Thursday 23rd November 2017,
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All Politics is Local: Penn's West Side Story

Let’s be honest: Penn is pretty awesome. It’s the fifth best school in the country, has a reputation that will likely land you a job upon graduation, and boasts an impressive culture that balances all-nighters in the library with all-nighters at Skulls or ZBT. How could anyone dislike this fine university? It turns out, though, that at least 4,496 people would consider ‘dislike’ a sinister understatement.

After entering into the Ivy League in 1954 and riding on soaring federal investment, Penn reached a point where it had to increase the size of its campus. Physical expansion was necessary and manipulation of city politics essential for accomplishing this feat. Moving east made little sense due to the proximity of the Schuylkill River. As for westward prospects, there was little open land in the immediate area. Unless Penn could somehow bulldoze an entire neighborhood that had been in existence for almost a hundred years, extending the campus seemed impossible.

However, the reality of Philadelphia and national politics at the time made it very, very possible to destroy what used to be known as Black Bottom: a residential community that was situated in what is now University City. The creation of proxy organizations like the West Philadelphia Corporation along with Congressional support for destroying “slums” (Housing Act of 1949) allowed Penn to push for the legal destruction of Black Bottom and other nearby dwellings. In the mid-1960s, the Redevelopment Authority began to practice eminent domain, condemning houses on very loose grounds in Penn’s immediate area and giving the land up to construct research buildings. Thousands of people (estimates put the tally at 4,496) were displaced, the majority of them stating post-move that reimbursement was inadequate and that they desired to relocate back to their old neighborhood.

This situation is not unique to Penn. Just look north to Columbia where the university is accused of blatantly using the Empire State Development Corporation to seize property under eminent domain in West Harlem for academic construction purposes. Here too we see shaky guidelines for what constitutes urban “blight” and thus is subject to demolition. Unfortunately for affected residents, community-organized groups and protests often don’t have enough sway in the local establishment to reverse this trend and can only hope for delays rather than policy reversal.

Eminent domain, by definition, is meant for the government to claim private property for public use. It was especially valuable when railroads were laid down across the country in the 19th century, and it continues to be used to construct schools, hospitals, highways and other public projects. But the application of this dubious legal tool by universities is unethical. The argument universities use is that they are creating public goods and improving the area. Besides the promise of far-off global benefits from research, expansion usually implies bettering the lives of those within the local community, not just those outside of it. Yet nearby residents oftentimes can’t even gain admission to newly constructed buildings for lack of a university identification card. Sure, a few more people from the seized area are employed, but that figure pales in comparison to the number displaced.

Acres of land and years later, we have a united campus with ample research and teaching facilities. But at what cost? Was the physical destruction of a thriving community worth it? Penn employs tens of thousands of Philadelphia residents. It graduates great minds and produces cures to diseases. But try telling that to someone whose house was destroyed in the name of benefits they may never witness. Will they buy it? Probably not. Will the government? That’s a much better bet.

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