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Alienation and Drift in Penn’s Community Relations
Part of

John L. Puckett

In the 1970s, the University of Pennsylvania turned inward from West Philadelphia, unable and unwilling to restore its frayed community relations in the face of an unprecedented rise in violent crime.

Penn’s alienation and drift away from West Philadelphia began in the 1970s, when the University experienced turbulent campus politics, confronted a severe budget crisis, and lacked both the funds and the will to help restore its frayed community relations. At the same time, Penn faced an unprecedented rise in violent crime on the campus and its peripheral streets. This situation only worsened in the 1980s with the onset of West Philadelphia’s crack-cocaine epidemic.

The 1970s saw Penn retreat from involvement in West Philadelphia. Two factors explain drift and alienation in Penn’s relationship with stressed neighborhoods on the borders of University City. First, Penn had no financial resources to invest in community initiatives of any kind. In the 1960s, the University overspent to build the modern campus. It had no money to soften the blow of the next decade’s national economic downturn and soaring energy costs. Consequently, the University accumulated significant budget deficits until 1976 (after which the financial situation steadily improved).[1]

Second, the University confronted an unpreceded rise, on and around the campus, in so-called index crimes—notably, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—which contributed to “a climate of fear and suspicion” directed toward African Americans in West Philadelphia. By the end of the decade, Penn had a strengthened police force and an improved financial picture, but no political will for engagement in West Philadelphia. Penn’s president from 1970–1981, Martin Meyerson, was too distracted by turbulent campus affairs to invest in community relations. Consequently, the campus community and the area’s African American community continued to eye each other with mutual distrust.[2]  

Sheldon Hackney, president from 1981–1993, also faced the urban crisis on Penn’s doorstep. The second half of his administration was marked by a rising tide of crime and violence stemming from the citywide (and national) crack cocaine epidemic. The Daily Pennsylvanian tracked 22 serious incidents on or around the intersection of 40th and Walnut streets from the fall of 1987 to the spring of 1989. Two corner “anchors” at the intersection were Burger King and McDonald’s (fast-food) franchises; another corner fronted an eyesore University parking lot. Headlines proclaimed: “Crime Wave Hits Area Surrounding 40th and Walnut,” “40th Street Has Violent History,” “Under the Golden Arches: Murder, Robbery, Stabbings,” “3 Students Stabbed; 1 Critically Wounded,” “Four Robbed at Gunpoint off 40th Street,” “U. Student Shot on 40th Street.” The night of 1 September 1990 saw the deadliest incident, which Sheldon Hackney sadly noted in his journal: “Last Saturday four black teenagers were gunned down as they say in their car at midnight at 40th and Sansom, near the busy corner of 40th & Walnut where Lucy [Hackney’s wife] and I were just minutes after the shooting. Two died & two are in the hospital.”[3]

University City
1970s, 1980s, 1990s
[1] John L. Puckett and Mark Frazier Lloyd, Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950–2000 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 143–45.
[2] Puckett and Lloyd, Becoming Penn, 162–169.   
[3] Puckett and Lloyd, Becoming Penn, 181–186, quotes from p. 183.

Continue reading The University of Pennsylvania

In the first half of the twentieth century, two campus plans—the Cret Report of 1913 and the Martin Report of 1948—called for the creation of a pedestrian campus free of urban congestion.

In the 1950s, the City facilitated Penn’s plans to create its modern pedestrian campus by putting the Penn trolleys underground and deeding the footprint of Woodland Avenue to the University. 

In the 1960s, the University expanded west and north in Redevelopment Authority Unit 4, drawing upon both federal and state urban renewal building funds.

The Drexel Institute of Technology’s successful efforts to receive half of University Redevelopment Area Unit 1—originally designated exclusively for the University of Pennsylvania’s campus expansion—asserted the Institute’s importance as a rising educational institution in West Philadelphia.

A mosaic displaying a bulldozer approaching a row of houses filled with African American residents.

The University of Pennsylvania’s role in the creation of the University City Science Center in RDA Unit 3, a working-poor, majority-African American neighborhood known locally as the “Black Bottom,” severely damaged its community relations for decades to come.

In the 1970s, the University of Pennsylvania turned inward from West Philadelphia, unable and unwilling to restore its frayed community relations in the face of an unprecedented rise in violent crime.

At the turn of the Millennium, the University of Pennsylvania, under President Judith Rodin, orchestrated the West Philadelphia Initiatives, a proactive, multipronged strategy to improve social and economic conditions in Penn’s neighborhood of University City.

The Netter Center for Community Partnerships is the centerpiece of Penn’s quarter-century effort to establish mutually beneficial university–community–public school partnerships in West Philadelphia.