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archives 2006 » sep. 6th  
  

 WEST PHILLY

House appropriations: Virtually all of the row homes in this 1947 photo of the intersection of 34th Street, Walnut Street and Woodland Avenue were demolished to make way for dorms, playing fields and, today, a CVS and a Starbucks.
Black Bottom Blues

Revisiting the neighborhood that Penn and Drexel gobbled up.

by Jeffrey Barg



Don't think for a second it hasn't all come at a very hefty, very human price.

University City's surge in retail and construction has been a boon for the neighborhood's institutions of higher learning, and for longtime residents who've seen the values of their homes rise. But some old-timers still fondly remember the Black Bottom: a tight-knit working-class neighborhood obliterated in the decades following World War II by the expansion of Penn and Drexel, which were aided and abetted by the city.

“The Black Bottom is a textbook example of institutional racist development policies,” says Billy Yalowitz, a Temple assistant professor and director of community arts who's created performance pieces about the neighborhood's history. “There's still enormous resentment among the thousands of people exiled from the destruction of that neighborhood in the '50s and '60s, and that resentment is palpable in the community surrounding the university.”

The Black Bottom, named for its largely African-American population and for its socioeconomic location at the “bottom” of West Philly, stretched from 32nd Street to 40th Street, and from University Avenue to Lancaster Avenue—encompassing most of the present-day campuses of Penn and Drexel. As Penn grew, the university bought up and leveled entire blocks, often through shady legislation and business deals, displacing an estimated 5,000 residents.

“They started buying up properties and not doing anything with them,” says Walter Palmer, a Penn professor who teaches about the destruction of the Black Bottom. “They just let those properties sit there deteriorating, creating an eyesore, and then people were pressured to sell. They had the use of eminent domain to hang over the homeowners' heads, so they could drive the prices down to where they wanted them.”

“We came across very clear documentation of practices including land banking, redlining, coercion to move under false pretenses, unscrupulous real estate practices,” says Yalowitz, “all the mechanisms of urban renewal practiced all over the country, and especially targeting poor communities of color.”


Much is made today of the acrimonious relationship pitting Penn and Drexel against the surrounding community. But former Bottom residents say it wasn't always that way.

“It was a neighborhood of very active people, people who had very high standards for themselves and their families,” says Pearl Simpson, 79, who grew up in the Black Bottom on a street that no longer exists. “Most people worked at the hospitals, on the railroad. Some people had their own businesses, like dressmakers, tailor shops, doctors, little stores and whatnot. They were very into culture and having a good neighborhood.”

“Education was important, work was important and protecting each other was important,” says Palmer, 72, who moved to the neighborhood as a child in the early '40s. “It was so secure for families. People talk about leaving doors and windows open at night—I lived that experience as a child. My mother was safe at 3 in the morning, walking home from my aunt's house three or four blocks away, where tough guys on the corner tipped their hat and said, ‘Good evening.'”

That's difficult to imagine now, when incoming students are taught, both implicitly and explicitly, that beyond campus borders is a fine place to go if you want to get shot.

“If you look at any specifics in terms of crime on Penn's campus,” Palmer says, “it's almost nonexistent all the way up to the 1970s, when the Black Bottom no longer existed as a neighborhood. Penn's crime statistics won't really start taking off until after the 1970s, when it no longer has a buffer or community neighbors.”


Pearl Simpson, former Black Bottom resident.
Though little exists anymore beyond the stories and memories of the Black Bottom, the neighborhood didn't go without a fight.

“By 1968 we went to 38th Street and dug in,” says Palmer. “We said, ‘That's it. Over our dead bodies.'” Neighborhood residents built a tent city and trenches, with barbed wire lining 40th Street. “Cars were turned over, cars were set on fire, places were firebomed,” he says. “It really became urban warfare out there.”

But by that point, the damage to the Bottom was pretty much irreversible.

“It started long before people knew about it,” says former resident Simpson. “When you live anywhere, and you're going on about your business and raising your family and whatnot, you don't always know the underpinnings of what's going on with the higher-ups. People weren't privy to all that information. Some people didn't know almost till the last minute that they really had to move.”


It's an open question whether the universities have turned over a new leaf by now.

“In the old days people said, ‘University expansion, they wanna take my area, they want gentrification, they wanna kick everybody out'—all those negative things,” says City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose district includes the former Bottom. “Now it's different. You don't hear those kinds of statements you used to.”

“Nothing that Penn's done in the last 20 or 30 years has changed people's minds and attitudes about Penn,” counters Palmer. “It's not about blame—it's about ownership. It's disingenuous to have these kids come from all over the world and not know. It's not sour grapes. It's just corrective history, getting them to understand and to want to make a difference.”

 

Jeffrey Barg (jbarg@philadelphiaweekly.com) is PW's associate editor.

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