After the announcement of The Fresh Grocer's imminent departure, some cited the recent closures by health inspectors as a valid reason for the change. Others fear that the store's departure may make fresh food less accessible.
As public debates go, The Daily Pennsylvanian’s comment section is filled with customers complaining about Fresh Grocer, along with those vowing to boycott the a higher-priced Acme replacement. Yet there is little productive discussion.
It seems the only certain fact is that there was only one voice that had any impact on this decision: Penn itself.
Penn likes to be viewed as a community partner. In fact, the University's website states that Penn's community engagements seek "to promote safe neighborhoods, attract and support area businesses, encourage homeownership, and improve public education.” While these goals seem like an admirable attempt towards improvement of the common welfare, they are thinly-veiled propaganda for actions supporting self-interest with monarchical force.
To start, Penn’s programs encouraging homeownership are not benefiting the many long-time residents of the area. Instead, these programs only aid Penn employees. This program, with its footprint reaching as west as 63rd Street and as north as LaSalle University, is in effect a direct subsidization of gentrification.
Further, contracted workers are completely excluded, making the program’s benefactors mainly the majority white and middle-upper class faculty. This seems ironic considering Penn used the contracted worker status of their security guards as an excuse to underpay them in direct violation of Philadelphia law. Penn is molding its greater community into the middle-class enclave that appeals to parents who fear dropping their children in an ‘urban’ community, evading responsibility to the displacement of communities with the shield of free market forces.
While Penn would like to believe their more overt displacement efforts of Black Bottom during the 1960s was a mistake of the past, it seems history is repeating itself. Today Penn claims innocence in Philadelphia’s rapid gentrification, but it doesn’t change the school's impact on the greater West Philadelphia area. How we define our Penn community is not decided by students and West Philly collectively, but by a single Board of Trustees stretching the usage of the word inclusivity.
This legacy of community upheaval is continued with the creation of the Penn Alexander School. On the surface, the school’s implementation seems like the fulfillment of Penn’s goal to improve public school education. With $1,330 invested per student, close relations with the Graduate School of Education, and partnerships with other academic departments, Penn Alexander has quickly become one of the best public schools in the nation.
With these accolades has come spikes in housing values, which has forced many long-time community members to leave due to unaffordable rent and property taxes. It also encouraged a surge of faculty, backed by Penn subsidizes, to buy up the newly vacant housing, quickly gentrifying the area.
While Penn Alexander is deserving of its status as an excellent school, it has become an additional means of incentivizing faculty relocation rather than a means of diversifying the academic opportunities for the greater West Philadelphia area. It has deepened the roots of the University City bubble, giving justification for its existence on twice-stolen land.
Fresh Grocer, its employees, Penn students, and community members were blind-sided by this removal decision four years ago and continue to be left in the dark. While Penn’s actions are within their legal rights, their ethicality is questionable. Claiming to support local businesses, then booting Fresh Grocer for lacking a timely lease renewal without regard for outside input seems contradictory to the University’s community partner marketing.
At what point is Penn ethically wrong for claiming to have a positive community impact without consultation of those communities? Have we already passed that point?
While I believe my critiques are justified, they do not overshadow the many people on campus who aim to create a positive impact. Penn has the opportunity to be a pioneer in University relations and create a true partnership with West Philadelphians. But, in order to foster such an environment, real self-reflection and systemic change must take place to clear space for a healthier community relationship.
Whether or not you believe Fresh Grocer was rightfully closed, we must use its closure as a way to discuss how we can foster better community engagement once we step off of Locust Walk.
MAKHARI DYSART is a College sophomore studying Health and societies. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org