The day after a student was shot near the Dental School, Maureen Rush stood on College Green, trying to manage a crowd of angry students.
It was late September of 1996, and the shooting of then-College senior Patrick Leroy in an armed robbery gone wrong had come on the heels of a crime wave that left students in an uproar and administrators on edge. Rush, who wasn’t given a microphone, yelled in an unsuccessful attempt to be heard over the crowd.
“It felt like I was being fed to the lions,” Rush, who was the chief of police at the time and is currently the vice president for public safety, remembered in an interview Thursday. “Then this tall, black man came up to me and said, ‘Would you like me to lead these people in prayer?’ I looked at them, I looked at him, and I said, ‘Sure.’”
The man was William Gipson, at the time the new University Chaplain, who is now an associate vice provost. He stepped forward and prayed.
In the wake of the Leroy shooting, the University announced several new initiatives. Leroy himself made a full recovery. But a month later, on Halloween night of 1996, a Penn research associate, Vladimir Sled, was stabbed to death on the 4300 block of Larchwood Avenue.
The murder early Tuesday morning outside Copabanana, at 40th and Spruce streets, is the exception that proves the rule: Serious crime at Penn is rare nowadays. But about 20 years ago, crime on campus hit its peak — prompting a series of changes that fundamentally shaped the University and how it interacts with the community.
Crime surge leaves campus in fear
In the early 1990s, Penn was, in many ways, an exemplar of a crime-ridden campus.
In August 1994, graduate student Al-Moez Alimohamed was killed during a robbery at 47th and Pine streets — netting the robbers the $5 he had in his pocket. Then-president Judith Rodin, who had just begun her tenure at Penn, led a march that September to the sidewalk where he was killed, followed by a crowd of about 250. Just over a week later, Rodin told the University Board of Trustees that she hoped to develop a master plan to review campus safety in “the near future,” the Daily Pennsylvanian reported.
At the time, the University was a different place than it is today. Instead of walking, people would rush from their houses to take transit and then hurry to their doors after getting dropped off, Rush said. Where the Penn Bookstore and Fresh Grocer now stand were asphalt parking lots. At night, the campus was less well-lit. And while West Philadelphia wasn’t a bad neighborhood, it was one that suffered from street crime.
Faculty and students took notice. While 60 percent of graduate students lived in University City in the 1988-1989 school year, the number dropped to 25 percent by the spring of 1996, according to a report from the Office of Off-Campus Living published in a DP article. Faculty also fled from what they viewed as an area that had become too unsafe.
“We had a really serious crime take place in our house and there were house sitters at the time who were seriously injured,” history professor Drew Gilpin Faust — who is now the president of Harvard University — told the DP in September 1996. Faust had lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. “After that, the whole situation never seemed the same. We had an 8-year-old child at the time and it made me worried. I did not want to deal with that fear anymore.”
The events of 1996 left the University with no choice but to act immediately. The day after the Leroy shooting, Penn announced the hiring of 10 new police officers, the installment of 102 new blue light phones and more integration with the Philadelphia Police Department — upgrades that the DP reported would come at a cost of an additional $7 million over the next few years.
But then came the Sled murder — and soon after, the outrage. Penn Police hired AlliedBarton security guards in the wake of the murder to increase its visible presence, Rush said. But it wasn’t just a matter of hiring additional security forces. Penn had to redouble its efforts to get involved with the community, and Rodin and then-Executive Vice President John Fry knew it.
Not ‘a walled fortress’
Much of the community engagement now credited to Rodin had its roots in the administration of Penn President Sheldon Hackney, who was in office from 1981 to 1993 and saw crime rise under his tenure in the late 1980s.
“There were suggestions made at the time that you have a field perimeter,” said Linda Wilson, who worked in the president’s office from 1985 to 1994, first as the associate director and then chief of staff. “Sheldon Hackney rejected that. He said that we weren’t going to become a walled fortress.”
Hackney instead responded by engaging with the community, living on campus and creating what is now known as the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Rodin’s administration took a similar approach.
In early November 1996, just after the Sled murder, Fry formed the 40th Street Task Force, charged with improving the area between Locust and Walnut streets to revitalize the western edge of campus. The task force, which Rush co-chaired, was later extended to look at Baltimore Avenue and Sansom Street. Just before the task force was announced, the University worked with local businesses to stay open until 8 p.m. every Wednesday, offering special deals, in an effort to increase safety and business.
In the mid-1990s, Rodin introduced the West Philadelphia Initiatives. In addition to more policing, the initiatives centered on improving incentives for employees to purchase homes in University City, attracting commercial development and buying locally. “President Rodin stepped up local hiring,” said 1965 College graduate Ed Rendell, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2000. “They always hired from the city, but they started preferencing those ZIP codes.”
Another of Rodin’s West Philadelphia Initiatives was building a public school in partnership with the city — the Penn Alexander School, located at 43rd and Locust streets and now supported by Penn with a donation of $1,330 per year for each student.
In 1997, the University helped establish the University City District, partnering with local institutions such as Drexel University and the University of the Sciences, as well as private companies. UCD, still in existence today, helps homeowners and renters, provides basic services and enhances the area’s public safety.
But in the wake of the crime wave in the 1990s, particularly the fall of 1996, the community had its own interests. Barry Grossbach, a long-time West Philadelphia resident and current zoning committee chair of the Spruce Hill Community Association, hosted a meeting with Rendell, other local politicians and community members in his house soon after the Sled murder to discuss what the community wanted from the city.
“We made sure nobody in the meeting had a relationship with the University of Pennsylvania,” Grossbach said. The community, he said, wanted to make clear that it was not a part of the University and had its own unique needs. The community members discussed basic services and had several more meetings with Rendell in his City Hall office.
But Grossbach said Penn’s investment in the area was a considerable improvement. “I give them credit for stepping up,” he said.
It wasn’t always a welcome process. There were protests — in the early 2000s, led by a group calling itself Neighbors Against McPenntrification — and in recent years, tension has come to a head over enrollment caps at Penn Alexander. But in Grossbach’s mind, the tension is to be expected.
“There’s always been a tug of war between the town and the gown, it’s nothing new.” he said. “I think you’re going to find that in most places.”
The impact the investment and outreach had on crime didn’t come quickly.
“It took a good eight years,” Rush said. “There were incremental changes.”
All crime in the Penn Patrol Zone — a boundary stretching from 30th Street to 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue to Market Street — has dropped by 50 percent from 1996 to 2012, according to statistics provided by the Division of Public Safety.
The last fatal shooting so close to campus before Tuesday took place in 2010, when a police chase of a carjacker ended in a shootout on High Rise Field, leaving one of the suspects dead. In 2006, then-Engineering sophomore Mari Oishi was shot in the thigh near 38th and Sansom streets — an incident she recounted in a video shown each year during New Student Orientation.
But compared to the 1990s, there is relatively little crime in the area — a result that has gone hand in hand with increased commercial development. Retail square footage has increased by 37 percent in the last decade — which “has added more vibrancy and activity to the street, which is also a deterrent to crime,” Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli said in an email.
“The stability of the western edge of campus has enabled us to focus on the campus as a whole and grow east and south,” Carnaroli said. In recent years, the University has turned what used to be Postal Service land into Penn Park, and it is currently building an innovation hub at the South Bank — across the Schuylkill River.
While campus safety has undoubtedly improved over the past 20 years, Rush emphasized that ensuring that the trend continues is an ongoing process.
“There’s no end to this story,” she said.
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