Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Penn-Assisted HS Woes

Relations between West Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania have long been complicated by miscommunication and mistrust. Despite Penn's decision in recent years to aggressively promote University City west of 40th Street (rather than warn students away from the neighborhood as was long-standing past tradition), many long-time neighbors still question Penn's commitment to the community.

The University’s role in the decision to knock down much of the Black Bottom neighborhood in the 1950's to build Locust Walk and much of the center of today’s campus has left behind a legacy for many West Philadelphians, the impact of which has still not been completely shaken.

More recent concerns of West Philadelphia neighbors in relationship to Penn include the impact that the University has had in boosting property values. Increased property values caused by Penn-assisted mortgages have benefited some, but have also had the effect of driving rents sky-high, increasing property taxes and leaving out many of the kinds of homebuyers who traditionally bought into the neighborhood. As a result, there has been a slow disintegration of the neighborhood' economic diversity which flourished in the 70's and 80's from a mixture of rental, cooperative and owner-occupied properties.

Now, as was reported in yesterday's Inquirer and by our own Dan U-A, Penn is playing a role in the formation of a new high school. A spirited discussion about this issue has emerged on University City list-servs and I thought this message from Karen Allen, an activist and community leader active in the leadership of Cedar Park Neighbors for many years, was worth sharing:

The problem is not in having a good school-- everyone wants that. And if a good school is created for the University City community at large utilizing the resources of the University of Pennsylvania, great. The problem is creating a taxpayer-supported public school that is a de-facto private school for Penn employees without real community input.

The problem is best illustrated with the Penn-Alexander School. As you know, anyone living west of 47th Street, north of Sansom, and so forth, though still in UC, cannot send their kids to that school. Buy/sell a house, what's the first question? "Is it in the catchment area?" Well, the "catchment area" was originally envisioned to only encompass an area that when examined, included the highest concentration of U of P employees, and the highest concentration of upper income residents. A horrible fight ensued in UC in 2000-2001 between those living outside those boundaries who wanted the school to encompass the entire UC area, and those who wanted it to be their own little bailiwick.

Now comes the Penn assisted high school. Despite all of the community associations and what-have-you in UC, we find out about it by reading about it in the paper. Who other than Penn has had input into this process so that all of UC or the West Philadelphia community can benefit from this? Will there be the same artificial boundaries so that a kid living on the even-house numbered [south] side of Sansom Street can get a good education while the kid living on the odd-numbered side gets crap?

If taxpayer money goes into this project, then the school should be open to the entire UC community, and that entire community should have input in the process.

Karen Allen

As a life-long, but still “Young Philadelphian” (just turned 26), I can tell you first-hand the ways that the neighborhood has changed for the good and the bad in recent years. I agree with a lot of what Karen says above and I think the lesson from this latest controversy in University City is that the inherent right of neighborhoods to determine their own fate can’t be eliminated in the pursuit of higher property values and greater economic “growth.”

Do not misunderstand me: it is incredibly important that Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are finally growing and becoming more economically valuable (as was reported in today’s Daily News here). However, we must be able to have honest conversations about how these changes in some cases cause the destruction of the very attributes that made our neighborhoods attractive to investors in the first place.

Equally important is that the political leaders driving these decisions (and make no mistake, Penn’s leadership is highly political and carries as much, if not more weight then the Mayor and Council combined) must have people and not their own profit as their driving force.

Coming up in University City, I was taught that we have a fundamental moral obligation to always work to build a city that addresses the needs of all Philadelphians, regardless of income, class, race, sexual orientation, gender, religion or ability. I can only hope that the next generation of young Philadelphians from University City to Hunting Park learn the same lesson.

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