JY Lee | Welcome to Wild West Philadelphia


Wandering Curious Lee | A crash course on 200 years in the neighborhood


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JY Lee
Wandering Curious Lee

Photo by JY_Lee


Although this year marks the fourth I’ve lived in West Philadelphia, it’s never felt like home. After seven scores here, Penn probably feels the same way.

With the help of a marketing campaign that established “University City” in the 1950s, Penn successfully separated herself from West Philadelphia in the minds of many.

Occasionally, West Philadelphia thrusts herself onto the Penn bubble. This June, it happened when a man was fatally shot at 40th and Market streets.

My introduction to the neighborhood during NSO began with a video testimony of a Penn student, who was almost lethally injured in a crossfire on her way back from a party. My RA warned that residents of West Philadelphia have a higher mortality rate than those who serve in the United States military.

Whenever I went past 40th Street on my way to a party, I would gaze into the unending abyss of darkness. Huntsman Hall, the Radian and other high rises felt like towering guardians against the Hobbesian anarchy of West Philadelphia.

Last year, I had a chance to venture into this terra incognita through two academically based community service classes — “West Philadelphia History” and the “Franklin Community Seminar.” What I found westward was not the pre-Columbian edge of the world, but spices and gold.

Countless treasures of American civilization have called West Philadelphia home: the grave site of painter Thomas Eakins and Campbell Soup founder Joseph Campbell, the houses of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane and century-scoring baller Wilt Chamberlain, America’s first zoo, first botanical garden and its first World’s Fair, the world’s first computer, the 1950s’ coolest show, “American Bandstand,” one of the mid-century’s most notorious gangs “Tops and Bottoms” and as we claim — America’s first university.

Sure, West Philadelphia is financially impoverished. In the pre-meltdown 2000 census — the latest available survey — West Philadelphia reported an unemployment rate of 14.8 percent and a median household income of only $25,136. The poverty rate had increased every decade from 13.5 percent in 1970 to 20.5 percent in 1999.

The economic decline of the last four decades is only the latest in West Philadelphia’s gradual economic descent since its founding two centuries ago. Back then, many houses west of the Schuylkill were mansions of a newly developed suburb, with estates like the one remaining at the Woodland cemetery.

Today, the neighborhood that used to house homogeneous, wealthy whites has become home to a mosaic of ethnicities as colorful as her murals. There are a significant number of Europeans, blacks from the South, West Africans and Southeast Asians here.

What used to be an all-Protestant neighborhood has not only embraced other denominations of Christianity, it has also opened her bosom to other religious traditions. West Philadelphia residents may no longer own estates, but they have gained mosques and ethnic restaurants.

Penn is partially to blame for the discrepancy between West Philadelphia today and her distinct past. In the 1950s, the University displaced hundreds of local residents of the Black bottom community.

Perhaps it’s time we return to the 1750s and resurrect the civic spirit of our great founder.

Hello, Dr. Franklin. Your esteemed university boasts some of the world’s finest medical and business schools, yet it’s struggling to take care of the health and prosperity of her own backyard. Having the largest private police force in the state of Pennsylvania will not fix these problems.

The ABCS courses, Civic House, the Netter Center and investments for neighborhood developments are steps in the right direction. These programs also reintegrate the research, teaching and service that are often divorced in today’s education.

Even with Dr. Franklin’s heart and Mr. Huntsman’s wallet, Penn should remember that it cannot save West Philadelphia on its own. (Nor can the Baltimore-loving hipsters that have invaded the area).

Penn’s campaign in the ’40s to create a high tech mecca similar to Stanford’s Silicon Valley was derailed by local racial and class politics. Penn should always work collaboratively and not unilaterally with her community neighbors, in solidarity rather than charity.

So head west, fellow Quakers, to the Wild West Philadelphia where nuggets of history and culture await.

JY Lee is a College and Wharton senior from Seoul, South Korea. His email address is junyoub.lee9041@gmail.com. “Wandering Curious Lee” appears every other Tuesday. Follow him @junyoubius.

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