Urban Studies Senior Seminar Papers

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Suggested Citation:
Radjy, Yasmin. "The Literal and Figurative Boundaries Between Penn Students and West Philadelphia." University of Pennsylvania, Urban Studies Program. 2007.


In this paper, I discuss the literal and figurative boundaries that stand between Penn students and West Philadelphia.

I begin by discussing the theory behind walls and boundaries, then applying this theory to the urban environment and then to town-gown relations, finally applying these theories to the case of Penn and West Philadelphia.

In order to fully understand the walls that stand between campus and community, I look at the history of town-gown relations—both nationally and at Penn, dividing up the history into three phases: first, the nineteenth century, during which the “Ivory Tower” relationship of division first began; next, the post-World War II era, when race and class issues became relevant in campus-community relations, as relations became increasingly divided and turbulent; and finally, the post-cold war era that has lasted until the present day, during which the importance of knocking down barriers between institutions and communities has been emphasized.

After this theoretical and historical background, I will begin to look more specifically at the current walls between Penn and West Philadelphia. I conducted a series of focus groups to define and analyze these walls. I asked 32 undergraduate students to answer a series of questions about their perceptions of and relationship with West

Philadelphia—through a short written survey, a cognitive mapping exercise, and finally a group discussion. After these focus groups, I arrived at 4 general claims:

1.) There are physically definable walls between Penn students and West Philadelphia. Even though these are not literal walls of stone, Penn students can define specific physical boundaries between themselves and West Philadelphia.

2.) Students’ perceptions about the neighborhood tend to create these physical boundaries more frequently than personal experiences do.

3.) The nature of the remaining walls leads to a specific type of relationship between Penn students and West Philadelphia—one that is based on community service and daytime activity over social and/or nighttime activity. This relationship is hierarchical in form and it involves a number of racial and class issues.

4.) These walls can be broken down by factors such as transportation options, aesthetics, and social and commercial activity, as these often change students perceptions of West Philadelphia

I conclude that the best way to knock down the barriers between town and gown is to encourage individuals from Penn and West Philadelphia alike to mix in neutral spaces such as restaurants, bars, and cafés, where hierarchies are not involved and barriers can organically deconstruct.


Urban Studies; Philadelphia; West Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania; students



Date Posted: 28 July 2010