Penn in the 1990s would be unrecognizable today. Where the Penn Bookstore and Fresh Grocer stands now, there were asphalt parking lots. Students would rush, rather than walk, from one place to another to avoid staying out on the streets for too long. Campus was dimly lit at night and crime was much more common. Penn did not feel safe, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2014.
The issues that Penn dealt with 20 years ago are currently in the spotlight at Johns Hopkins University, according to Penn’s Anthony Sorrentino, executive director at the Office of the Executive Vice President. The row houses near the Hopkins campus are dilapidated. Jobs are leaving Baltimore, where the university is located, and the city’s population has shrunk drastically, Times Higher Education reported.
Johns Hopkins has been making efforts to improve the university’s relationship with the surrounding area. Steven Knapp, the former Hopkins provost and now president of George Washington University, made the university a source of employment for local residents during his tenure, and Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins, has made “improving life in Baltimore a core part of its mission,” according to Higher Ed.
Hopkins told Higher Ed that much of the university’s community engagement model was designed after the successful West Philadelphia Initiative led by Penn.
Then-Penn President Judith Rodin launched the West Philadelphia Initiatives in the mid-1990s in an effort to invest in neighborhood revitalization. In her book, “Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Streets,” published in 2007, Rodin wrote that Philadelphia residents “by and large felt that Penn had turned its back on the neighborhood.”
Meagan Ehlenz, who published a report on the impact of Penn’s WPI, concluded that the initiative significantly revived University City and West Philadelphia, and made Penn “an exemplar in of university intervention in urban neighborhoods.” Ehlenz noted a double-fold increase in police and public safety personnel, installment of more than 850 pedestrian lights and a 50 percent decrease in crime.
The WPI improved the neighborhood infrastructure and relationship in various other ways as well.
“One type of change that has been considered very successful is the support Penn Public Safety provides the various communities around Penn,” Sorrentino said in an interview with the Daily Pennsylvanian. “It has been very helpful in building relationships with residents, shop owners, local businesses, churches and all the other institutions that make up the civic fabric of the University City.”
Sorrentino also noted the growth of relationship between Penn students and the local community as a result of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
“The Netter Center attempts to engage the community in mutually beneficial ways,” said Katera Moore, director of the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative at the center.
Moore acknowledged that prior to Rodin’s term “there was still kind of a nasty history with the West Philly community,” but she said that relationship has since improved immensely.
She highlighted that the center’s community advisory board meets with various representatives from University City and West Philadelphia, including school principals, churchgoers and ordinary citizens to assess what the community needs and how Penn can assist in achieving those goals.
“The university mission is to promote higher education ... but [the university is] also part of the neighborhood, and all these big anchors that are nestled into urban neighborhoods have a responsibility to be a good neighbor,” Moore said. “You have to do the work in the community because it helps everybody.”