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Penn and West Philadelphia
A new model for progress in the community.
By Judith Rodin, CW'66
In my last Gazette column, I wrote about the University's academically-based "service learning" programs and our abiding commitment to the community in which we work, study, and live. This month, I would like again to address Penn's role in West Philadelphia and highlight a number of innovative and cooperative community initiatives that leverage Penn's intellectual and economic resources to effect positive change. There is much to report.
As context for the University's efforts, I will observe that many believe the greatest social challenges of our time are those of our cities, and that our response to those challenges will dramatically affect the nation's future. America may be experiencing its strongest economy in 25 years, but too many city neighborhoods lack jobs, adequate housing, and decent schools. For Americans living in these urban neighborhoods -- and for the institutions located in their midst -- this is a recipe for future disaster. Increasingly aware of the scale of this crisis, a number of those institutions are taking action.
Urban colleges and universities are, more and more, actively reaching out to the communities at their doorsteps and working with their neighbors for substantive change. They have real power in this endeavor: major research universities and medical centers have become the primary economic engines in a number of American cities, providing employment, development, and investment. Penn, for example, is the largest private employer in the City of Philadelphia.
In these efforts, urban colleges and universities are pursuing a vision described by educator Ernest Boyer, of "A New American College [that takes] ... special pride in its capacity to connect thought to action, theory to practice ... The New American College, as a connected institution, [that is] committed to improving, in a very intentional way, the human condition."
The university most committed to this quintessential Franklinian concept is Benjamin Franklin's own: the University of Pennsylvania. Working in partnership with local residents, businesses, institutions, and public agencies, the University can help to stabilize and strengthen the West Philadelphia community -- Penn's own community.
What are the goals that need to be achieved in West Philadelphia, as in so many other urban neighborhoods? They are the obvious attributes of any strong community. First: safe, clean, and attractive streets. With this in mind, Penn is actively participating in a range of projects that will greatly enhance the quality of life in West Philadelphia, including UC Brite, a neighborhood lighting initiative that has installed exterior lighting fixtures at more than 1,300 residences throughout University City; University City District, a newly created, multi-institutional special-services district that coordinates sanitation, security, and other area services; broad and large investments in public safety and security; and regulation of street vendors.
Good schools for area children are also a must if our community is to thrive. For a number of years, Penn students have participated in extremely effective service-learning projects coordinated by Penn's Center for Community Partnerships at local public schools. Penn students, faculty, and staff will continue to student-teach, serve as mentors, and provide other assistance at these and other neighborhood schools. Now, in addition, the University may well take this commitment one step further and work with others to establish a Penn-assisted K-8 school in University City. Planning is in the early stages, but we believe this could be a significant and cooperative approach that would create greater educational opportunities for area youth, enhance our local fabric, and strengthen relationships between the community, our Graduate School of Education, and other schools at Penn.
Like good schooling, high-quality housing is vital to the stability of our community. Penn is seeking opportunities to improve the local housing stock and promote home ownership to enhance West Philadelphia's reputation as a desirable place to live. We plan to improve our mortgage assistance program for Penn affiliates who wish to live in the community; we are encouraging the reconversion of multi-unit properties to single-family occupancy; and we are supporting housing rehabilitation efforts with capital investments.
Revitalizing the retail environment is a fourth critical component of our partnership with the community. The construction of Sansom Common, the largest retail development project in West Philadelphia's history, is fully underway. The $120 million project -- which will consist of a full-service hotel, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, and a variety of shops and stores -- will do much to reinvigorate the local retail climate. Three blocks west, we are actively pursuing opportunities for significant investment in the revitalization of 40th Street, a continually improving retail and service hub.
Finally, Penn will continue to work closely with its community partners to create jobs through economic development, and we will leverage our relationships with goods and services providers to enhance employment opportunities in the area. The Sansom Common project is an example of this strategy in action: We anticipate that a significant number of construction-related and permanent service jobs associated with the project will be filled by local residents. We will also work to extend the University City Science Center's capacity to fuel local development and collaborate with other area stakeholders on the revitalization of the Market Street corridor on the north side of campus.
To ensure the future of Penn and our community, we must make progress in each of the areas I have listed here. Decades of experience and the wisdom of community partners and advisors have convinced us that a piecemeal response to today's urban realities is no response at all. Our approach must be multi-faceted, our resolve stronger than ever. For this much is clear: The health and well-being of Penn is symbiotically connected to that of West Philadelphia. In making significant and sustained investments in the community's future, Penn is truly investing in its own.