For the University, the opening of Penn Park today is a symbolic moment, a gesture reaching out to connect Penn with its neighbors to the east.
For Penn’s varsity and recreational athletes, the park will be an instant upgrade to facilities long overstretched and in need of improvement.
Penn has put up a paradise where there was once a parking lot, but will students and the surrounding community return to this Eden once its gates open?
Since the 1960s, the University has redeveloped campus to the west, making the neighborhoods up to and past 40th Street safe and livable. That expansion has reached its end, and Penn has turned its eyes eastward with the purchase and building of Penn Park. Now the University is tasked with the challenge of convincing a student body that lives almost exclusively west of 38th Street to come back eastward.
“I think the change of culture isn’t going to happen overnight,” said Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky, who has played a key role in the planning and creation of Penn Park. “People are only going to go that distance if they think it’s worthwhile.”
Both Bilsky and Penn President Amy Gutmann had glowing praise for the Park, which has been four years in the making.
“The expanse is quite amazing — you feel that the city is opened up to you,” Gutmann said.
To introduce students to the “impressive” new space, Gutmann is hosting not one, but two events for the University this week, with a grand opening picnic this evening and a field day before Saturday’s football season opener.
The fireworks on both nights symbolically signal the park’s location to students and Philadelphians alike. “We’re going to begin with a bang,” Gutmann said.
The difficulty, as Bilsky knows, will be to bring people back after the free food and entertainment are gone.
“We’re going to have to program it and excite people about it and figure out how to use it, and that’s going to be a great challenge for us,” he said.
Creating an endeavor like Penn Park is an unprecedented feat for an urban campus, Gutmann said, so the challenge Penn faces is attracting students there will be unparalleled as well.
The athletic director has plans to not only bring more people down to the park, but to better connect the sports community — which in the recent past has operated on the periphery of campus — with the rest of Penn.
“We’re going to have to reach out to all the parts of the University that interact with students,” Bilsky said, suggesting entities like the College House program and graduate student organizations, which he said have largely been forgotten in the past.
And the University surely has no lack of events that could make use of the sprawling new space — Skimmer, Fall Fest, along with other concerts.
One group that will immediately take to the Park is Penn’s Red and Blue Crew, which plans to hold its pre-football tailgates in the space this season.
“I would think that the distance is not going to be as big of a deterrent,” said College senior Jayson Weingarten, one of the group’s leaders.
Weingarten said previous trends in soccer attendance show promise for that of Penn Park.
When the South Street Bridge closure cut off easy access to Penn soccer’s Rhodes Field, the team’s fanbase declined visibly. Now that the bridge is open again, Weingarten said, attendance has perked back up.
“It just shows that if you have somewhere that is accessible and isn’t a huge inconvenience — people will come.”
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