Hillary Aisenstein (C'99) arrived at Penn from Las Vegas, full of vague notions about community service and involvement. Then, last year, she saw the light, and learned a lot about University City in the process. This summer, she decided to help turn her new neighborhood green, and has learned even more about University City and Philadelphia.
Photo by Tommy Leonardi
Aisenstein's enlightenment came while working on the UC Brite project, which helped homeowners light up more than 100 residential blocks in University City. "My first real introduction to the neighborhood, and to dealing with everything on a small level, was with UC Brite," she said, "and it was a fabulous learning experience."
It also led her to move off-campus, into the neighborhood, and to broaden and deepen her involvement through programs involving the School District of Philadelphia that would further beautify the community and provide useful summer work for local school children.
Prior to UC Brite, Aisenstein's interest in urban issues was general in nature. While she helped plan the Undergraduate Assembly-sponsored conference on Penn's role in West Philadelphia in the spring of 1998, she had not really thought much about becoming involved in specific community issues, even though it was a community tragedy -- the shooting of Vladimir Sled -- that led her to get involved in planning the conference.
But her work on UC Brite changed all that. "I got out into the community, did lighting surveys, met people -- it was great," she said.
It also changed her view of the neighborhood completely. "I think it's all about familiarity," she said. "Being on a street you're not familiar with, and you've only heard what other people have told you, mostly students who don't know what they're talking about -- it's a lot different from going someplace for the 17th time; it just feels normal after that."
The path from UC Brite to community beautification for Aisenstein runs through the Summer Youth Service Corps, where she served as a program coordinator this summer. SYSC, a project of the Private Industry Council of Philadelphia, pays city youth for part-time work connected to their studies in school.
A number of SYSC projects this summer involved landscaping and gardening, including improvements to the park in front of the Cobbs Creek branch library at 59th Street and Baltimore Avenue and landscaping projects at West Philadelphia and University City High Schools.
Aisenstein hopes to be able to incorporate the University City project, which involves setting up a garden-supply store around the school's greenhouse, into future community-beautification efforts. "What I think we're going to have the kids do is work on creating a model block," she said. "Remember what we did with UC Brite, where we had a model block where we just did all the lights? Well, I think we're going to try to take a block in University City with a lot of student tenants and transients and landscape it, see the results."
However, she noted, "What we're doing is in the paperwork stage." And the paperwork, she has discovered, can be an annoyance: "I've learned that there's a lot of people who are willing to put in the volunteer time to do things, and far too often, they get frustrated, because of -- and I hate to say this -- the city bureaucracy and the Federal bureaucracy. Sometimes government is way too inhibiting," she said -- a view she did not hold prior to coming East.
Aisenstein would also like to see community groups in University City expand their horizons to include the area's more transient population. "I think [the neighborhood groups] do great stuff, but I think because they're for the most part one element of the community, they leave themselves open to criticism of the 'Who do they think they are?' sort now and then," she said.
Originally published on September 3, 1998