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A G-Town Divided | Philadelphia City Paper

A group meant to bring Germantown residents together is driving them apart.

Neal Santos

THE BUCK STOPS: Protesters this week at the site of a planned Save-A-Lot and Dollar Tree stores.

[ deja vu ]

Germantown is haunted — not by spirits, but by the specter of years of insider politics, manipulation and division that finally culminated in 2010 in the dismantling of the Germantown Settlement community development corporation.

Under the leadership of Emanuel Freeman, whom his own accountant later likened to dictator Robert Mugabe, the housing and social service agency defaulted on millions in bank and government loans, had $2 million in tax liens placed against it, and was found to be missing or misappropriating $1 million. The agency left the community in the dark about its plans, let prized properties in Germantown fall into disrepair, and became the target of a federal probe.

Despite all this, the organization continued to receive help (and Freeman continued to drive a Mercedes-Benz), including millions more in public funds, largely thanks to politicians such as Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and former Mayor John Street. Finally, though, at the end of 2010, a bankruptcy judge ordered the agency shut down, adding that letting Freeman continue about his business would be like "leaving a fox in a hen house."

Vilified as Freeman became to much of Germantown, residents also blamed themselves for being too fractured as a community: In meetings during the past few years, they vowed to band together and fight off ruthless developers in the future. Germantown Settlement's end seemed to be the start of the community's rebirth.

But now, a controversial development plan is threatening to unravel that unity — and, some say, causing the community to make the same old mistakes that landed it in the Germantown Settlement mess.

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