It is a crisp April day, so bright that every piece of trash on the streets in the rundown Philadelphia neighborhood where Steven Culbertson works seems highlighted in sunshine. Culbertson is giving a tour of the almost-completed block of two-family homes that his group, the Frankford Group Ministry, is developing for sale to low-income families. “Isn’t this great?” he demands, walking up the porch steps of one of the little houses and into its tiny, immaculate living room. Culbertson tests the kitchen cabinets, touches the carpeting, counts off the bedrooms on the second floor. “And look at this!” he says, bounding up the stairs to the third floor. With a flourish, he opens the door to a large, sunny attic room with slanted walls and lots of windows. “If I were a kid, I would love to live up here,” says Culbertson.
Believe it or not, Steve Culbertson is an extortionist, at least in the eyes of U.S. senator Phil Gramm. A year ago Culbertson headed the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC), an umbrella organization for the city’s neighborhood revitalization groups. When Philadelphia’s biggest bank, CoreStates Financial Corp., announced in November 1997 that it was being acquired by North Carolina’s First Union Corporation, Culbertson used the leverage provided by a law called the Community Reinvestment Act to make a deal with First Union. The deal between his group and First Union, the first of many the bank made in the CoreStates merger, mandated that the bank make more than $3.5 billion in mortgage, home improvement, small business, and community development loans in poor neighborhoods. It also, Culbertson believes, called for the bank to spend $750,000 a year to support a laundry list of nonprofits that CoreStates had helped to keep afloat. This part of the deal wasn’t in the written agreement. “We felt uncomfortable writing these [donations] down,” Culbertson says. “We didn’t want to have the appearance that our organizations were being taken care of in the deal. I didn’t want the agreement to be tainted.”
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