If West Philadelphia were an independent municipality, the residents of Black Bottom would not have been displaced in the 1960s, Hamilton Village would still be a neighborhood of tree-lined streets rather than a nice way of saying Superblock and when the West Philadelphia School Board built a new elementary school, admission would be by lottery. If West Philadelphia were an independent municipality, the dean of Penn's Graduate School of Fine Arts would not be the head of the City Planning Commission and no University vice presidents would sit on the Redevelopment Authority. If West Philadelphia were an independent municipality, the businesses would be owned by the residents, the police would firebomb fewer homes and compensate the innocent when they did, and it would not have taken quite so long for a black man to be elected mayor. Of course, West Philadelphia is not an independent municipality. Its residents do not exercise sovereignty of any kind. And the odds are that the imaginary City of West Philadelphia would still dance on Penn's command. But for many residents of Philadelphia's western reaches, the logs of possibility continue to fuel the fires of discontent. These individuals perceive a disjoint between their own interests and the actions of the City of Philadelphia on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania. And they feel frustrated, betrayed and powerless. Who can blame them? There is no question that the broader interests of the City of Philadelphia have often conflicted with the particular interests of West Philadelphians. Specifically, there is no question that Penn's century of expansion has been good for Philadelphia and bad for any number of West Philadelphians. In fact, Penn's growth has been good for every constituted community of which the University is a part. It has meant a better educational experience for students, a better environment for professors and more jobs for Philadelphians. Not only is the University Philadelphia's largest private employer, but it provides healthcare services for one third of the city's residents. Its graduates serve at all levels of government and in every part of America's corporate and cultural infrastructures. Penn's researchers collectively receive more federal funding than those at almost any other institution, and their research benefits every American every day. In fact, the only people for whom Penn's growth has been a mixed blessing are the residents of West Philadelphia. Some lost their homes to eminent domain seizures, others have merely had to endure the invasion of their neighborhood by transient students with drinking problems. Few have gained much affection for Penn along the way. But does Penn have any obligations to the West Philadelphia community simply because it occupies land in West Philadelphia? Set aside Penn's obligation to follow the laws of the land, and its somewhat lesser obligation to conduct itself with civility and grace. These are functions of proximity, not community. Beyond that, Penn's participation in the community is voluntary when it occurs, and it is difficult to imagine why that should not be the case. Consider, first and foremost, the very nature of Penn's membership in the West Philadelphia community. As with all communities, the residents of West Philadelphia together constitute a mutual defense organization dedicated to the preservation of whatever it is that they share -- ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status or architecture -- in the face of a changing world. In West Philadelphia, of course, the University of Pennsylvania is the major force of change. Therefore, to participate in the community, Penn must conspire in its own limitation. The price of membership in a community defined by its opposition to you is, and always has been, a pound of your own flesh. Remarkably enough, Penn pays. The University develops plans and projects on its own, and then reaches out to the community. The community then works with Penn against Penn to limit the scope of the plans and projects and to extract money from the University for the neighborhood. In the long term, of course, that sort of relationship is neither healthy nor desirable. And so, while Penn interacts with the area's present denizens, it is working to create a very different reality in the future. Rather than invest extensively in residents who don't share its vision or values, Penn's objective is to create an environment that will consistently attract the right kind of residents in the future. This impatience with the present residents -- born of a realistic evaluation of their relevance -- comes through every so often when a University administrator slips up. The latest example is the response of Carol Scheman, Penn vice president for community relations, to neighborhood opposition to the construction of a McDonald's on the corner of 43rd and Market. Scheman's remarks said little about their ostensible subject, the Rev. Larry Falcon. But they spoke volumes about the University and its administrators. Which makes this column what they would have said if honesty paid.Comments powered by Disqus
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