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students-walking-down-locust
Credit: Melanie Hilman

As Penn students, we must break the old narrative with a new story. While we are the products of a University which forever changed a neighborhood, we are also modern-day carriers of an American city and with the luxury of a campus that usually does a pretty good job isolating its students from the millions of people living around us. It’s easy to look down Locust Walk, say “the trees look pretty!” and walk away. For many students, that would be a good approximation of the thought we give to our collective campus home during our years here.

But our growing 300-acre campus came from years of strife and cultural rifts between our school and city. As Penn students, we must confront our shared past and use it to inform our present actions to attempt to cultivate a healthier relationship with our neighboring communities.

Penn did not start on 34th Street. Only in 1872 did Penn actually move to West Philadelphia, where the campus remained small for decades.

But this changed rapidly. Taking advantage of ‘50s era government “urban renewal” programs, Penn convinced officials to raze a whole neighborhood, (called “Black Bottom”) forcing over 5,000 mostly black residents out of their homes. Like much of America, the Penn of today was built on the grounds of people removed by force.

By replacing lines of local small businesses with a block of book storage, Penn threw much of the economy and life of an entire neighborhood to the curb. This change was a catalyst for the sour taste Penn has left in the mouths of many Philadelphians and it makes us the modern-day torchbearers of our school’s quasi-colonial past.

To Penn’s credit, the University has tried to improve their relationship with the city. Previous Penn President and native Philadelphian Judith Rodin created the West Philadelphia Initiative with programs such as clean-ups and neighborhood improvements. Penn is the largest private employer in the city, and Penn’s doctors will treat any patient that comes in the door.

Penn's efforts, however, have fallen short.

Penn remains a visible bubble of wealth in the poorest big city in America. According to The New York Times, 58% of Penn students come from families in the top 10% of national income, while the Pew Charitable Trusts finds that nearly 26% of Philadelphians are below the poverty line. This economic divide is only exacerbated by Penn’s refusal to pay PILOTs. Many Philadelphians (understandably) do not see Penn as a reflection of their city, but as a community for people not like them, on their land.

But what can we do? In short, get off of this campus and go work for the community!

In doing research for this column, I found that Penn does not release numbers of how many students are involved in community service. But if past Daily Pennsylvanian articles are any indication, Penn students are not involved much off campus. This is depressing because our involvement in our Philadelphia community is critical in shifting the narrative in a new direction. Without students showing they care about their neighbors, the people of Philadelphia have no reason to believe we've grown from our tainted past.

This could be a reflection of our pre-professional culture. When we focus on the possibilities of a job in New York or Silicon Valley, it can be easy to overlook where we are right now. It is easy to see how ECON 101 could help a career in business, more difficult to see the value of helping a middle school student with their algebra during midterm season.

But by tutoring that student, you not only cultivate patience and a different outlook on life, you also give that student a positive impression of Penn. Maybe they pass their test. Maybe they apply to Penn their senior year. Maybe they become a freshman and write this column to convince you to see your neighbors differently and to share your time with them.

As Penn students, we must break the old narrative with a new story. While we are the products of a University which forever changed a neighborhood, we are also modern-day carriers of Ben Franklin’s idea for a university which enriches and serves its community.

If you feel passionate about being of service to the West and greater Philadelphia community, look to Penn resources such as Civic House and the Netter Center. Volunteer at a local community organization or take an Academically Based Community Service Course. Learn more about and listen to the people you interact with. Remember your individual role in this tapestry, and attempt to present a new, caring, and honest Penn.

ALFREDO PRATICÒ is a College freshman from Philadelphia, PA. His email address is pratico@sas.upenn.edu.

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