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Getting Along

I GREW UP IN Philadelphia -- or in Southwest Philadelphia, I should say, since no one from Philly is ever just from Philly. The place is, famously, a "city of neighborhoods." Ask someone where they're from, and it's always South Philly, or the Northeast, or, of course West Philadelphia, which is the subject of our cover story as well as this month's "From College Hall" column by President Rodin (herself a Southwest Philly native). Together, these two pieces offer what we hope is a comprehensive picture of Penn's relationship with its West Philadelphia neighbors: the story so far and a look at what may be coming next.
   Dr. Rodin's column lays out the University's latest initiatives -- some already in place and others in the works -- to "leverage Penn's intellectual and economic resources" to make the area more attractive, clean, and safe; to improve the retail climate; and to strengthen incentives such as mortgage assistance and better schools to keep families in West Philadelphia. Senior editor Samuel Hughes's article, "The West Philadelphia Story," gives some idea of what the administration is up against in that effort, both in terms of overcoming Penn's own tangled history in the community and the larger socioeconomic forces -- job losses, rising crime, "white flight" out of the city -- that have rocked West Philadelphia and many other urban areas in recent decades.
   Whether those obstacles can be overcome remains to be seen, of course, but the resources President Rodin refers to are significant in both monetary and human terms, and, perhaps as important, they seem to be coupled with a changed attitude. It struck me in reading Sam's article that it described a kind of arc in Penn's approach toward the community, from arrogance and/or well-meaning condescension to something like partnership, though not always an easy one. This has been accompanied by a more realistic view of Penn on the part of the community -- neither ogre nor ultimate problem-solver. That can only be to the good.
   Last spring, when my wife and I began getting ready to move back to Philadelphia from New York, where we had been living for the past 10 years, I was surprised to learn how cheap the houses were in University City. When I was a student, the neighborhood was viewed as up-and-coming; it was assumed that gentrification, driven by the ever-rising real estate market, would go on indefinitely. That didn't happen, of course, here or anywhere. After househunting for several months, we wound up finding a place in Fairmount (near the Philadelphia Art Museum). Our house is close enough for me to walk to work when I'm not feeling too lazy, and the area is quieter than Center City, but it does have several good restaurants and is fairly active at night.
   I don't know that we would have chosen a house in West Philadelphia in any case -- we both lived here for a long time, and wanted something different -- but a college friend of ours, who has stayed since the 1970s, recommended against it, for many of the quality-of-life reasons that ex-residents cite for leaving the neighborhood. (To put the matter in context, most people expected that we would skip the city entirely and move to the suburbs "for the schools," but we are confirmed urbanites and our daughter is all of seven months old.) We like it where we are, but who knows? In five or 10 years, we may be kicking ourselves for not getting in on the ground floor of the "West Philly Renaissance."
    -- John Prendergast, C'80



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