On Thursday April 14, Stadium Stompers, along with various Philadelphia-area allies, including Penn’s own SOUL (Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation) will walk out of class and walk out of work and join in solidarity “against university gentrification, in unison with the REAL Justice Coalition against racist policing, and in support of Fight for 15 for worker rights.” Stadium Stompers has been organizing for the past few months against a new $100 million stadium proposed by Temple University to be built in North Philadelphia. However, their organizing is against much more than just the stadium. The stadium symbolizes a long and tense history of displacement and disrespect. Gentrification doesn’t solely manifest itself in North Philadelphia—West Philadelphia and Penn have a similar history. Because of this shared history, Penn students play an incredibly important role in walking out this Thursday. Walking out demonstrates how this is a Philadelphia-wide issue, and that students do not support their universities further marginalizing the communities around them. Displacement is not the only consequence of gentrification; the right of communities to have their voices heard in their cities, in their narratives, and in their memories is erased. This is a right that we must all care about, particularly when, as students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, we benefit everyday from the historical and current exploitation our surrounding community.
Every evening I swipe into my campus dorm and say hello to the security guard I’ve cultivated a friendship with over the year. My building is located on high-rise field, on the western edge of Penn’s campus. This particular area of campus is the result of the demolition of neighborhood homes and clearing out of communities in a neighborhood once known as Hamilton Village. The constant destruction and reconstruction of West Philadelphia, the changing skyline, and the marketing of West Philadelphia as “University City” have been dubbed“Penntrification” by locals and professors at Penn alike. Throughout the university’s development, growing endowment, and increasing influence in Philadelphia, Penn has exerted an incredible amount of power over the surrounding neighborhoods. Though communities have rallied together against the demolishment and development, Penn has continued to expand. The issues we have seen at Penn are paralleled by relationships between other universities and the urban environments they surround. Yale and New Haven, Columbia and Harlem, Johns Hopkins and Baltimore, and Temple and North Philadelphia face these same tensions.
As defined by Oxford Dictionaries, gentrification is “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” Merriam-Webster cites the consequences of these supposed “improvements,” writing gentrification is “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” These conflicting definitions are political and demonstrate how different perspectives offer justification or opposition to gentrification. Gentrification can also be considered as the starving of a community of resources. William Julius Wilson in When Work Disappears has noted that neighborhoods characterized by joblessness are vulnerable to gentrification. If we believe any of the aforementioned definitions to be true, that gentrification renovates, improves, renews, and rebuilds, what is the harm? There are clear “benefits” to those things, however, these changes should not result in benefits only for one class. This social investment, after the starvation of resources, creates a market only for the class capable of affording these changes. This inequality creates a winners and losers dichotomy.
The aftermath of World War II led to negative consequences for the neighborhoods surrounding Penn, including the area known as “Black Bottom,” which encompasses Hamilton Village. Education subsidies from the G.I. Bill spurred increased enrollment at Penn and the surrounding universities Drexel and University of the Sciences, which led to the universities to look towards expansion. The city of Philadelphia, in an attempt to encourage the universities to maintain their campuses in the city instead of moving to the suburbs, employed eminent domain to acquire properties in the Black Bottom neighborhood. Eminent domain is the seizure of private properties for public use, without the consent of the owner. Black Bottom, whose reach was University Avenue to Lancaster Avenue, and 32nd to 40th streets, had been classified by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority as a “redevelopment zone,” making it possible for the West Philadelphia Corporation, an alliance of the universities, to buy, destruct, and develop.
Penn’s expansion between 1870 to 2015, from the University Archives.
Today, Penn continues its expansion and is currently developing a new dormitory on Hill Field, which they had acquired at the time the high rises were built. Through coded language, such as “redevelopment” and “urban blight,” and the use of policies such as eminent domain, a post-World War II University of Pennsylvania succeeded at “renewing,” “rebuilding,” and displacing 5,000 Philadelphia residents to continue its expansion and exert its influence over the city of Philadelphia. Though these policies and actions occurred over 40 years ago, West Philadelphia still bears the burden of loss.
When we reflect on past injustices, we can romanticize the roles we would have played. We like to believe that we wouldn’t have been complicit. But now is the time to recognize that we are all a part of the urban-university system. We cannot sit back and forget our role in this community displacement. Instead, let’s show solidarity and support with North Philadelphia residents, use our privilege positively, and walk out of class this Thursday, April 14 at 3PM. SOUL will be gathering at the Button, and encourages students to wear all black.
Clare Connaughton is a sophomore in the college and Civic House Civic Scholar. She is passionate about journalism and writing, and recently cofounded a magazine that shares young adult narratives on mental health, with the goal of reducing stigma, called Beautiful Minds Magazine.