Pulitzer Prize winning Philadelphia Journalist and Architectural critic, Inga Saffron, wrote an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled “Changing Skyline: The Ugly Story Behind Penn’s Bucolic Urban Campus”, where she sheds light on the historical development of Market Street in West Philadelphia’s University City section. She discusses the prevalent urban development policy that informed the day and contributed to a ‘dark’ past of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn): http://mobile.philly.com/beta?wss=/philly/living&id=354105061.
I was really happy when Inga wrote this article. I felt it was a long time coming. Several times this ‘past’ has been referenced in part during Inquirer or Philadelphia Business Journal coverage of happenings or growth in University City but never so thoroughly revealed. A book authored by two former Penn Professor’s was the appropriate catalyst. Below I will explain my interest in this story and the caption of my blog.
My real estate development career began in full force in 1990, 25 years ago. With my partner Jim Levin, we founded Neighborhood Restorations, an affordable housing development company and set out on a mission to earn a living by restoring abandoned and blighted single family or duplex homes in West Philadelphia surrounding UPenn and Drexel University. At this time, Philadelphia, as several other northeastern cities, was facing with a myriad of urban problems including losing companies, jobs, and residents. However, for the mostly African American neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, the scourge of drugs and the subsequent increase in crime was compounding the problem, resulting in a demoralizing effect on normal life.
Over the next 25 years, working and partnering with grassroots community organizations and long time civic leaders, including Vera Cook, the late Jim Smith, Elsie Wise, John Leatherbury, The Partnership CDC, Mantua Community Improvement Committee (MCIC), Progressive CDC (60th St), West Powelton Concerned Citizens, and many more, we gut rehabbed and developed over 1000 houses including nearly 1200 units for low income families with a total investment of nearly $150 million. During this time, shortly after 2000, working and planning with the homeowners and long time residents of the 55th Street Block Committee (who are depicted in a Mural painted by local West Philly Mural Arts artist, Cliff Eubanks), we completed an historic restoration of the former ‘Oliver Wendell Holmes” Middle School, the first school in the United States built as a middle school. It had been vacant, abandoned, and drug infested. We moved our offices into the ground floor along with the 48 apartments for seniors and a stunning refurbished auditorium.
I think our greatest accomplishment beyond providing beautiful homes to the wonderful folks of West Philadelphia, was our ability to hire neighborhood people and neighborhood based contractors. Because of our loyal community partnerships, we were able to hire more than 50% local minority participants over our entire history.
Inga’s article aptly addresses the unfortunate ‘dark’ side of the University City Science Center and UPenn development effort that happened those 50+ years ago. Misguided or ill informed, the effort caused people harm, hurt, and maybe more.
MY hope — in contributing to and developing a world class environmentally sensitive ‘LEED Platinum Corridor’ on Market Street, centered at 40th Street’s transit hub — is that this effort, this time, will be quite different. Yes, it will bring new jobs and new energy, but it will be a place for all. There will be a different understanding with respect for today, for tomorrow and for the past.
On the creative side, there will be challenges in design and planning to address and celebrate diversity, humanity, and the ‘planet’ that is our home.