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Generation Gentrifiers: How Suburban-Born College Students are Ruining Philadelphia | The Triangle

Generation Gentrifiers: How Suburban-Born College Students are Ruining Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Kamara | The Triangle

3990 Market St: It is supposed to be home to 68 low-income Black and brown families. The owner of the building, IBID Associates LP, has given their residents until December 27th  to find new homes as they let their contract with the Department of Housing and Human Development expire. This further destruction of a once Black community to satisfy ever-hungry University City is a plague to the city and an example of the dark reality of what it means to be Black and poor in University City. Big business sees you as disposable. It’s important to note that “University City” was not always what we called this neighborhood. It used to be called the “Black Bottom,” and to some people it’s still  “Da Bottom.” In reality, “University City” is a marketing campaign that’s bulldozed through a now-forgotten black hub, and has successfully done what gentrifiers do best: erase what once belonged. Calling the area “University City” is a slap in the face to those who knew what their home was when white people were still scared to go within ten blocks of it.

Many long-term residents walk around neighborhoods like Mantua reminiscing about what their community used to be: the small businesses that used to sit where a shiny, out-of-place apartment building has been erected, or their grandmother’s home that got bought up and bulldozed down. The reality is that our schools are not actually dedicated to the betterment of West Philadelphia. They are dedicated to the bottom line and influxes of college students. 

As someone born in West Philadelphia, the strangest thing to me since coming to Drexel University was noticing how many students moved to Philadelphia while being actively terrified of anything that didn’t have a shiny dragon emblem on it or wasn’t full of white people.

I grew up on the dividing line of West and Southwest Philly, on the 5800 block of Whitby Avenue. Back then, there were two things I always knew: first, that we were poor, and second, that we lived in a kind of untouchable, unwanted, poor-people neighborhood. Nobody wanted to move here, or buy our houses, or turn the corner stores into vegan juice huts. We held something beautiful: a lack of gentrifier desirability. I also never felt unsafe in my neighborhood; it was full of locals that had raised their families for generations, people’s grandparents, and kids my age.

When I was in high school, I remember riding the 34-trolley eastbound on the way to school, down Baltimore Avenue to West Catholic. Peering out of the trolley window, I saw a sign on the side of a building on 54th and Baltimore. It read, “University City Dental Associates.” That was the beginning of the end.

I thought that I must’ve missed my stop. University City? If you know anything about Philadelphia, you know that there was a time when white people were scared to venture beyond 40th street. There wasn’t even a university in sight for at least twenty blocks.

And that’s how they began to eat up West Philadelphia. 

My qualm is with the wave of students — affluent students — for whom our university, the universities surrounding it and realtors, have uprooted and ripped away the livelihoods of these old neighborhoods. Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania have so successfully wiped away the origins of West Philadelphia that their gentrification coined a nickname: “Penntrification.” There’s something odd about invading a community, swooping in and having corner after corner reshuffled for your comfort, and then complaining about the homeless man that sits outside of 7-Eleven. Worse still, is the constant complaint of “I wish Drexel would make the campus safer!” when your “campus” is the last remaining echo of a local neighborhood. It seems like suburban students come to Philadelphia universities for the “city experience,” and, puzzlingly enough, are upset about exposure to remaining city locals.

However, students are not fully to blame. University City institutions actively support and encourage the slow erasure of Black and brown neighborhoods. Under the guise of creating a safer, more desirable environment, their ultimate agenda will always be to cash a larger check. It comes down to this: our schools are businesses and businesses rarely care about the suppression of the poor, because this very suppression is what keeps them rich. And students piling in for an education is a perfect catalyst and excuse to further bulldoze through a community, regardless of how many statements they put out about “dedication to the community”—because the results speak louder than the press releases.

My only request to students is this: maybe the next time you complain about “rising crime” or the increase in homeless people outside of the store, consider first asking John Fry to cut back a bit this quarter—he might have something to do with their displacement.