Monday, July 14, 2014

A Philadelphia Story: Can a University Transform a City?

Here's two intriguing stories or perspectives on the expanding role of big urban university interacting with a local impoverish community.

As Drexel University in West Philly steps into the role of urban designer or community savior, the questions become:

Is this a post-modern version of gentrification? Or, Is this a big city university doing what big city government can not do?

Politico Magazine Presents

West Philadelphia, Reborn and Razed

 In the hardscrabble section of West Philadelphia called Mantua, the man who could help change the neighborhood comes face to face with a symbol of its drug-infested and crime-ridden past.

John Fry, a 54-year-old resident of the leafy and exclusive suburb of Bryn Mawr, steps out of his pickup truck onto the sun-scorched corner of 33rd and Mount Vernon streets and stands in his sober black suit at the foot of a three-story tall mural painted on the blank side of a row house. It is a portrait of local legend Herman WriceRead more:

Can a University Transform a City?

It’s not just students moving into Powelton.

In his quest to shape Drexel into a world-class university, Fry has initiated many building projects in the area, usually by partnering with private developers. But the university’s construction plans sometimes irk local residents, such as one to construct a 25-story building just a few blocks from the neighborhood’s low-slung heart.

The Powelton Civic Association eventually convinced the university that it was out of scale for the historic neighborhood. But, says one member of the Civic Association, pointing toward other new buildings under construction, “In many ways, the die is cast.”

What happens when a university begins to transform the city around it?

 Just look at Powelton Village, Philadelphia. Fashioned as an upscale, Gilded Age suburb for wealthy industrialists looking to cross the Schuylkill River and escape the clamor and the grime of Center City, Powelton is an architectural gem, still packed with the three-story Italianate villas and Victorian twins its prosperous settlers built 150 years ago.

Now a national historic district, the neighborhood has survived a rocky evolution—from tycoon stomping ground, though depression-driven decline and 1950s gang violence, to 1960s countercultural hub—only to be rediscovered in the 1980s by upper-middle-class Philadelphians with the money to refurbish Powelton’s stately homes.

Now, the area is in transition once again—into the backyard of fast-growing and ambitious Drexel University.

Powelton’s troubled northern neighbor, Mantua, is feeling Drexel’s push too. From supporting underperforming schools to planting communal gardens, the university is trying to turn crime-ridden Mantua into a safe and successful community.

But will the school’s efforts to transform its West Philadelphia surroundings really elevate opportunities?

Or just real estate prices, pushing longtime residents out? Sure, this kind of gentrification is happening in many cities across the country, as ‘creative classers’ and their Whole Foods and yoga studios pour into once-blighted urban areas, but when a university is leading the charge, will it be different?  read more

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