THOMAS DESCRIBES himself as a "historian of the industrializing of America, and what architecture tells us about that society" -- subjects he examines extensively in his upcoming book The University of Pennsylvania: An Architectural and Cultural History. And the architecture of West Philadelphia, he says, "tells you about the triumphs of industrialization, worked out here in Philadelphia, that made it, at the end of the 19th century, probably the richest, most advanced city in the world."
With the advent of the trolley in the nineties, he adds, "suddenly you could live pretty much wherever you wanted to, and take your nickel ride to your place of work." The result "is this great, almost endless urbanization. West Philadelphia is a community of houses -- big houses, three- and four-story twins, for the managers in these mills; it's the two-story rows for the mill workers; and it is about wealth and comfort and the delights of the middle-class, upwardly-mobile, life-is-good world."
That didn't last, of course. Largely because of a "terrible loss of leadership and responsibility" on the part of Philadelphia's leaders, Thomas argues, a "secular stagnation" set in: Convinced that perfection had already been achieved in the secular world -- that "Baldwin would always make locomotives, the Pennsy [Pennsylvania Railroad] would always be the great railroad" -- the city's industrial and civic leaders stopped innovating and investing and looked increasingly to the past for comfort. To an extent, Thomas argues, so did Penn.
By the 1920s, Penn's organized alumni were already complaining about the neighborhood in which their school was located -- and dreaming and scheming of moving the College to Valley Forge. (For more on that, see "The Road Not Taken" in the November, 1996 Gazette.) Penn had also become something of a commuter school, connected to the rest of the city by its many trolley lines (and by the Market-Frankford El, which sparked even more new housing between 1910 and 1940). Perhaps because of its commuter-school status, the high-end commercial surroundings that could have been woven into the fabric of the University did not develop as they might have. And as Dr. Gary Hack, dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, notes, the trolleys directly influenced the makeup of the commercial corridors: "When the streetcars left, the continuous strips of business fell apart, and so there are lots of holes in the fabric as you move out. Those gaps are not going to get filled in with housing and commercial shops of the same densities that were there before.
"Trolleys are so lightly used here now that you can't really keep the place alive with what little service is on those lines," he explains. In addition, "the people living in these areas now either are people who work at Penn, and go to and from the University, or tend to be people who don't have the kind of incomes that support the kind of shops that you would like to create there. The ones who work at Penn probably have automobiles, and they can just as easily get in their car and go to Fresh Fields over in Center City to shop, or to any number of places."
Other cities lost their streetcars, too, and some of them developed successful new commercial mixes along those old corridors. But West Philadelphia didn't -- partly because it began hemmorhaging jobs. "Philadelphia's lost 400,000 jobs since the 1950s," says Thomas. "And that's really the story of modern West Philadelphia. You had investment, you had innovation, and now you've got disinvestment and disintegration. That's really the crux of Penn's urban problem right now."
As black people moved in, lured by those industrial jobs, white people moved out -- in droves. West Philadelphia has lost a staggering 33 percent of its population since 1950, and many of those who left were the middle-class kind.
"Population-loss in itself is a very bad thing for a city," points out Witold Rybczynski, the Meyerson Professor of Urbanism. "A high-density city like Philadelphia needs to have the number of people it was designed for. We have the tools to expand the city, but we can't say, 'Well, let's close down these streets' so you have enough viable people for, say, a neighborhood a third the size. Our only vision is, 'If it could only be 100 percent occupied it would all be fine.'
"It doesn't take very many empty buildings to affect either a residential street or a commercial street," he adds. "I think it's something like 10 percent. Because if you have empty buildings, people will not walk on that side of the street, and if your store is next to an empty building, your store starts to suffer. And there's a kind of ripple effect that's very fast."
As Philadelphia's star was setting, Penn's was rising, and after World War II, the University began to look beyond the borders of its home town. Three successive presidents -- Harold Stassen (1948-1953), Gaylord Harnwell (1953-1970), and Martin Meyerson (1970-1981) -- brought increasingly global perspectives to the University's worldview. "By the time you're done with those three guys," says Thomas, "Penn is a national, global institution."
That is, of course, a wonderful thing in many ways, and that outlook and expansion helped make Penn the educational powerhouse it is today. But as Thomas, with a dramatic stage whisper, suggests, it also had "consequences for the community: Because all of a sudden, Penn is no longer engaged in its city. And that's been a disaster -- in multiple ways."
The liability of the global vision of Stassen and Harnwell, Thomas adds, "is that to make the modern global university, you need space. And the solution to that is redevelopment -- their urban, federal partnership in which the Feds basically condemned everything it needed, and the institutions could grow." Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/13/97