THE CORPORATION
"A NEW CONCEPT FOR OLD NEIGHBORS"

In 1871 when the University of Pennsylvania moved from 9th and Chestnut Streets to Blockley, the scene was more country town than metropolis. There appeared to be ample space for expansion; traffic along the dirt roads was light and leisurely, and the quiet, peaceful surroundings were thought conducive to academic life. Less than forty years later the area was closely built, the streets through the campus were thick with noisy traffic and the University Trustees began to wonder whether they ought not seek haven elsewhere.

As the years passed, and West Philadelphia became more heavily urban, the inevitable use and occupancy of buildings changed for the worse. Decay, neglect and misuse characterized the older neighborhoods, which began to deteriorate both as to use and character. The more substantial residents moved to greener pastures and their places were filled by transient individuals and families from lower income groups. Large houses built for single families now had to make do for many households. North of Market Street, except in a few isolated spots, slum or near-slum conditions developed.

As Lillian G. Burns, Secretary of the University of Pennsylvania, so vividly put it in a report to an early conference which met to consider the situation, "--in the rushing-, pell-mell growth of Philadelphia, this neighborhood was engulfed. As center city expanded and business developed, traffic swept through this area. As traffic grew, business grew, and from spot to spot stores and industry sprang up; some prospered and are today assets to the city. Others failed, and their neglected storefronts and plants started on the downward road to dilapidation. Homeowners, dismayed by the encroachment of business and traffic on their residential communities, looked to the quieter, greener suburbs. In large numbers our good neighbors departed for the more desirable environment. Our neighborhood declined. Business declined. The new homeowner or businessman looked elsewhere to establish himself. Many of the once fine homes of this neighborhood were converted to apartment houses or rooming houses whose owners lived elsewhere. In turn many of these houses deteriorated until only the desperate tenant would live in them. The blight of dilapidation began its infectious spread through our area. Homeowners who chose to stay found themselves surrounded by and powerless before the gradual decay. Population density increased, crime increased, all the city problems increased."

Zoning appeared in 1953, but it failed to stem the tide of deterioration. Physical and social ills began to grow amid the substandard housing. Crime and juvenile delinquency reared their evil heads. Hoodlum gangs 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.

The mercantile situation in the University City area, indeed, in most of West Philadelphia, became unhealthy. As in most depressed communities the substantial retail merchants were forced to move elsewhere or discontinue their operations, and their places were taken by businesses catering to lower economic levels. These, of course, included establishments not conducive to attractive shopping centres. Such historic marketing neighborhoods as 40th and Market Streets, and Lancaster Avenue began to decline both in appearance and appeal, despite the efforts of the business associations in the regions.

In 1946 the Health and Welfare Council, Inc. established a pilot project, "Neighborhood Operations" in a few blocks west of what is now Powelton Village, under the leadership of an untiring field worker, the late beloved Jean Barnes. The underlying theory was to have people in the neighborhood unite with citizen leaders to plan methods of uplifting their own areas. The idea took hold, and soon other neighborhoods were clamoring for inclusion.

Following Miss Barnes' untimely death from cancer, her place as field worker was taken in May 1948 by Audrey Maetzoldt, under whose dynamic leadership all of West Philadelphia was soon included in the planning area. Despite the assistance rendered by the Crime Prevention Association, the Family Service, and many other private and public agencies, the Health and Welfare Council was able merely to slow the tide of deterioration, lending every effort to improve conditions wherever the opportunity offered.

Meanwhile important resurgence was occurring within the city. A group of young men had formed a citizens group, "The Citizens' Council for City Planning," and had supported the establishment in 1943 of a City Planning Commission. The Philadelphia Housing Association, in existence since 1912, renewed its efforts on behalf of decent housing. Agitation had produced a new City Chartewhich delineated an improved and modernized structure of city government. A political upheaval had elected an enlightened administration in City Hall. The processes of redevelopment and public housing appeared, aided by Federal legislation. As early as 1949 Edmund Bacon, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, had met with leaders of West Philadelphia civic groups to discuss the plans for the Mill Creek Housing Project, and had adopted many of the suggestions offered.

In 1951, with the Health and Welfare Council again taking the lead, representatives from a number of business, civic and institutional groups formed a West Philadelphia Advisory Planning Committee under the chairmanship of Henry Pemberton, then Treasurer of the University of Pennsylvania. While the Committee was enthusiastic and advocated some sound planning, it had neither the staff nor the technical experience to proceed constructively, and lacked the funds to obtain either.

Throughout this period the University of Pennsylvania and the Drexel Institute of Technology had not developed a position related to the worsening conditions about them. It was inevitable, however, that they would have to take cognizance of the deepening urban blight that engulfed them. Students were poorly housed; faculty established residences in suburbs and formed no campus connection; women students feared to be on the streets at night; traffic became a major problem and parking all but impossible. These ills were dramatized in 1956 by the senseless murder of a Korean student by a band of hoodlums who roamed the area.

At this juncture a change of administration in the University of Pennsylvania brought about a new approach. Dr. Gaylord P. Harnwell became President of the University and John L. Moore was made Business Vice President. They immediately recognized that any revitalization of West Philadelphia must include strong action in the older sections, where the conditions of blight were multiplying. Mantua, Blockley, Hamilton Village, all adjacent to the institutions had in their day been well constructed, but were not built to last forever.

Both Penn and Drexel had long been committed to plans for expansion and had been acquiring both property and funds toward that end. Now with the opportunity of aid from the Redevelopment Authority and the City Planning Commission, it was time to implement a comprehensive program.

The idea of a University City, a modern complex devoted to learning and research, took root. Within its boundaries and environs would be contained not only the modern buildings of the expanded institutions but also such research facilities as would be related to them. To these would be added proper housing for all personnel, and such conveniences as our present day living required. In May of 1958 John L. Moore called on a number of institutions in West Philadelphia to consider the situation. As a result of a series of meetings the plan evolved for a corporate structure to further planning for a University City. The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel Institute of Technology, the Presbyterian Hospital, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy agreed to be the organizers, and to share the initial financial burden of a West Philadelphia Corporation which would work in concert with public officials, interested citizens and private groups such as the Chamber of Commerce of West Philadelphia to implement the University City concept as a first step in revitalizing West Philadelphia.

The Corporation was chartered on July 9, 1959 and immediately began to organize itself for the work in hand. The initial boundaries selected for the Corporation's jurisdiction were from the River west to 52nd Street; from the Schuylkill River and the extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad Media Line on the south, northward to Haverford Avenue, a section slightly larger than the city designated University City.

Dr. Gaylord P. Harnwell, President of the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to act as President of the Corporation, to be aided in directing its affairs by an able directorate which included not only institutional people but also West Philadelphians active in civic and community work.

In January of 1960, Leo Molinaro, who had been a Vice President of ACTION, Inc. (the American Council to Improve Our Neighborhoods) was retained as Executive Director (later Executive Vice President) of the Corporation. This marked the end of the organizational stage and thereafter planning and implementation of University City began.

At this writing, one hundred and sixty-five acres are in the redevelopment process. Active proposals at various stages of implementation include: a University City Science Research Center, a new public high school for science and mathematics, new dormitories, classrooms, laboratories and adjunct facilities for the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel Institute of Technology, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, and the Presbyterian Hospital.

New residential and commercial construction has been accelerated. Of great significance has been the return to University City by university, college, and hospital staff members. In September 1959, some 600 such persons resided in University City; in September 1962 this number had doubled. Indispensable to University City is the active leadership of the City Planning Commission, the Redevelopment Authority, City Council and all other major public and private agencies which are firmly committed to realization of the University City concept. Finally, and perhaps most important of all is the enthusiasm for University City which has developed among the residents, individually, and in their various civic associations.


Originally published in 1963.
Reprinted with permission of the West Philadelphia Partnership.


go to Table of Contents

go to University City Historical Society homepage