UNTIL THE MID-1950s, there was no University City. The appellation was essentially a marketing tool, recalls Lois Bye Funderburg, CW'48, a former realtor with Urban Developers (founded by her husband, George Funderberg, W'57), which later became Urban & Bye.
"Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods," she points out. "West Philadelphia was such a huge place, and we were trying to develop a market in these big Victorian houses around the University, to encourage faculty to move back into a diversified neighborhood. So we decided to designate the area University City." Its boundaries extended from the Schuylkill River to 52nd Street, and from Haverford Avenue to the Media-line railroad tracks south of Kingsessing Avenue -- though over the years many have viewed it as a smaller domain. And there have been tensions between those whose interests lay exclusively in University City and those whose worldview encompassed the whole of West Philadelphia.
Though University City was never mistaken for the Left Bank of Paris, for a couple of decades there it was considered one of the more up-and-coming sections of the city, surfing the swelling national real-estate wave. Houses that had sold for $10,000 in 1961 were going for $150,000 by the late 1980s. Ten years ago, Patrick Starr, C'79, was convinced that if he didn't buy a house that came up for sale in the 4400 block of Larchwood Avenue, he would be economically shut out of University City. He bought just as the wave was cresting, throughout Philadelphia and much of the Northeast. Baby-boomers were finally having children, and didn't always want to raise them in cities. Crack cocaine and its attendant crime ripped through urban neighborhoods like something out of The Hot Zone. And areas like University City, with marginal schools and scruffy commercial amenities, took it on the chin.
Today the worst of the real-estate slump is over, and while University City may be down, it's by no means out. Most residents -- some 4,300 of whom work for the University and the Medical Center -- will still defend it fiercely, at least when talking to a reporter. And sizeable parts of it do look pretty good. The housing stock is terrific: big, handsome Victorian houses with sprawling interiors and woodwork that has to be seen to be believed; smaller twins and row houses that, while unassuming from the outside, are well built and impressively detailed inside. There are still plenty of bright, vital, interesting people -- a human bouillabaise that gets its savor partly from its proximity to Penn, partly to the demographic spicerack that characterizes most big American cities. And tight-knit blocks like St. Mark's Square and Trinity Place provide a sense of community quite rare in insular contemporary America.
But West Philadelphia is not just University City. While some of its neighborhoods are still more or less middle-class, with a high proportion of home-owning families, sections like Mantua and nearby Southwest Philadelphia are among the poorest parts of the city. What that means, observes Bill Coleman, manager of the Firehouse Farmers Market at 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue, is that you have a "mix of people who have more opportunities than they know what to do with" living next to people who have "less opportunities than anyone should have" -- with grimly predictable results.
The high-voltage publicity that accompanies crimes against the Penn community -- like last fall's surge of armed robberies, which culminated in the shooting of an undergraduate and the murder of Dr. Vladimir Sled, a research associate in biochemistry and biophysics -- also get an extra charge from the cross-wiring of race and class. Ten years ago, 82 percent of Penn's graduate students lived in West Philadelphia, the vast majority in University City. Today, only 14 percent do. In a recent survey by a group of Wharton MBA students, more than 40 percent of the 428 graduate students surveyed from several schools admitted that they "never" went past 40th Street, while another 24 percent said they didn't go more than twice a year -- which suggests that some of the fear and negative perceptions come from the shrill reporting of The Daily Pennsylvanian and the word-of-mouth of terrified fellow students.
"One of the things I'm most bemused by is the difference between my perceptions and those of the DP," says Dr. Lynn Lees, professor of history, who has lived at 44th and Pine since 1974. "My perception is that the neighborhood is filled with ordinary people who raise children, who live in really nice houses with low mortgages. Their perception is that once you get past 40th Street, it's an urban slum. It's not. I do not wander around in fear of my life every time I walk out my door and to my office." Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/13/97