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INSIDE 4631 SPRUCE STREET

2006-2007 marks the second year Haverford House Fellows have made their post-Haverford home in West Philadelphia. The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship invites you inside 4631 Spruce Street for a conversation about their exciting and challenging experiences as new neighbors. For a profile of the Fellows and their placements, please click here. To reach the Fellows, email havhouse@haverford.edu.

 

When explaining to people that as part of the Haverford House fellowship, we would be moving into a house in West Philadelphia, many of us encountered one of two reactions: an off-key rendition of the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” theme song, or a look of shock—“West Philadelphia… that’s a really sketchy area, wow, you better be careful.” Often enough, these concerned parties made sweeping generalizations about the neighborhood we were about to move into without ever having visited the area. Many, from the safety of their Haver-Bubble, just assumed that “West Philadelphia” must mean scary, violent, and dangerous.


The prejudices lurking beneath this sentiment came to light for one of the fellows when a few members of her family helped her move into the house. After looking around the area, they told her she should not venture any further west, and would be safe on the block, since it was a “white block.”

Haverford House is located in a quasi- “pocket of gentrification” about one mile west of the tip of the University of Pennsylvania. Just east of Haverford House, in University City, thousands of students from Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania fill the streets, especially during the school year. Although the University of Pennsylvania’s influence is far- reaching, as one travels westward past 40th Street, neighborhoods become more racially and economically mixed. One block, like the 46th block of Spruce Street where Haverford House is located, is clearly in transition. Looking down the street one way you may see students moving into beautifully fixed-up houses, while looking the other way you may perceive a vibrant, diverse community trying to preserve their neighborhoods from drugs, violence, neglect, and now from gentrification.

Much of our feelings of safety can be attributed to the University of Pennsylvania which, in response to incidences of crime over the years, dispatches unarmed security patrollers in bright yellow jackets, who escort residents and students to their destinations. As Haverford House Fellows, we all seem to have a mixed relationship with the University of Pennsylvania. The security officers as well as thousands of students fill the streets and make us feel a little bit safer at night, and yet we are uncomfortable with the prospect of being mistaken for UPenn students, who are stereotyped by local residents as being out of touch with the urban community, over-privileged, and interested only in frat parties. As the University pushes westward into more previously low-income areas, residents do feel the threat of sky-rocketing rents which come along with gentrification. As newly-graduated Haverford alums, it often becomes difficult for us to dissasociate from the stigma of students who live in West Philly and University City. In order to connect with the neighborhood, several Fellows are taking classes at the local cultural arts center called University City Arts League. Many also patronize local bars, restaurants, and shops.

Nevertheless, as relatively privileged individuals, it is difficult to ignore the fact that our very presence seems to be encouraging gentrification—a process that inevitably pushes low-income families and individuals out of places they have lived for years, decades, and even generations. Gentrification is no secret. Local papers have run long spreads touting its merits—safer streets, more posh restaurants, more middle class families moving in. As Fellows, however, we feel the responsibility to confront our role in the process and face some of the negatives associated with gentrification.

Although the area around the University of Pennsylvania is bursting with joggers bouncing along at every imaginable pace, most joggers do not venture westward past the university. Attempting to break that pattern, two Fellows decided to jog westward about 10 blocks to tour some of the less-frequented Philadelphia neighborhoods. The area through which they ran, in contrast to the University City area, was populated almost exclusively by African Americans. Compared to the 46th block of Spruce Street, the area had a more urban feel, with more of a mix of commercial and residential development. As the Fellows ran by two street merchants, one man turned to his friend and remarked, “When you start to see that”—motioning to the joggers—“you know the neighborhood is going downhill.” Ironically, in the affluent suburbs of Haverford one could easily imagine a white person expressing a similar sentiment about black people spending time on their block—seeing the presence of African Americans as a detriment to property values and the quality of the neighborhood. Likewise, these street merchants, saw us—the lone student-esque joggers—as harbingers of gentrification. To them, this sighting seemed to have evoked an apprehension of the changes that threaten to fundamentally alter their communities. With their comment, articulated loud enough for us to certainly overhear, we were unable to ignore our role in the gentrification process.

As individuals seeking to alleviate the injustices and inequalities in our own lives as well as in our community, we seem unable to break fully away from the aspects of our privilege that maintain these inequalities. In our jobs, we try to improve life from all types of perspectives—legal, racial, educational, artistic, etc.—and yet we find ourselves located, quite literally, among the forces of gentrification.

—2006-2007 Haverford House Fellows: Ang McCole ’06, Stephanie Rudolph ’06, Emma Chubb ’06, Maria Nieves ’06,
Elsa Noterman ’06, Pankhuri Agrawal ’06, and Leah Gold ’06.

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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