Another key player in the neighborhood is the UCD, which Penn helped create and finance (Penn’s executive vice president, Craig Carnaroli W’85, chairs its board, and alumnus Matt Bergheiser WG’96 recently became its president). It helps to promote and assist area restaurateurs in a variety of ways: offering programs like UC Dining Days (which offers discounted deals during slower times of the year), connecting the owners of vacant buildings with potential business owners, helping restaurateurs get permits and negotiate the city bureaucracy, even working with them on their façades and interior designs.

“We love the UCD,” says the Gold Standard Café’s Vince Whittacre. “Every time we’ve gone to them with a problem they’ve tried to address it.”

Some problems are more or less unique to University City, which is why everybody involved stresses the need to communicate regularly with neighborhood residential groups. That communication has helped a lot, though there is still a residual resentment in certain quarters toward pretty much anything that smacks of Penn and/or gentrification. When the Gold Standard Café opened in its attractive new digs at 48th and Baltimore last year, it was promptly welcomed to the neighborhood with paint bombs and graffiti proclaiming its owners—longtime residents of University City—to be an obscene variation of Gentrifiers. The fact that that action was apparently taken by the dopier fringe of the local anarchist movement wasn’t of much comfort to Whittacre and co-owner Roger Harman Gr’77—or anybody else trying to make a living by opening a place they thought would be a benefit to the neighborhood.

“I was shocked by that,” says Greg Salisbury, who had to contend with some of the same knee-jerk, anti-change sentiments when he opened up Rx. “Having said that, every day that I got here and the windows weren’t smashed, I considered it a good day. I remember somebody bringing in sheafs of paper from the list-server talking about how I was destroying the community.”

“This is a very diverse neighborhood, and there is a fringe element out here that considers the UCD to be a fascist organization intent on imposing its will and driving out the downtrodden,” says Barry Grossbach. “There’s an anarchist element, but even that has been tempered, and they are even on the fringe of the anarchist movement.” That sort of action, he adds, only created “disgust” toward its perpetrators, not the burst of solidarity they had apparently been hoping for.

“We’ve been in the neighborhood for 25 years,” says Whittacre. “When they defaced this building, I said, ‘So if I fix my house up, does this make me a gentrifier, or do I just not want my roof to leak?’”

A little chronology is in order here. Whittacre and Harman (along with the late Duane Ball Gr’73) had opened the first Gold Standard at 47th and Chester in 1979, and four years later, at Penn’s invitation, moved to the old Christian Association building at 3601 Locust Walk. When they left campus in 2003, they bought a vacant building and empty lot near 47th and Baltimore and turned it into Abbraccio Restaurant, thus adding another culinary option to that still-struggling corridor. After they closed Abbraccio last year, they opened the Gold Standard Café at 48th and Baltimore, the site they had coveted all along. Their philosophy was to create what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg called a “third place”—the kind of gathering place that is essential to community and public life. (The old Abbraccio building, incidentally, has since been spectacularly remodeled and reborn as Vietnam Café, which has become something of a destination in itself.)

Between those places, the popular Dock Street Brewing Co. (in the old firehouse at 50th Street), Vientiane Café, the Green Line Café across from Clark Park, and others, Baltimore Avenue has never looked so good, or had so much good food to offer.

The same can be said for most of University City. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, it’s worth noting that universities in other urban areas regularly invite Papageorge and her colleagues to participate in panel discussions and talk about the Penn model in University City.

“I would say this model has become the envy of many of our peer cities and institutions,” she says. “And it’s great for my team to be able to share our expertise.”

The next big push will be, not surprisingly, at the eastern edge of campus, where Penn Park will radically transform the now-barren area between the University and the Schuylkill River into athletic fields, green space, and waterfront vistas. One suspects that it will offer some pretty good places to eat, too.


 

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The Omnivore’s New Dilemma (Which exotic University City restaurant should we try tonight?) By Samuel Hughes
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