With the return of the full student body to Penn’s campus, the fight over replacing the remaining fraternities on Locust Walk with cultural and resource centers has inevitably resumed. The recent assault at Psi Upsilon’s Castle has spurred a petition nearing 6,000 signatures, and it is likely that the Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault’s campaign events, which flourished pre-pandemic, will return with renewed force.
While I fully support the CAFSA’s mission and long-term vision for Locust, it is also true that eviction of fraternities from non-Penn-owned buildings remains an almost impossible action, and a full turnover of buildings may not be possible. To that end, I propose that the Locust Walk debate be expanded to include not only the repurposing of existing fraternity houses, but also the addition of new, infilled construction of dedicated student centers along and near Locust Walk.
It may not be obvious, but the shortage of on-campus space for student organizations and vital resources like Counseling and Psychological Services is the legacy of a mistake Penn committed decades ago. The 20th-century urban renewal era saw the University partner with the City of Philadelphia to expand west and north into majority-minority neighborhoods, with entire neighborhoods condemned and demolished. This has been well-documented in places such as Black Bottom, now the location of the University City Science Center.
At the same time, Penn hollowed out its campus core immediately on and adjacent to Locust Walk with the demolition of numerous small-scale buildings, all for little more than vacant green space. These green spaces include rows of buildings in front of Van Pelt along Woodland Walk, the 37th & Locust social science plaza, Hill Square, and perhaps most egregiously, the “Superblock” from 38th to 40th streets, where scores of off-campus student housing as well as fraternity houses, totaling over 1,200 residents, were leveled for the grass lawns and concrete moats surrounding the high-rise dorms.
While many of these spaces are beloved and well-used today, it is undeniable that some, such as the southeast corner of 39th & Locust next to Harnwell College House, were deliberately designed to be unusable in practice and nothing more than a vacant, passing thought for pedestrians. If more of the former buildings in those spaces were preserved, there could have been generous space for the Pan-Asian American Community House, Makuu, and La Casa Latina, instead of being crowded in the basement of ARCH (which, by the way, was also a lively and open social destination until a key amenity was evicted in 2006).
The oft-cited 1991 Report to Diversify Locust Walk called for the western end of Locust to “reflect the mixed-use character of the eastern Walk in order to avoid the possibility of a segmented campus.” And even earlier, the 1977 Landscape Development Plan surveyed students and found the Superblock plazas were “too open” and lacked scale.
To date, Penn has done very little to rectify this apparent problem. It is regrettable that neither of Amy Gutmann’s new college houses (Lauder and New College House West) have any space dedicated to student organizations or outward-facing mixed use. Also negligent is the University’s master plan, Penn Connects, which continues to forgo creating student resource space even while critical entities like Student Health Service and CAPS remain isolated on Market Street (to say nothing of Penn Violence Prevention’s musical chairs). But the Locust Walk effort represents a premier opportunity to rectify these mistakes once and for all on the highest administrative level through Gutmann’s successor. The charge is simple: Considering the unprecedented number of student organizations and activities, return Locust Walk to the liveliness it once had 70 years ago.
Of course, this solution could easily be seen as just sidestepping the issue of expelling the Locust Walk fraternities by merely leaving them be while other demands are met. But I want to reiterate that the reasons for their removal — harassment, hazing, and traumatic assault — remain unequivocally valid, and should still be addressed. It is precisely because we are having the discussion about the removal of fraternities that we should consider the comprehensive history of why the campus is the way it is today, and why we only have so much building space to go around.
I believe that redensifying Locust is the key to not only getting the University authority to seriously consider CAFSA’s demands, but to also expand future possibilities for countless other student organizations and resources to find their home on the main campus spine. They too can serve the Penn community where density and activity are highest, thereby giving their support to the campaign. In the end, we have the opportunity to gain an even stronger and unified non-Greek student presence when we expand and rethink our campus.
BEN SHE is a graduate student in the School of Design studying urban spatial analytics from Philadelphia. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.