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The West Philadelphia Story -- As Penn launches a series of initiatives to bolster its urban environment, it has to contend with a lot of history -- including its own. space holder
"THE EPITAPH HAS BEEN WRITTEN for so many neighborhoods," Leo Molinaro was saying. "Almost every city or town I've gone to, they'd take me down and show me a bunch of formerly booming industrial areas that are falling apart, and they'd say, 'You know, this place is really dead.' And then some of them, I'd come back five years later, and boy ... You can't even put up a house without having a waiting list. It's amazing.
   "It doesn't happen by any known rational method," he added quickly. "Even with the best of intentions and minds, nobody knows how you can create community. But certain known rational steps have to be taken to even have a chance to make it happen."
   Molinaro is a likeable man with a disarming ability to sound both tough-minded and optimistic at the same time. And he has, as they say, been there. As the former head of the West Philadelphia Corporation (now the West Philadelphia Partnership) back in the 1960s, he played a substantial role in shaping that part of West Philadelphia known as University City. Those efforts had some good results and some not-so-good results, and both he and the University have learned a lot since then about cities and how to approach their problems.
   Yet one essential aspect of the equation, he points out, remains constant: "Every time you make a choice, you opt for change."
   Change is in the air in University City these days, and a good deal of it is, once again, being driven by Penn. Though there is, inevitably, some disagreement about the details, most people who work or live there would agree that some things badly need changing. The decline of West Philadelphia has been a long, slow process, the result of a complex interplay of factors, and reversing it will not come easily or quickly.
   "I think that this is a pivotal time for West Philadelphia -- and for us," says Dr. Judith Rodin, CW'66, president of the University. "And that's why this is a crucial moment to act. Urban universities need to figure out a way to enhance and revive and reaffirm urbanism as a critical feature of American life ... We are all stakeholders in the future of Philadelphia. And it's critical."
   Rodin and Dr. Stanley Chodorow, the provost, have already made "The Urban Agenda -- Penn in Philadelphia" one of Penn's Six Academic Priorities, which represents a substantial commitment of both scholarship and money. The University's schools and centers are putting tens of thousands of volunteer hours into area schools and otherwise linking its intellectual resources with the needs of the community. And over the next few years, Penn will be steering hundreds of millions of dollars into its various West Philadelphia initiatives [see the sidebars below and on pp. 22, 24].
   It has made other, less publicized moves as well, such as hiring Jack Shannon, former deputy director of commerce for the City of Philadelphia, to oversee and coordinate Penn's economic development in West Philadelphia; and purchasing ailing residences and fixing them up, then reselling them. It is also working on a package of financial incentives for faculty and staff to live in University City. And while the Gazette has already reported on the security measures taken by the University in the wake of last fall's crime wave, it's worth noting that Penn is now spending some $18 million a year on its various security measures.
   Asked how difficult it is to sell what must be a fairly expensive set of initiatives to her various constituencies, Rodin replies with a sort of emphatic concern: "This isn't about Penn spending half a billion dollars. This is about Penn leveraging its resources -- its ability to convince other entities that also must make investments that we are serious, so they can be serious. We are going to look to the neighbors and our financial institutions and our corporate sector and our private foundations and national entities that support urban development, because we think that we have the ability to help bring all those players to the table. Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/13/97