by Penn Community for Justice
Gentrification is the process where wealthy investors displace families and communities—often with deep roots in the community—by purchasing and upgrading property, making it unbearably expensive for the area’s historic inhabitants. Although the University of Pennsylvania nominally serves students of all backgrounds, its recent legacy in Philadelphia communities has been one of gentrification. Since its founding in 1751, Penn has aggressively expanded from its original campus at Fourth and Arch Streets to encompass hundreds of acres of property in West Philadelphia, where it occupies a position of significant power and influence over local government. This article will explain the history of this so-called “Penn-trification,” and how the university’s relentless accumulation of property and wealth has damaged the surrounding Philadelphia community.
Penn began as a single building, but soon expanded to three buildings by the turn of the century, and then doubled again by 1830. In 1872, Penn began its move to West Philadelphia, and by 1900, they occupied thirty buildings on nearly 49 acres. Even before the beginning of Penn-trification proper, we find the same motivations for campus expansion and relocation: the University sought to escape a ‘vile neighborhood, growing viler every day’ in Center City. Land containing Philadelphia’s poorhouse and charity hospital was sold to the university, marking the beginning of Penn’s relentless expansion to the detriment of the Philadelphia community and social institutions. Over the next century, there were only 18 years in which the university did not acquire new property.
Penn’s developed a “master plan” in 1913, and already the institutional vision sought to develop the university as an enclave “within but separate from West Philadelphia,” further shielding this elite institution from the inconveniences of community engagement. This goal was partly a response to industrialization along Penn’s eastern campus boundaries. However, property records from 1937 also noted the threat of “Negro encroachment” and “infiltration of Jewish” families in neighborhoods adjacent to campus associated with declining property and rental values.
This same period saw the nationwide development of redlining, oppressive policies that prevented Black and Brown people from obtaining home loans, which Penn benefitted from. By the time Penn received its tax-exempt, non-profit status in October 1940, it had acquired over 500 new properties, in some cases for as little as $1, and begun to expand west of 40th Street into more working class Philadelphia communities.
This was enabled by Penn’s disproportionate political influence, which was amplified by several key policy developments: a Redevelopment Authority (RDA) was commissioned in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) designated an eighty-block area of West Philadelphia as “the University Redevelopment Area” in 1948. Not coincidentally, the PCPC was chaired by Penn Trustee Edward Hopkinson, Jr.—a severe conflict of interest. The PCPC and RDA acted in tandem, with the PCPC selecting “blighted” areas for renewal and the RDA exercising eminent domain to acquire property and resell to developers expressly for profit, a redistribution of land to wealthy elites from the city’s inhabitants. The passage of Section 112 of the Federal Housing Act in 1959 gave universities additional powers to directly redevelop “blighted urban neighborhoods” around their campuses with limited interference from local government. This intentional blurring of lines between public and private interests enabled Penn to make the greatest use of federally funded urban renewal initiatives for its own enrichment, and achieve the largest expansion of all higher education institutions in the US during the period from 1949 to 1974.
In order to take full advantage of these new policies, Penn formed the “West Philadelphia Corporation” with Drexel, USciences, and Presbyterian Hospital, also in 1959. Their strategy was simple: they bought properties owned by absentee landlords, then boarded them up or demolished them. Through this, the West Philadelphia Corporation manufactured the “blight” necessary to justify eminent domain, giving Penn the authority to demolish large blocks of housing and business.
Penn’s actions in Unit 3, locally referred to as the “Black Bottom”, were especially heinous. A community bounded by 32nd to 40th and Lancaster to Darby (now University Ave), the Black Bottom land was highly coveted by Penn and other area institutions. What follows is a description of the neighborhood compiled by students of a former resident, Penn professor Dr. Walter Palmer:
“By 1950, the Black Bottom was a dynamic, working-class neighborhood of rowhouses and businesses. The average family had four or more children plus two adults. Many homes were owned by African American families while still more families rented.
Recreation in the Black Bottom was simple: sitting on the front steps of the church chatting with neighbors or singing, children jumping rope and playing with jacks, grandmothers canning, men pitching horseshoes and women getting suited in their Sunday best to go to the movies. Parents didn’t worry about their children and doors were left unlocked.
Despite widespread community protests, by the end of 1967 thousands of residents were banished from the neighborhood and the Market Street corridor was razed, allowing for development on the cleared land. The new construction became the Science Center and affiliated University City High School, and ultimately this paved the way for the rebranding of Penn’s West Philadelphia holdings as “University City.”
Following this building boom, Penn faced significant budget deficits and expansion slowed slightly. However, by 1996, a rebranded “urban revival” was back on the agenda. Under Penn President Judith Rodin’s West Philadelphia Initiatives, programs were developed in housing stabilization/reclamation and neighborhood retail development. These projects capitalized on the massive land acquisitions executed decades before under the guise of “urban renewal,” and as a result, the university faced significantly less community opposition. The 40th Street corridor and Walnut Street were transformed into high-end retail spaces, without reference to previous businesses and homes that had been destroyed. Though originally established in 1965, the Penn Home Ownership Program expanded dramatically: since 1998, over 1,200 Penn families have purchased property in West Philadelphia. The result is more than $10 million in subsidies to Penn faculty and staff to further displace historic residents and gentrify areas around campus, without resorting to the overt violence of the 1960s and 70s.
To accommodate the educational needs of Penn affiliates’ children, the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Partnership School was constructed by the Philadelphia School District on Penn-owned land leased to the city, and opened in 2002. Today, Penn subsidizes education at “Penn Alexander” with contributions of $1,330 per student, for a mere 576 children. Meanwhile, the School District of Philadelphia suffers from severe underfunding and is forced to put over 200,000 children and educators in unsafe buildings because it lacks funding from property taxes, which Penn withholds due to its “non-profit” status (see the PILOTs article in this issue for more information).
At the culmination of its 269 year journey of Penn-trification, the university owns 1000 acres of real estate valued at $3.2 billion. Penn’s ongoing campus expansion is a lucrative operation, providing a strong incentive to protect both that property and wealth through the second largest private campus police force in the US, and direct support of the Philadelphia Police Department. Meanwhile, Black and Brown residents continue to suffer rent hikes, eviction notices, and eventual displacement. Philadelphia ranks fourth in the country in its rate of gentrification and faces an eviction crisis that disproportionately affects Black households.
Penn plays a leading role in perpetuating these cycles of disenfranchisement and displacement, while lauding itself as an unalloyed good for the city. This couldn’t be further from the truth — and it’s why Penn Community for Justice is organizing alongside community partners to compel Penn to take substantial, concrete, and transformative steps that can begin to repair the historic and continuing damage caused by its racist and capitalist exploitation of Philadelphia. We demand that Penn begin by paying PILOTs into a publicly accountable Education Equity Fund, defunding Penn Police and institute police-free alternatives for community safety, and divesting from the prison industrial complex and other industries known to perpetuate harm against working class people of color.