It’s mine,” says Gordon. He alludes to an unnamed L&I employee he says asked for a bribe 20 years ago as the reason he didn’t develop the land after the fire. Indeed, spite for the city, the Parking Authority and the neighborhood seems to drive him as much as anything else does. He claims he now has a “game plan” for the Market Street lot, but, with a smile, says he can’t talk about details.
“Our primary concern,” an Old City entrepreneur told the Inquirer 10 years ago, “is that someday Old City will turn into South Street. When you walk down South Street, you feel like you’re in a war zone.” Over the subsequent decade, some would say that fear has materialized (see: Philadelphia magazine’s 2010 screed on bridge-and-tunnel clubgoers, titled “What the Hell Happened to Old City?”). The neighborhood famously saw a number of high-profile shootings and nuisance activity at the apex of its club scene.
So over the past several decades, as Philly’s old warehouse district morphed into its hottest bar district, neighbors pushed back hard. In 2003, the area’s business and residential communities came together to support the extension south to Walnut Street of an aggressive zoning overlay, the Old City Residential Area Special Controls District, to quell the roiling crowds. The ordinance prohibited nightclubs, restaurants, tattoo parlors and entertainment venues, among other property uses.
Joe Schiavo, a neighborhood resident and business owner who heads Old City Civic Association’s (OCCA) liquor committee, says the “strangling” provisions on food uses were designed to weed out restaurant-based liquor licenses that would later be used for nightclubs.
But Gordon blames the overlay and the “corruption” and “personal interests,” with which he says OCCA is rife, for making his vacant property at 15 N. Third St. — and the rest of the neighborhood, in his opinion — unrentable. “The jerks block everything, because they’d rather have vacant stores and crime and graffiti than legitimate businesses,” he says. “It’s all a control situation: They want to box it into their vision of what the neighborhood should be.”
Gordon claims the overlay made it “impossible” to lease the now-vacant commercial space he owns at 15 N. Third St. He agrees that zoning should exclude some undesirable uses; he says he voluntarily turned away a psychic who wanted to rent because it would have “brought the neighborhood down” (actually, psychics are another prohibited use). However, he believes OCCA’s zoning disapprovals killed the neighborhood’s vibrancy. “Ask yourself if it’s better to have new restaurants than vacant buildings,” says Gordon, who suggested restaurant and bar operators on the OCCA board were conspiring to keep out new competition.
He cites the saga of Charlie’s Pub as an example of the neighborhood overreaching. Charlie Vaturi ran a well-liked corner bar on 114 N. Third St. for 25 years before a dispute with his landlord led him to shutter the pub in 2011. Vaturi tried to relocate to a building he owns at 17 N. Third St. But OCCA automatically refused to support Vaturi’s application, due to the zoning overlay. “Charlie is an honest guy. … And they won’t let him move his business a block away into his building,” Gordon says. Vaturi has been tied up in appeals since, and only now is close to getting final approval. He declined to be quoted out of fear of disrupting his approval.
Schiavo dismisses the criticisms.
“Just because you like Charlie doesn’t mean you skip the process,” he says. He notes that the overlay has since been revised — the new zoning code changed food and liquor uses from outright prohibited to “special exception” status.
Schiavo says that Vaturi’s ordeal may have been frustrating, but that OCCA isn’t to blame for the intractability of other landlords. “When you speak with the wacky landlords in Old City, there’s one consistent characteristic, and it’s finding fault with everyone other than themselves in terms of why they have problems with their buildings,” Schiavo says. “But rarely are they investing in a property and bringing it up to standards to make them profitable.”
As Old City is slowly crushed under this decades-long tension between residents and investors, you might wonder: Where is the city in all this? Why isn’t it forcing owners to clean up their acts? And does it have a plan for this neighborhood at all?
A look at the Snyder family’s court records offers some insight: The city’s various code-enforcement lawsuits hit walls after servers failed to make contact via Ted Snyder’s numerous false addresses, including the now-vacant Northeast Philly offices of Siegal & Drossner accounting and his sister’s former home in Lancaster. Enforcement efforts were gummed up for decades as the city vainly attempted to serve Snyder’s centenarian mother and dead father 21 times by certified mail sent to empty offices and alias residences.
The city has pursued Ted Snyder directly on only two occasions over the last decade, both times unsuccessfully. Both service attempts, for failure to renew a Business Privilege License, went to a dummy address: the home of Elias Stein.
For what it’s worth, sources say the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) and the Old City District are launching a new strategy. The initiative would be modeled on a program implemented by the University City District, to more aggressively pursue blight by partnering with private developers to offer a carrot-and-stick approach. L&I spokesperson Maura Kennedy declined to discuss future strategies, but says the city has already begun to crack down on landlords.
“We went through recently as part of a block-by-block survey of Center City and cited every building that had a doors-and-windows violation,” she says, referring to legislation that requires structures on 80-percent-occupied blocks to have doors and windows — including 9 and 11 S. Second St., which are boarded up. Kennedy acknowledges the difficulty of tracking down owners, saying that the Office of Property Assessment — which furnishes L&I with ownership information — “has not always kept the best records.” But even when the citations reach their targets, they don’t always have their intended effect, as in Gordon’s still-boarded-up store on Third Street.
Gene Stein says he advised Gordon to develop the lot on Market Street long ago. “I told him to at least top it off and rent it as parking. He said, ‘Oh, it’d cost a fortune to fix that lot.’”
Stein, whose five-story building is empty apart from his little shop, has long thought of cashing out himself. He offers words that might be well heeded by any one of Old City’s geriatric slumlords: “I had a big offer seven years ago: They had my building at $1.2 million. I wish I had sold it, ’cause it’ll probably never be worth that much again,” Stein says. “Assets are good at a certain age, because they can grow. When you reach my age, it’s better just to have the cash.”
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