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rotunda Credit: Alexandra Fleischman , Alexandra Fleischman

A century-old former church called the Rotunda stands as a symbol of Penn’s civic engagement with West Philadelphia.

The Rotunda — located at 4014 Walnut St. — now houses a community-based arts initiative that started in 1998 with the goal of serving as a bridge to bring together Penn and West Philadelphia.

Program director Gina Renzi hosts between three to six events per week ranging from live music, film, art or after-school programs for local students. It is one of many elements of Penn’s focus on improving its surrounding neighborhood.

But Penn was not always the neighbor it is today.

“If Benjamin Franklin came back to Penn 30 years ago, he would be very upset with Penn’s relationship with the community,” Urban Studies Professor and Associate Vice President and Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships Ira Harkavy said.

Since the 1980s, though, Penn has begun a new chapter of working with the community — a chapter Harkavy believes is on display today at the Rotunda.

A history of civic engagement

In 1985, Harkavy and former Netter Center Senior Fellow Lee Benson, who died last February, started to teach a seminar on urban universities and community relationships. The course was co-taught with former Penn President Sheldon Hackney for the first few years.

From Hackney’s involvement in this seminar to former Penn President Judith Rodin’s campus expansion initiatives to current Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact, civic engagement with West Philadelphia started to get more and more attention.

“Civic engagement is central to what a Penn education and what Penn as a university is all about,” Gutmann said.

Harkavy considers community partnerships like the Rotunda both an obligation and an opportunity for Penn as Philadelphia’s largest private employer.

“True to our founder Benjamin Franklin, we want to show how we can put knowledge and creativity and understanding into practice,” Gutmann added. “The first place you put it into practice is in your own community.”

From the classroom to the Rotunda

Harkavy’s seminar, which he still teaches today, has demonstrated Gutmann’s ideal of putting knowledge into practice.

“The story of the Rotunda is an enormously significant example of how undergraduate research and serious work by Penn undergraduates can not only contribute to students’ intellectual development, but could also contribute to producing change in the world,” Harkavy said.

The story began when 2000 College graduate and 2004 Penn Design graduate Andrew Zitcer decided to take Harkavy and Benson’s course in 1998.

Zitcer, who is currently a first-year assistant teaching professor at Drexel University, and some classmates discussed the idea of a jazz club on 40th Street, but ultimately concluded that “a jazz club is not the kind of thing you can implant in a community all of a sudden,” Zitcer said. “You can’t have a jazz club without the history and lineage.”

So instead Zitcer and his classmates Noah Bilenker, Swapnil Shah and Micah Westerman wrote a proposal for an interdisciplinary cross genre arts program.

Harkavy and Benson liked the idea. They presented it to Facilities and Real Estate Services and the Vice Provost for University Life.

Zitcer, his classmates and other student volunteers organized trial concerts in April 1999. The concerts had a great turnout with support from the University and the community, so Zitcer got permission to start a full season of concerts on Friday and Saturday nights.

They used the Rotunda, mostly because there were no other viable options at the time, with the Perelman Quadrangle closed for renovations.

The Rotunda was built in 1911 for the First Church of Christ, Scientist. After the church closed, FRES purchased the building in 1995 and was looking to use the space for performing arts programming.

Zitcer’s programming marked the beginning of the Foundation Community Arts Initiative, now called the Rotunda, to go along with the name of the venue.

The Rotunda has hosted some big names in music over the years. John Legend, a 1999 College graduate, performed there as a student, and Matisyahu, Spoon and Wiz Khalifa are among the many other performers brought in.

Many programs are without charge, and all of the series that started free with the Rotunda’s inception remain free today.

Renzi has also conducted different after-school programs for local students. For example, the Rotunda and the Netter Center started the Youth Theater Arts Program after the city cut arts programming at elementary schools. The program brought students from the Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Locust streets to the Rotunda after school to learn about performing arts.

She also started a production of RENT performed by high school students from all over Philadelphia.

“It was an opportunity to get kids of means with kids who have nothing,” Renzi said.

The Rotunda worked with community activists to teach the students about social issues illustrated in the play, such as HIV/AIDS within the LGBT community and drug use.

A steady vision

Renzi started volunteering for The Foundation in 2000 and became the full-time director in 2003.

Zitcer and Renzi agreed that the Rotunda’s mission has not changed since Zitcer’s initial vision in his 1998 paper.

Zitcer essentially served as the director of the Rotunda during his senior year at Penn. With the help of some other students, he booked bands and performers while taking care of other logistical matters.

“I asked people in West Philadelphia to be the creative outreach behind the booking,” Zitcer said. “No one person should have that voice. It has to derived from the community.”

Renzi follows the same philosophy today.

“The programming is very much community-based,” Renzi said. “It’s only as strong as its supporters.”

Zitcer’s original idea was “to create a community gathering space for the promotion of arts and culture.” He said the Rotunda’s current programming “is exactly what I had in mind.”

Renzi agreed that what she’s doing with the Rotunda “fits really well with Andrew’s vision.”

But that does not mean to either of them that the original mission is complete.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Renzi said. “The arts change, trends change, people change and neighborhoods change. But what they set up in that seminar was really impressive and forward thinking, and we’ll be following that for a long time.”

Some setbacks

While the Rotunda’s vision from its inception to this day has not changed, some things have. Perhaps most noticeably, the Rotunda had more student involvement in its earlier days than it does today.

During Zitcer’s senior year, the Rotunda was managed by a student organization with the help of student volunteers.

Renzi recognizes that this is no longer the case and is trying to get more students involved. To do this, she made sure the Rotunda had a presence at this year’s Arts and Culture Fair and New Student Orientation. But ultimately, she knows the best way to get students involved is through more student programming.

Zitcer confronted the same issue. He remained involved with the Rotunda in different capacities until 2008 and found it much easier to attract students when he was a student himself.

Renzi said her biggest problem now is that many events are booked far in advance, and students rarely have enough flexibility to plan so far ahead. Right now she is working on finding a way to get more student involvement without compromising the Rotunda’s current programming.

One solution has been to work with the Social Planning and Events Committee’s Concerts team, who can book some bigger names relatively far in advance.

The Rotunda has also run into issues with some noise complaints over the years. Most concerts are held in the venue’s backroom, which is adjacent to some off-campus housing on the 4000 block of Locust Street.

College junior Brian Mund and some of his housemates have been bothered by some of the Rotunda’s concerts.

“It can be very noisy at night,” Mund said. “We have quiet hours in student housing and they should also be respected in university sanctioned off campus housing.”

FRES Executive Director of Real Estate Ed Datz said all noise complaints are taken seriously. Renzi added that the Rotunda tries to end programs by 10 p.m. on weeknights and by midnight on the weekends. She also upgraded the building’s sound system so the noise does not travel as far and installed velvet drapes in the windows to absorb the sound.

She hopes to install a cooling system as well so she can keep the doors shut during the summer months. She suspects most of the noise that caused the complaints came during the summer, when the doors are kept open so the room does not get too hot.

A bridge between communities

Despite these setbacks, the Rotunda continues to serve Zitcer’s vision of bringing together Penn and its surrounding community through the arts. Much of this is facilitated by the Rotunda’s location.

“It’s a great beautiful focal point right at 40th and Walnut,” Gutmann said. “It’s prime property, and we’re using it as a welcoming place for the community and Penn people to come together.”

Zitcer knew the location was special from the beginning of the project. He called it the “100-percent corner” because it symbolizes where the campus and the city meet.

Renzi’s experiences illustrate how the corner is used by the Penn and West Philadelphia communities alike. Every morning, she walks to work from her home around 50th Street, and many of her neighbors walk to 40th Street often — for the post office, Rave Motion Pictures or the Fresh Grocer.

“We’re really lucky to be in this location,” Renzi said. “People from elsewhere really flock to 40th Street, and we’re trying to capitalize on that.”

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