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For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, Black Bottom — a predominantly African American community in University City — thrived. In the 1960s, its residents came together to fight displacement attempts by developers — but the community was razed despite their protests.

In recent years, many of the same residents have faced conflict over the University City Townhomes — a low-income housing development built on the site where Black Bottom stood — as the neighborhood faced ongoing threats from gentrification. In July 2021, IBID Associates Limited Partnership — the property's owners — announced that it would not renew its contract with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, giving tenants eviction notices and preparing for the site's demolition.

Sixty years later, former Black Bottom residents and experts spoke to The Daily Pennsylvanian about the history of Black Bottom and their continued fight for community preservation amid displacement threats in University City. 

Black Bottom displacement prompts activism

A thriving community for the first three-quarters of the 20th century, Black Bottom — which stretched between 32nd to 40th streets and from University Avenue to Lancaster Avenue — was comprised of predominantly low-income Black families, many of whom faced displacement due to gentrification efforts by Penn and the City of Philadelphia. A portion of the area later became the site of the UC Townhomes at 40th and Market streets.

The history of displacement and gentrification in Black Bottom can be traced back to the Housing Act of 1949, which aimed to address urban housing decline and provided governance on how federal funds would shape the growth of American cities. In the 1950s, the area was officially designated as a redevelopment zone by the City of Philadelphia. 

The area became known as the Black Bottom in the early 1900s because it was “a place where native people and slaves [could] come up here and intermingle with each other and try to find a better way of life,” former Black Bottom resident Sid Bolling told the DP.

The West Philadelphia Corporation, a nonprofit community development organization, was founded in 1959 by former Penn President Gaylord Harnwell. 

The Corporation included Penn, Drexel University, and what were known at the time as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Osteopathic Medical School. It established the boundaries of University City and led the planning and development of the University City Science Center at the 3600 block of Market Street, which displaced thousands of Black Bottom residents. 

“They used the West Philadelphia Corporation as means of buying properties and land banking them,” School of Social Policy & Practice lecturer and former Black Bottom resident Walter Palmer told the DP. 

The proposed Science Center development was seen as “a catalyst for the economic, cultural, and scholarly efflorescence of University City,” but was met with an uproar of activism. 

This activism extended to Penn’s campus. In February 1969, Students for a Democratic Society organized a six-day sit-in in College Hall after submitting demands to Harnwell requesting that a commission be established to ensure that Penn’s future development would not conflict with community development. 

The sit-in made Penn the first Ivy League school to be part of the civil rights protests, according to Palmer. 

In response to the sit-in, Penn’s Board of Trustees called for the formation of a quadripartite commission, which it said would “be empowered to review and approve all existing plans involving future land acquisition or development of currently owned land contiguous to existing residential neighborhoods, and shall be informed of the initiation of all such future plans and studies.”

Palmer, who has been an advocate for recognizing the Black Bottom since the 1960s, helped orchestrate the quadripartite agreement.

 “Like most institutions of higher learning, [Penn] has a profit motive but a nonprofit status,” he said, adding that the agreement's goal was to involve the community in future decisions about what would happen to the area within Black Bottom.

Between 1950 and 1970, Penn played a role in tearing down thousands of properties in the Black Bottom — displacing several thousand people, according to Palmer. 

“The city didn’t care,” Palmer said. “[Penn] had the backing of the courts, city council, the state legislature, and the land authorities.” 

UC Townhomes evictions renew community frustration

In 1982, IBID Associates — led by Brett Altman, who would later serve on Drexel’s Property Management Board — purchased the block of Market Street between 39th and 40th streets for $1. A year later, the affordable housing units comprising the UC Townhomes were constructed to compensate for the destruction of the Black Bottom. 

These units were funded through federal subsidies for affordable housing put in place by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Program Section 220, which insured loans for multifamily housing in areas where urban governments undertook revitalization efforts.  

Residents lived in the affordable housing units without issue until July 2021, when IBID announced that it would not be renewing its annual affordable housing contract with HUD — putting almost 70 families at risk of displacement. 

Last spring, a settlement between IBID and the City of Philadelphia declared that residents had to vacate the UC Townhomes by Aug. 15, 2023. Residents were set to receive assistance from the Eviction Diversion Program and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. In the settlement, 70 units were set aside to be given back to the City of Philadelphia in order to preserve affordable housing in the location. 

The decades of turnover and redevelopment of the Black Bottom caused significant frustration residents and community members. 

“We’re being treated like we’re nothing,” Bolling said. “If you want to give the land back to the city, the city will sell it to the highest bidder.” 

Activist organizations, including the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition, emerged in recent years to advocate for the townhomes' preservation. Such groups demanded that Penn take action to completely maintain the affordable housing development — with some proposing that Penn purchase the entirety of the UC Townhomes property.

The situation with the UC Townhomes “raises broad questions about what Penn’s responsibility to its neighbors — its Black neighbors — is,” SP2 professor Amy Hillier told the DP. 

Hillier told the DP that reparations paid by Penn to the Black Bottom community are also worth considering. 

“That’s a discussion we should be having,” she said. “Penn is a strong and wealthy enough institution to face its history honestly and to do right.”  

The UC Townhomes are an example of “twice-cleared communities,” Hillier said. The land was used firstly to house the Black Bottom community, then razed and redeveloped for the purpose of creating the UC Townhomes, and will now be cleared and redeveloped again with less accessible and affordable housing. 

“We saw in the ‘60s that there was very little regard for the Black community,” Hillier said, adding that positive change in the demographic makeup of city leadership means that “Philadelphia wouldn’t help Penn displace a community now.” 

Former Black Bottom residents look forward

However, there remains “this reluctance on the part of a private partner like Penn to take responsibility for ‘Penntrification,'” Hillier said. “I love Penn and I love being a part of it, [but] strong, courageous institutions don’t try to dismiss the hard history.” 

Even with consistent threats of displacement, the Black Bottom community remains strong. The creation of the Black Bottom Community Association in 1976 and the persistence of the Black Bottom Tribe allows community members to continue to forge relationships, and they reunite annually while continuing to fight for recognition. 

The community has found ways to unite despite the displacement they've faced, according to Palmer. 

“It’s generational trauma," he said. "Somehow the story has been played out over and over and over again, and people treat it like it’s just an occasional event.” 

Community members continue to advocate for more accessible and affordable housing for residents of the area.

Bolling told the DP that the Black Bottom Tribe is hoping to obtain a historical marker at 36th and Market streets to honor the community that the “bottom” of West Philadelphia housed for so many years: “Maybe Penn can help with that,” he said.

In the meantime, Black Bottom resident Dennis Burroughs commended the community’s ability to stay together and remain resilient.

“I learned from that what it means to love your people and be committed to your people,” he said.