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Theater Arts 250, "Community Performance in West Philadelphia," taught by William Yalowitz, is a new course offered this semester that brings together Penn students and theater artists with the people, cultures and traditions of West Philadelphia. The class of 12 students works with the former residents of the Black Bottom, a West Philadelphia neighborhood that was once located on Sansom and Lancaster streets between 32nd and 40th Streets. This area was razed and residents were displaced because of an "urban renewal" program sponsored by Penn, Drexel University and the City of Philadelphia in the 1950 and '60s. The class also meets with University City High School students to research the neighborhood's history and conduct interviews with ex-residents. Those involved in the University City development program were "quite insensitive to the people of the community," Yalowitz said. "There was the mistaken notion that the houses in the Black Bottom were a slum, but it was actually a very vital area." In the 1930s and '40s, before the physical razing of the neighborhood began, residents were often denied home loans and mortgages. These racial "red-lining" practices were used to silently encourage the "urban renewal" program, according to Yalowitz. When construction began, residents were given an insufficient amount of money to relocate -- causing many people, especially the senior citizens, to go into debt. The residents formed a Black Bottom Association, with a current membership of approximately 4,000 people from all over Philadelphia. "These people are fiercely proud and loyal to their community," Yalowitz added. On April 18, the class plans to hold a public performance to exhibit the results of the semester-long partnership with the Black Bottom Association. This will only be a "work-in-progress" performance because the collaboration with the Association will be ongoing, Yalowitz said. Students in subsequent semesters will be able to stage more finished theatrical works dealing with the drama of Black Bottom. The response from the community and students has been very positive. "This is more than any experience you can get out of a classroom, because you're learning to listen and you hear stories you can never hear on campus," College sophomore and class member Debra Kurshan said. "This is an effective class because we build relationships with people." "It's really great," Wharton senior Brandale Randolph said. "Of all the theater performances I've done, this is definitely the most spiritually rewarding." For Yalowitz, the class, which was developed over last summer by Center for Community Partnership Director Ira Harkavy, Carey Mazer, director of Theater Arts, and several students, has also been a wonderful experience. "It's been a pleasure to teach this course," Yalowitz noted. "The students are enthusiastic and they're really stretching their boundaries and building a relationship with the community. The Black Bottom Association has also been given the opportunity to tell their story so that the Penn community and local people of West Philadelphia can understand their experience."

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