One of the best urban college towns

Friday, September 23, 2011

From the Philadelphia Business Journal

Craig Ey

Too many years ago, when I was a wee lad attending college in Baltimore, I remember making plans to drive up to Philadelphia to do something—I forget what—on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

The Suburban Philly kids who were my classmates had lots of warnings and horror stories for me about the horrid ‘hoods on the west side of the Schuylkill. From those tales, you’d think I was heading to Beirut or the east side of Detroit, not the home of one of the best universities in the world.

Of course, the reality wasn’t that bad, particularly for an intrepid urbanite, but it wasn’t that great either. You had the sense in those days that Penn and Drexel University were islands in a sea of sinking urban hopes.

Over the last two decades, though, the health—and the outlook for the future—has radically changed in University City. Earlier this week, I attended the State of University City event at World Café Live on Walnut Street, and I was blown away, not only by the recitation of startling facts showing the area’s revival, but by the energy of the crowd that packed the house.

The show was put on by the University City District. Many of you probably know what that is, but if you don’t let me tell you that it’s creation and continued progress are a testament to what can be done when businesses, institutions, residents and government decide to work on the same page to improve a community. Drexel President John Fry, who was one of the original board members as a then-vice president at Penn, recalled that the organization just wanted to keep crime from overwhelming the area when the organization was formed in 1997 to increase safety and cleanliness.

But they soon realized it could become more, and over time, it became a catalyst for growth as a residential neighborhood and a commercial center. As reporter Natalie Kostelni pointed out in last week’s Business Journal, University City continues to be a boomtown even in these decidedy anti-boom times. There’s about $2 billion worth of real estate projects that are recently completed or in progress in the neighborhood.

My favorite University City initiative, though is a relatively new one—the West Side Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which is trying to match people in the economically challenged greater West Philadelphia area with employers in University City through targeted job training. Injust one example, according to the State of University City annual report, “dozens of underemployed residents will beomce animal care technicians at Penn and medical assistants at Drexel’s College of Medicine.” The islands and tehmainland are reconnecting and that’s a crucial step.

University City isn’t a paradise; it still has problems, of course, But what the district and the other stakeholders have built is one of the best urban “college towns” in the country. Now, it’s time to toot htat horn and make sure the rest of the world knows.