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Earlier last summer, the University City District (a nonprofit largely sponsored by Penn) put new pedestrian lights on Baltimore Avenue. And as UCD is wont to do, it used the lamp posts to hang new flags advertising the achievement. Apparently, if they spend even a dime on improvements in the community, everyone has to know about it.

Most students would agree that a few cheesy banners is a small price to pay for the added safety of well-lit sidewalk. But, a number of vocal West Philadelphia residents interpreted the seemingly banal signage a little differently.

OK, a lot differently.

“Alert! Vandals have repeatedly struck the 4500-5000 blocks of Baltimore Ave in West Philly! Every lamp post on both sides of the street has been tagged UNIVERSITY CITY DISTRICT,” wrote local blog The Rotting Gentry.

Toto, we aren’t on Locust Walk anymore.

Yet many Penn students remain blissfully unaware of this tension that stems from gentrification efforts in University City. Under Penn’s watchful eye, some of West Philadelphia’s slums have turned into eclectic neighborhoods filled with converted mansions, hipster-frequented cafes and tree-lined sidewalks.

But despite these benefits, gentrification raises prices in neighborhoods, forcing out low-income families, driving out artists and effectively destroying communities. And Penn’s habit of gentrifying everything it touches has made many West Philadelphians understandably distrustful of their Ivy League neighbor.

So imagine my surprise that Penn, tied with USC, topped the list of “Best Neighbor Universities in the U.S.” It turns out the rankings were largely based on the amount of money that each University pours in to its neighboring community. I hate to pull a Kanye and detract from the University’s moment, but I think Penn has some work to do before it can rightfully accept this honor.

Ideally, Penn would use its resources to foster a diverse neighborhood, with affordable housing across the socioeconomic spectrum. But before it does that, Penn must rebuild some bridges (and I’m not talking about the one on South Street).

Appropriately, the Architecture Department is at the forefront of this metaphorical and literal reconstruction effort. Last Wednesday, PennDesign, in coordination with the People’s Emergency Center Community Development Corporation, unveiled Bernice Elza Homes in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia. The project provides permanent supportive rental housing for six special-needs teenaged mothers and their children.

Head of the Undergraduate Architecture Department Richard Wesley described the project as “designed by the young for the young.” Following a semester of courses on affordable housing, 18 undergraduates prepared the preliminary design as their senior capstone.

During the unveiling, the housing project was lauded as “a national model for universities collaborating with communities.” But getting there was not easy. According to Wesley, who led the studio responsible for the design, “the community was not really receptive [at first]; we had to gain their trust and confidence — we did it in unconventional ways.”

The students and faculty engaged in an uphill battle to counteract years of Penn’s far-reaching gentrification. The school hosted community members at a luncheon and roundtable conversation in the Addams Hall gallery. And for many of the visitors, it was their first time in a campus building. In doing this, the program forged the neighborly bonds necessary to develop a working relationship with the community.

And this relationship has spawned a number of other projects. In response to the flight of artists from the area, the program designed a house complete with studio spaces for local artists.

For another project, the undergraduate program raised money to purchase a plot of land on North 42nd Street. Students then designed a low-income, sustainable home. The idea is to sell the home at a reasonable price and use the proceeds to buy another plot — starting the process again.

Wesley describes it as a self-perpetuating project that “teaches students more than design: They do research, become the developers and the builders.” The students are challenged to think about the social and ecological environments in which they build. Wesley calls this creating “whole architects.” I call it making good neighbors.

Ashley Takacs is a College senior from Buffalo, N.Y. Her email address is

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