Over 300 Penn students, community members, and West Philadelphia residents attended a block party and protest at the University City Townhomes on Saturday to protest the sale of the townhomes and eviction of their residents.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the crowd gathered outside of the townhomes at 40th and Market streets for a joint block party and protest. Participants enjoyed food prepared by the townhome residents, listened to music, and conversed with community members. Organizers also led a march around the UC Townhomes complex, while residents and activists chanted their demands as they marched through West Philadelphia.
Police Free Penn and The Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes, a group composed of Penn faculty and students, the Black Bottom tribe, housing justice organizers, and West Philadelphia community members, co-hosted the event.
Real estate firm Altman Management Company currently owns UC Townhomes at 39th and Market streets, but it has not renewed a 40-year affordable housing contract with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a result, the townhome residents face eviction scheduled for July which would displace 69 households.
Rasheda Alexander, a resident of 13 years and an organizer with the Coalition, said that the block party atmosphere brought unity, as residents and students joined together to dance, talk, and eat.
“We can come together despite our differences, whether it's race or economic, social difference, any differences we may have, and it shows us that we're family because that's what we are here,” Alexander said.
After the block party, hundreds of attendees marched on the streets surrounding the townhomes. Protestors chanted: “Hey hey! Ho ho! Gentrifiers have got to go!” and “No justice, no peace. No housing, no peace.”
They stopped at the intersection of 40th and Market streets to hear Penn faculty — such as activist and Penn lecturer Walter Palmer — and residents voice their concerns and explain the Coalition's demands: stopping the demolition of the townhomes, increasing time for residents before eviction, and ensuring immediate repairs to the homes and financial compensation for each family.
UC Townhomes residents said they are determined to push back against the impending eviction. Melvin Harris, who moved to the townhomes 28 years ago at the age of 17, emphasized the importance of fighting the evictions.
“[Affordable housing] is a right not a privilege,” he said. “We got to fight this. If you don’t fight for your livelihood, then what are you going to fight for?”
Alexander echoed Harris, emphasizing residents' dire need for housing vouchers.
“I know people that have found properties to relocate themselves, but they can't do anything because they don't have a voucher,” said Alexander.
Penn students were among the crowd supporting the community and protesting the sale of the townhomes.
College junior Gigi Varlotta, who is an organizer with Police Free Penn, said that the area of West Philadelphia formerly known as the Black Bottom neighborhood — now University City — has been changed by the University’s expanding presence.
“The neighborhood as we know it is completely gone, replaced by Penn’s campus,” said Varlotta.
College and Wharton junior Derek Nhieu, who attended the March 19 event, said that Penn students have a duty to participate in protests against the sale of the townhomes.
“As a Penn student, I feel like we already kind of have some responsibility because we attend the university that is gentrifying these communities,” Nhieu said.
Saturday’s joint block party and protest was one of several events the Coalition has hosted to protest the sale of the townhomes. In early February, the Coalition hosted a teach-in at DuBois College House to educate about gentrification, and on Feb. 23, Penn students and West Philadelphia residents gathered in front of College Hall to protest the impending evictions.
Students and community members expressed similar concerns about gentrification when Penn announced that it will purchase the McDonald’s at 40th and Walnut streets, planning to renovate it into a mixed-used office building.
“We're just moreso searching for the support to stop the gentrification of our urban community. Hopefully Penn can find it in their hearts to help us with it because we know that they hold a lot of power here in University City,” Alexander said.
College sophomore and PFP member working with the Coalition, Jack Starobin, who is a former DP reporter, aims to rally Penn students to get involved in events held by the Coalition.
“The greatest barrier to showing up has been the choices of Penn students. And we need a shift in priorities and a shift in awareness of where you stand on students today,” Starobin said.
Despite the looming eviction deadline, College junior and former DP reporter Ben Moss-Horwitz says the day’s events “showed Altman a piece of [the community’s] mind.”
“There’s real power in this community,” said Moss-Horwitz. “It’s here to stay no matter what and it’s going to push back to end this awful system of displacement that’s gone on too long.”