In the middle of a city, people slept with their doors unlocked. Everyone knew each other and chatted on their front steps. It was a poor neighborhood, but residents would help each other with the rent from month to month -- they were so closely knit that they thought of themselves as an urban tribe. Walking down the streets of the neighborhood, you could hear jazz emanating from the houses, the bars and Club Zellmar, a local music joint.
If this sounds a little hard to believe, that may be because it no longer exists. From the early 1900s to 1968, this strong, predominantly African-American community existed between the bounds of 32nd to 40th streets from University Avenue to Lancaster. Forced out in the name of urban renewal and university expansion, this neighborhood, once known as the Black Bottom, was physically destroyed -- but its spirit lives on in the memories of its residents, who, after 25 years, still celebrate this remarkable place with an annual reunion.
The term Black Bottom can be traced back to distinctions made between parts of West Philadelphia. The area inhabited by upper-income, middle-class families that stretched from 46th to 63rd streets was termed the "top," while the area between 46th to 32nd was referred to as the "bottom." As the African-American population grew, they began to refer to themselves as the "Black Bottom tribe." A former resident of the neighborhood, School of Social Work Professor Walter Palmer describes its residents as a "tough, tough group," which was "very isolated, very tough and very poor." He characterizes the group as being very respectful of one another and protective of their community. They would allow safe passage into the community to those of good character; they would throw out troublemakers. It is even rumored that the police helped give the Black Bottom its name. Palmer explains that "Black meant bad, these Blacks were so bad -- I mean tough -- that even the police wouldn't dare to venture into the community."
Palmer dates the Black Bottom all the way back to 1806, when it was called Greenville. Greenville was inhabited by both African-Americans and those of European descent. The neighborhood was largely characterized by the residents' practice of raising sheep and cattle in the open spaces north of Lancaster Avenue. From the time when he was five years old until the mid-1950s, Palmer lived right in the middle of the Black Bottom, at 3645 Market Street. While some German and Jewish people remained, the neighborhood was predominantly African-American and was made up of large, extended families. Market Street was lined with run-down rowhouses, which were mostly inhabited by renting families. North of Market, large brownstones and greystones stood, while small businesses like barber shops, beauty salons, bars and pharmacies were scattered throughout the neighborhood.
Former Black Bottom resident Margaret Hopkins described the neighborhood as a place where "everybody looked out for everybody. If you needed your rent paid, people got together to pay your rent."
However, the fate of this tight and thriving community was soon threatened by the federal and local government's urban renewal agenda, in addition to the University's needs for expansion. According to a 1998 Philadelphia Inquirer article by Larry Fish, the Black Bottom was deemed a "redevelopment zone" as early as 1950 -- the decision was made by city officials, who considered the area to be a slum. At the same time, the G.I. Bill made it possible for thousands of WWII veterans to attend the University, while the federal government increased its financial support of university research.
For universities such as Penn and Drexel, growth and expansion highlighted a need for space. At the same time, city government was searching for ways to redevelop its blighted areas. In 1959, the West Philadelphia Corporation was founded largely by Penn and was joined by other institutions including Drexel, Presbyterian Hospital and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (now the University of the Sciences) to promote development of the University City area (which was given this epithet at about that time).
According to a paper by Penn Summer Research Fellow Mackenzie Carlson, a plan was hatched by the WPC to build a 33-story tower to house private research, on 31st Street between Chestnut and Walnut. As the WPC's plan for growth complemented the city's urban renewal agenda, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation began working with the WPC in August of 1960. Since it was already designated as a redevelopment area, the threat to the Black Bottom was heightened when the location of the research tower was deemed inadequate, and officials decided on a new site on Market between 34th and 36th streets. As these decisions were being made, these organizations were already buying up property from absentee landlords and boarding up the buildings -- and the property values of the remaining houses sank as a consequence. As Palmer puts it, people who had been paying their mortgages for 40 or 50 years had no choice but to leave, or to live in a neighborhood of abandoned houses, deprived of its upbeat and communal character. Those who insisted on staying were forced to fight court battles with the city over the issue of eminent domain.
Student concern and involvement in the issue increased when it became public that some of the research to be conducted in the University City Science Center was war-related. As an undergraduate at Penn, Professor Ira Harkavy was involved in the protests, which he described as "massive." Students joined with Black Bottom residents in their protest of the UCSC. The Penn community began to realize, as Palmer says, "Being poor is no indicator of how committed people are to their community." For Harkavy, the protest exemplified the kind of partnership that should exist between communities and universities, as both students and faculty worked with community members for a common cause. In many ways the students learned about the issues -- and the means to protest them -- from the community.
"The leaders in the community helped make sure that the protests remained focused, helped maintain that it remain non-violent against the college," Harkavy recalls. Later in his career, Harkavy would draw on his experience as an activist, recognizing that "cooperative, democratic, mutual learning" should be at the heart of university and community partnerships.
A ride up to fifth floor of the Mellon Bank Building on a slow, rickety elevator now undergoing repairs takes you to Penn's Center for Community Partnerships. For over a decade, Harkavy has been working out of this office to create mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations and schools for over a decade. Many of the work-study and volunteer programs on campus -- such as the Urban Nutrition Initiative, the Penn/Americorps Program to Bridge the Digital Divide, Access Science, America Reads, America Counts and others -- are run out of this office. The opportunities that these programs present, in addition to the 120 community service courses that the University offers, have earned Penn U.S. News and World Report's #1 ranking in service-learning, an honor shared with Stanford and Berea College in Kentucky.
When questioned about its current relationship with the community, the University was quick to list its accomplishments: the Sadie Tanner Mosell Penn Partnership School; various curricula developed by Penn faculty for local schools; and subsidized health screening, education and referral programs offered by Penn's medical and dental schools. Harkavy points out that programs like these are not a solution to the conflicts that arise between university and community interests. He does, however, view the work encompassed by service-learning and the Center "as an example of what could and should be done, and [that] helps us work out, together, long-term, effective partnerships." To Harkavy, the work that he and others have engaged in is "radically different from previous approaches and models that were not democratic, [were] uni-directional and didn't see that there could be a benefit to the institution and the community."
Despite this new approach to service-learning and the hard work and effort of Penn students, staff and faculty, change has come too late. Looking down Market Street today, the ultimate fate of the Black Bottom reveals itself. Although the Black Bottom residents fought and protested, their neighborhood was physically destroyed. For the surviving members of the community, the story of the Black Bottom and its spirit is not dead, although the residents were displaced and their support networks shattered. For the past 25 years, the Black Bottom Association has held annual reunions on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park, on the last Sunday of each August. Though the neighborhood itself is gone, it is still the largest community gathering in Philadelphia.
Hopkins says that people come from "all over, all over" to attend. Families bring food and tables and still share with those who don't have -- a testament to the lasting communal spirit of the Black Bottom. Now Hopkins hardly recognizes the people there, since the children of the residents, and their children, continue to attend.
But don't be fooled into believing this is some kind of fairy tale ending. For Palmer, the University's lack of recognition of the Black Bottom's existence and culture still impairs its relations with the community today. He maintains that if a real partnership is ever to exist, it needs to begin with "reconciliation, recognition, compensation and or reparations."
Members of the West Philadelphia community recall the history of the Black Bottom all too well. At 4211 Chestnut Street, Pastor Larry Falcon of Covenant Community Church, a member of Neighbors Against McPenntrification, still draws fear from this cautionary tale. He warbs that the story of his neighborhood will only be a continuation of the Black Bottom's history. Falcon asks the rhetorical question "transformation or transportation?" -- voicing his neighbors' and his own concern that the University will displace them in its efforts to transform the area surrounding its campus. He finds it unfortunate that he must devote his energies to fighting the construction of a McDonald's restaurant at 43rd and Market streets, instead of fully devoting himself to his church.
In a July 2002 statement appearing in the City Paper, University spokesperson Phyllis Holtzman stated,"Penn doesn't own the site and wasn't involved in McDonald's Corporation's decision to locate there. For [Falcon] to continue to link the University with the issue is irresponsible." Although the University has repeatedly denied any involvement, Falcon claims that Penn "launders" its support through community development organizations -- such as the University City District and West Philadelphia Partnership (formerly the West Philadelphia Corporation) -- which receive financial contributions from Penn. On a corkboard with push pins, Falcon and others have assembled a web of the names of University officials and community development officials, whom they believe to be engaged in a policy of gentrification and development that will change the character of their neighborhood -- while raising rents and property taxes, thereby making it impossible for them remain in their neighborhood. For Falcon, the University's current development policies and partnerships are all too reminiscent of those in place 30 years ago.
When questioned on the quality of the University's work with the community, headed by the Center for Community Partnerships and Civic House, Falcon says that he sees "great things coming out it." But overall, Falcon finds the University's relationship with the community to be superficial, stating that when the community does work with Penn, "We are forced to adjust our agenda to the University of Pennsylvania's agenda." Falcon accuses the University of being "too insular" and says that he would like to see the University share its resources more, so that, for example, his son and his friends wouldn't have to play basketball on the unsafe courts of the nearby housing projects. Instead of building a McDonald's, Falcon would like to see the University build a community center, with athletic and learning facilities where students and community members could come together.
As Falcon reminds us, this story is not over. Just yesterday, the University and Citizens Bank revealed a $28.5 million revitalization project for the area, to upgrade housing, strengthen the economy and expand business opportunities.
Change is even visible in the West Philadelphia skyline, where new buildings continue to appear. From the Schuylkill Expressway heading west towards the University, Penn's high-rise dorms show themselves. Even from West Philadelphia High School at 48th and Walnut, Huntsman Hall has become a visible addition to the skyline. The University's positive work and partnerships with its neighbors continues to attract praise and acclaim. However, its aggressive gentrification policies continue to both worry and confuse a community that refuses to forget.
Jackie Rogozinski is a Street editor who also works out of the Center for Community Partnerships.