When I told a close friend from home that I had decided to attend Penn, she advised me to sleep in a bathtub. Her perception of West Philadelphia was that it's a dangerous, drug-infested trap. But once I arrived on campus and saw the hordes of freshmen milling up and down Beige Block at two in the morning, I quickly realized that those rumors were exaggerated. There are, however, underlying attitudes that some students still hold about the area around Penn's campus. Conscious or not, we tend to consider ourselves a historic and upstanding university, stuck in a less than enterprising area. I can't count the number of times I've heard students say that they won't go past 37th and Market unless they're trying to purchase alcohol. But the truth is that the West Philadelphia community has an extremely rich history. The "Black Bottom" community, for example, resided between 40th and 36th streets since the 1860s. While we often disregard this history, Penn students aren't imagining the tension that exists between the West Philadelphia community and our own. We live in close proximity to each other, but we are far from neighbors. It is easy for students to blame the residents for this conflict, because homelessness, poverty and crime are not an obvious result of the University's existence. Penn has, however, helped to deconstruct local neighborhoods. The Black Bottom neighborhood, while a supportive community, was never economically well-off. In the late 1960s, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's plan for Area III (including the Black Bottom) called for "total demolition of residential structures" in order to build the University City Science Center, Medical Center and a science-oriented high school. Though the local government approved of this plan, "residents, who were not consulted, rejected the plan because it ignored the possibility of renovating their homes (The Daily Pennsylvanian, 1/24/1969). Compromises were suggested and rejected, and Penn and Redevelopment Authority finally went ahead and dislocated the 15,000 residents of the Black Bottom in order to accommodate the University's expansion. While Penn did not do anything illegal, the needs of an institution superceded the needs and concerns of the surrounding community. Since the University had the money, they had the control, and residents were forced to leave. So while West Philadelphia can be a hostile place for students, Penn has helped to create that environment. By breaking up a supportive neighborhood, we have left a broken community to try and work towards its own improvement. But shouldn't Penn's $60 million renewal projects make up for past behavior? The renewal plans include buying out multi-tenant houses and turning them into rustic, one-owner Victorian homes. Penn also gives mortgage incentives to University employees to help them to buy homes, renovate them and bring revenue into the West Philly community. While Penn's plan carries with it seemingly altruistic motives, these measures benefit only those involved with the University. Penn is helping to set up housing that costs more than current residents can afford. And it is giving its own employees an advantage in the housing market. Penn is, in fact, making the area a better place to live and lowering crime, but this goal is accomplished by pushing out the current residents and repopulating the area. And while there has been a move to consult residents, the University still does not permit the community to elect its own representatives to meetings with Penn administrators. Penn has proved its dedication to area improvement, but the claimed concern for helping community seems empty. Our institution needs to set up a situation where West Philadelphians can form a supportive and stable community without fear of relocation. We need to approach the neighborhood leaders and ask them what we can do as an institution to help them reform the community we helped destroy. Until that stability and support is created, all of the kind-hearted efforts of the Penn students who go out and provide tutoring and other services will never completely cure the current situation. I love being a Quaker and I am proud to say that we have a University president that is extremely supportive of many progressive measures on campus and concerned for student safety. But when Judith Rodin says that Penn is "[breaking] out of the confines of [our] campus to take a greater role in building the communities around [us], creating a relationship that is not only less than contentious but collaborative" (The New York Times, 12/30/2000), I cannot remain quiet.Comments powered by Disqus
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