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The Long and Troubling History of Penntrification in West Philly

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Campus expansion plans from the likes of UPenn and Drexel are often greeted with mistrust and worry from longtime neighbors, even when it seems that the expansion plans might benefit the surrounding communities. Without an understanding of the long history of Penntrification in West Philly,the situation is puzzling, but consider this: the area now known as University City stands on the ruins of a close-knit Black community known as the Black Bottom, which was destroyed by a partnership between the universities of West Philly and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

The Black Bottom was bordered by Lancaster and University Avenues to the north and south, and 32nd and 40th streets to the east and west. Though the community didn't have a lot of money, it was a thriving, well maintained area. Residents remember that none of the houses were empty, and report leaving their windows and doors unlocked without fear of break-ins at all times of day or night.

As early as 1950, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority classified the Black Bottom as a "redevelopment zone" essentially beginning the end for the Black Bottom. Meanwhile, Upenn, Drexel, and the University of the Sciences experienced an upswing in enrollment due to education subsidies from the G.I. Bill, and sought to expand their campuses. These universities joined with Presbyterian Hospital to create a Penntrifying alliance known as the West Philadelphia Corporation.

The West Philadelphia Corporation cleared space for the universities to remake the neighborhood to their needs through a number of legal but shady practices; it bought up property from absentee landlords, most of whom were white, and boarded them up, or demolished them. These practices created the blight that had previously only existed in the minds of those in the PRA who classified the neighborhoodas a slum (or, euphemistically, as a "redevelopment zone"). A document produced for the West Philadelphia Corporation referred to the area as an area in which

Physical and social ills began to grow amid the substandard housing. Crime and juvenile delinquency reared their evil heads. Hoodlum gans roamed the Powelton-Mantua area (the self-styled 'Bottoms' east of Lancaster, the 'Tops' to the west). The efforts of the police and public agencies proved but a small deterrent. This blighted vision of the neighborhood directly contradicts with Black Bottom resident's fond memories of a neighborhood in which they felt safe walking home at 3 AM. As Walter Palmer, a Penn professor who grew up in the Black Bottom notes, If you look at any specifics in terms of crime on Penn's campus, it's almost nonexistent all the way up to the 1970s, when the Black Bottom no longer existed as a neighborhood. Penn's crime statistics won't really start taking off until after the 1970s, when it no longer has a buffer or community neighbors. Though residents staged a massive protest, building a barricade along 40th street, and, according to Walter Palmer, setting fire to cars, it was too late. The final destruction of the neighborhood was accomplished through the use of Eminent Domain: the city declared portions of the area blighted, acquired them, and set about demolishing large swaths of buildings. By 1970, the destruction of the Black Bottom was complete. The city of Philadelphia and the West Philadelphia Corporation managed to displace around 5,000 residents, while destroying a whole neighborhood full of homes, in order to make way for their vision of University City. Given the history of university expansion in West Philly, it's no wonder that new plans from Penn and Drexel are often met with skepticism and concern.
· The Black Bottom [Black Bottom]
· Black Bottom Blues [Philly Weekly Archives]
· Powelton Village: University Expansion Destroyed a Community [Philadelphia Neighborhoods]
· Searching for the Black Bottom [34th Street Magazine]