Changing Skyline: The ugly story behind Penn's bucolic urban campus

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Victorian brownstones adjacent to Van Pelt Library (left), as seen from the intersection of 36th and Walnut streets, circa 1961 or 1962. At right, the Van Pelt Library and Dietrich Graduate Library in 2015. Penn effectively cordoned off its campus by erecting buildings that faced inward, such as putting the Van Pelt loading dock facing Walnut Street.

University City, that artificially created place on the west bank of the Schuylkill, has suddenly become Philadelphia's most vital neighborhood. You can see it in the luxury high-rises, office towers, and dorms now coalescing into a glittering second skyline. Just last week, Penn and Drexel held a party to celebrate their economic contribution to the city, which is indeed substantial. Today, Penn reigns supreme as Philadelphia's largest private employer, with nearly 16,000 full-timers on its payroll.

How did this neighborhood of porch-fronted homes and cheap student eateries - a sleepy suburb of mighty Center City - evolve into such a powerhouse? The answer can be found in a provocative new book, Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000, cowritten by a longtime professor and the university archivist. The story is not pretty.

Using the polite language of the academy, you might say the book is an account of how Penn exploited the urban-renewal policies of the 1950s and '60s to create a gorgeous, landscaped campus and turn itself into one of the country's top research institutions.

The larger narrative, however, is much less becoming to the authors' employer. Becoming Penn details how the Ivy League university systematically executed a series of ruthless real estate grabs that destroyed distinctive neighborhoods, drove out small businesses, and displaced thousands of Philadelphians, mainly African Americans.

By the end, it's not clear whether we should think of Penn as a great center of learning and a crucial jobs engine - or as a lucrative corporate enterprise that has wired Philadelphia's planning process for its own interests.

The authors, professor John L. Puckett and archivist Mark Frazier Lloyd, are lifers who clearly adore Penn, warts and all. They tell the history of America's first university in a matter-of-fact tone, pausing only rarely to pass critical judgments.

Though the general outline of their narrative, bravely published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, is known, the abundant details are what give the story new meaning.

Since Penn's founding in 1755 by Ben Franklin at the corner of Ninth and Chestnut, it has continually sought to carve out a serene island for itself in the midst of the chaotic city, hoping to emulate America's more bucolic campuses, such as Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia.

When Center City became too dense and industrial, the authors explain, Penn fled in 1872 for the rural precinct of West Philadelphia. And when the area around its serpentine green College Hall began to experience similar urbanization, Penn threatened to decamp to the Chester County countryside.

From the beginning, Philadelphia recognized the importance of Penn to its economy and identity and went out of its way to accommodate its needs, especially for land. College Hall was built on what had been the grounds of the city's poorhouse, after Philadelphia sold the property to Penn at a bargain price.

But it wasn't until after World War II, when Penn was seriously contemplating a move to the suburbs, that Philadelphia struck the deal that would cede Penn (and Drexel) huge tracts of West Philadelphia. With the money and power provided by federal urban-renewal programs, city officials went on a shopping spree for the two universities, using eminent domain to acquire everything (roughly speaking) between Lancaster and University Avenues, the Schuylkill and 40th Street.

At the time, the area north of Market was populated mostly by working-class blacks, and the blocks to the south were largely Italian. Their neighborhoods, like others in Philadelphia, were looking pretty shabby, and Penn was alarmed that the creeping blight would turn off students and faculty.

But, as Puckett and Lloyd point out, the word blight was a coded term, and many of the eminent-domain takings were clearly racially motivated. Even the placement of the monolithic University City Science Center along Market Street, they say, was intended as a cordon sanitaire against the black neighborhoods.

The land seizures were by no means unique to Penn. Across the country, cities were using urban renewal to transfer property from small private owners to big universities - think: NYU, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, as well as Temple. But, the authors write, no university "achieved a greater expansion of its campus core or made more use of urban-renewal tools than Penn."

Penn didn't just use its power to acquire land. It also persuaded officials to bury the elevated train line and trolleys that traversed its newly greened campus. (Too bad nobody lobbied the city to bury those lines west of Penn.) Meanwhile, the state footed the bill for libraries and research buildings.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the land grab is that Penn ended up sitting on its acquisitions for decades, using the leveled tracts as parking lots. The block at 34th and Chestnut is only now being developed for dorms, almost 60 years after its occupants were driven out. Those parking lots were just as blighting as rundown housing.

As Penn's campus grew more splendid, it became an island of privilege in a sea of poverty. Penn effectively cordoned off its campus by erecting buildings that faced inward, going so far as to put the loading dock of Van Pelt library on once-gracious Walnut Street. But that fortress wall couldn't keep out the neighborhood's desperation, or rising crime. Armed holdups, and even homicides, became regular occurrences on Penn's outskirts.

It wasn't until Judith Rodin took over as president in 1994 that Penn began to make some amends. Neighborhood outreach improved. Buildings on Walnut were given front doors. Ironically, Penn is now intensely focused on re-creating the kind of nonacademic activities that urban renewal destroyed: off-campus apartments, shops, restaurants, a movie theater, even a public school. University City is being remade, though for a more affluent population.

And that brings us to University City's current boom. Was the success of Penn, and the huge economic value it brings to Philadelphia, worth the terrible destruction? Could the revival have happened without leveling neighborhoods? Are these schools so important to Philadelphia's survival in this postindustrial age that they deserve carte blanche?

The authors, unfortunately, never grapple with these questions. Nor do they touch on the sensitive topic of PILOTs - payments in lieu of taxes - that many think universities should pay. Knowing the huge benefit they've received and how much they operate like businesses, it's hard to believe there is even a debate.

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Changing Skyline:

Slide through time with interactive photos at http://philly.com/becomingpenn.