AS JOHN LINDSAY, W'70, a long-time resident and old-building-rehabber in Powelton Village, points out: "Even in the most god-forsaken blocks, 90 percent of the people there are nice. It's just a couple of creeps" who make life miserable for the others. But as more rental vacancies open up, notes one expert, more Section 8 public-housing families move in, and while that is not by itself a problem, the lack of supervision by the Philadelphia Housing Authority often results in behavior unacceptable to middle-class families.
The area that most graduate students have fled to, the western part of Center City, "has a lot of the same problems that West Philadelphia has, but it doesn't get put under a microscope," says Tom Seamon, Penn's managing director of public safety. "It's a vicious cycle. People leave, and that adds to the perception that it's unsafe." But he'll be the first to admit that the 18th and 16th police districts, which abut the University's domain, are some of the "busiest" in the city. And he knows that no matter how many crimes his department prevents, ultimately "we're at the mercy of some 16-year-old kid with a gun who decides he's going to go rob somebody."
Between 1990 and 1996, robberies in Penn's patrol area rose from 118 to 206 -- a 75 percent increase. Despite the terrible robbery wave last fall, they declined from 217 in 1996 (using a different 12-month calendar) to 175 this past year, a 19 percent drop that Seamon likes to think has to do with the increased security measures taken by the University.
But it isn't just crime. For too many people, the urban social equation -- in which fun and fulfillment are factored against fear and frustration -- is going the wrong way. For every person driven out by the specter of an armed gunman, there are at least as many who leave -- or want to -- because the public schools are marginal and the shopping is lousy and there's no nightlife and their car just got broken into for the third time this year. Plus, their neighbors might be ... students.
Dr. Elijah Anderson, the Charles and William Day Professor of Sociology, is African American, and has written extensively about issues of race and class and poverty in urban areas like West Philadelphia. He lived for 18 years in a house on Hazel Avenue, and for a long time found it "a very comfortable place to be and live."
But then things started happening. Six years ago, he woke up to find a man trying to break in through his window. A friend was jumped by a group of young toughs, who broke his arm. Another friend was waiting for her daughter to come outside when a guy came and put a gun to her head. His own wife was stalked in mid-afternoon. Their neighbor across the street was held up at gunpoint and forced to lie on the ground while a man relieved him of his wallet. Drug dealers were openly selling their wares on his street, and when Anderson would call the police, they would either not respond at all or else make a token surveillance and then leave, saying there was nothing more they could do.
Finally, two years ago, he and his wife decided they'd had enough, and moved to Center City. (They now live in Chestnut Hill.) "It was a painful decision," he says. "I still have great ambivalence about leaving. I loved being close to the University, and I loved my house and the neighborhood. I still have wonderful friends in the area -- and I know that many parts of University City don't have the problems we did. But for me and my family, safety became a big issue."
It's not just Penn and West Philadelphia, he adds quickly. "Urban universities are at the forefront of all this. This is the reality that people face in such economically compromised neighborhoods."
Yale University, for example, has had many of the hostile town-gown problems that Penn has had -- complete with the tragic, senseless murder of a student in 1991 -- and its problems have been similarly exacerbated by the economic decline of New Haven. According to Daisy Rodriguez, Yale's assistant secretary for community relations, the relationship between Yale and the New Haven community was pretty much characterized by hostility and distrust until the administration of former president Benno Schmidt, who made it clear that "As goes New Haven, so goes Yale" -- an attitude taken even further by his successor, Dr. Richard Levin. Now, says Rodriguez, "We're turning it around, slowly but surely."
Yale's initiatives include: helping the city win $5.4 million in federal grants to restore three nearby neighborhoods; investing heavily in neighborhood economic development, which includes bringing in an Omni Hotel (and a Barnes & Noble bookstore!); offering employees $2,000 a year for 10 years to buy a house in New Haven; and launching a Family Campus Initiative to help local children in the realms of education, health, psychological and behavioral adjustment, and "family well-being."
The town-gown relationship is a two-way street. For all the benefits it brings to the region, Penn has not always been an easy neighbor to live with. It has gone on colossal building binges, ripping up whole neighborhoods like some crazed Eastern European dictator, displacing residents and businesses for its own high-minded imperial aims. Its undergraduates leave trash all over the sidewalk and hold drunken parties until the small hours, smug in the knowledge that they will be treated gently by police. And it has sometimes shown an aloof insensitivity to residential groups who want to be kept informed of plans that will affect their neighborhood. As a result, it has become the institution its neighbors love to hate.
But when something needs to be done, most of University City looks to Penn -- the city's largest private employer and the only local institution with the resources and motivation to turn things around.
"This community is collapsing," says Dr. George Thomas, Gr'75, lecturer in historic preservation and urban studies, who moved to Chestnut Hill five years ago after 26 years in University City. "Which is a terrific opportunity now for Penn, to my mind. Every time there's a disaster, there's also an opportunity. The opportunity here is to buy, invest, encourage faculty to move into the area -- and in the end, to make it a good place. And that's what Penn has to do. If it doesn't do that, we might as well start talking about Valley Forge again." Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/13/97