From Tony Smith's, "Doric, Ironic, Corinthian," Fall '98 From Tony Smith's, "Doric, Ironic, Corinthian," Fall '98It's now official. University City is undergoing a frantic burst of real estate activity. Robert Redford will open a movie theater, and a swanky new supermarket is going in at 40th and Walnut. Sansom Common now affords us the opportunity to engage in a little late-evening recreational consumption of textbooks and Dilbert paraphernalia. There's lots of upbeat rhetoric flying around about transforming University City into a "destination." Visions of a newer, brighter campus dance in the minds of the University community. To those who have been around West Philadelphia for a while, however, the University's hands-on approach is not a new phenomenon. Penn has been around this (Super) block a few times, and we are still living with the results today. Take Market Street for example. To most students, this busy artery is considered "the end of the world." The unexplored territory beyond is considered mysterious and dangerous. But why is Market Street such a clear divider? Think about the buildings -- or vacant lots -- that line it. On the south side of the street, the massive, forbidding Science Center stretches from 34th Street to 38th Street, flanked by a large surface parking lot. On the north side, there are more Science Center buildings between 34th and 36th streets; two parking lots; the huge, blank-walled University City High School; and another Science Center building between 36th and 38th streets. In effect, this is a swath -- up to three blocks deep in some spots -- which is largely deserted, except for lunchtime on weekdays. Although the University City Science Center Corporation included 22 institutions, Penn was without question the major player in the organization. Each of the 21 other members held $10,000 in Science Center stock in 1968, while Penn held $200,000. The initial plans for the center were completed in 1965 and construction began shortly afterwards. But first, there was the trifling problem that much of the area was filled with houses and businesses. The City of Philadelphia, at the urging of Penn and Drexel, declared hundreds of acres between Spruce Street and Powelton Avenue and 40th and 33rd streets as a redevelopment area. This basically gave the universities and the Science Center carte blanche to purchase and clear whatever land they needed for expansion. They even received government subsidies to do so. The resulting actions forced over 1,000 local residents to relocate. The cleared area resembled, in the words of one Philadelphia Bulletin reporter, "a miniature bombed-out Rotterdam after World War II." Publications generated by Penn and the Science Center promoted the new research park as the salvation of West Philadelphia and the "PennJerDel Region." Many puff pieces focused on the gee-whiz research going on behind the blank, windswept walls of the center, including such pithy topics as "Why do some White people hate Blacks?" Many, however, felt that the Science Center was merely a mechanism for the University to perform classified military research during the Vietnam War era. Hundreds of students participated in a six-day sit-in at College Hall to protest the University's expansionary policies and defense connections. The construction of the high rises is another blotch on Penn's history. In 1967, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the federal government approved a plan for Superblock (then a mixed stretch of residences) that would cover about 60 percent of the area with dormitories of various heights. That plan, however, never reached the implementation stages. G. Holmes Perkins was dean of the Fine Arts program and the chairperson of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in 1968 when his architectural firm submitted a different vision of the area. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority had some doubts about this revised proposal. The plan called for three high-rise dorms, 120 feet taller than than the tallest of the previously planned towers and covering only 30 percent of the area. But after a critical phone call from Perkins, the Redevelopment Authority accepted the new plans. The result, as every Penn student knows, was three of the ugliest, most dysfunctional buildings in modern history. The extra height, added in order to inexpensively pack in more students, caused the infamous wind-tunnel effect. When asked if his three-way involvement in Superblock caused a conflict of interest for him, Perkins claimed that the construction of the high rises was a great blessing for Philadelphia. Superblock took the place of a multitude of private rental properties which, unlike the high rises, generated taxes for the city. One still wonders to what benefit Perkins was referring. Independently-owned businesses along Walnut Street became further casualties of Penn's land-muddling. On Walnut between 36th and 37th streets, there was an Italian restaurant called Pagano's, a bowling alley, a record store and a tobacconist. These were all demolished around 1970 to make room for an eventual parking lot. Some were offered chances to relocate, but the William Penn Bowling Center was reportedly offered a place that was only half the necessary size. What is the point of this historical exercise? Penn is once again trying to remake University City. Although the days of urban renewal, when you could kick people out of their residences are over, the University is busily shuffling stores, facilities and dollars around. Given the disastrous consequences of the University's actions in the 1960s and '70s, it is hard to rest assured that all of this current activity is really what's best for the Penn and West Philadelphia communities. Sure, we have a Barnes & Noble, but need a music store (there used to be two on campus). We now have Eat at Joe's, but there used to be a real diner on the corner of 36th and Market. Don't ask me why, but I have a sinking feeling that the new Wharton building at 38th and Walnut streets will turn a blank facade toward the street. Given Penn's record, it's hard to expect any better.Comments powered by Disqus
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