Race, Real Estate and Education: The University of Pennsylvania’s Interventions in West Philadelphia, 1960–1980

Edward M Epstein, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

In response to fears of crime and decay, the University of Pennsylvania attempted, during the 1960s and 1970s, to change its environs in a way that its planners believed would be more attractive to students, faculty and staff. Under the umbrella of the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC), Penn and its partners used urban renewal legislation to clear neighborhoods they deemed slums, with the goal of replacing them with an urban research park; they also sought to reshape West Philadelphia’s public schools to attract university and hospital affiliates. The plan failed on two fronts: the disadvantaged and largely African American residents who were slated for removal fought to keep their homes, forcing the WPC to scale back its science park vision; and, chaos in School District of Philadelphia undermined the WPC’s educational program, leaving West Philadelphia’s schools to flounder. Yet, years after the WPC’s disappearance, its goals have persisted. Together with their business partners, Penn and Drexel have built sparkling new office towers on land once occupied by working-class African American residents. They have also created university-assisted elementary and middle schools that enroll their employees’ children. Though other researchers have studied the WPC’s attempts to redevelop West Philadelphia, my dissertation examines the role of education in its vision—in the process uncovering clues to why education is such an important part of West Philadelphia’s current renaissance. I use historical methods, including oral history interviews and archival research, to understand experiences of those who created or enrolled in WPC educational programs during the 1960s and 1970s. The dissertation concludes that WPC planners anticipated the phenomenon we now call gentrification, and that they were prescient in their use of education as a signifier of a neighborhood’s changing fortunes. It also shows that persistent racial inequities undermined university efforts to stem urban decay and school decline—and if left unchecked are likely to continue to do so in the future.

Subject Area

Education history|Urban planning|History

Recommended Citation

Epstein, Edward M, "Race, Real Estate and Education: The University of Pennsylvania’s Interventions in West Philadelphia, 1960–1980" (2020). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI28026442.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI28026442

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