Urban Colleges Learn to Be Good Neighbors

University of Pennsylvania official Omar H. Blaik greets Keira Bokreta, 7; mother Julie Bokreta; and Nannette Sapp, 7, outside a recently renovated office building the university owns. The ground floor is leased to an upscale retail store.
University of Pennsylvania official Omar H. Blaik greets Keira Bokreta, 7; mother Julie Bokreta; and Nannette Sapp, 7, outside a recently renovated office building the university owns. The ground floor is leased to an upscale retail store. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006

PHILADELPHIA -- Ten years ago, the University of Pennsylvania was under siege, its ivy towers wreathed by an abandoned industrial wasteland, filth and soaring crime. Parents feared for their children after two student homicides. The neighborhood McDonald's was nicknamed McDeath. Students were virtual prisoners on campus.

Administrators began to worry that enrollment was threatened as one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious schools was fast developing a reputation as unsafe.

"They had one of two choices after the murders. They could build up more barricades, surround them with a moat and fill the moat with dragons," said Barry Grossbach, a community activist in the West Philadelphia neighborhood. "Or they could reach out and save the community. . . . It was self-preservation."

Penn chose the latter. The university and private developers have invested about a billion dollars over the past decade in security, retail, schools, the local housing market and what Penn refers to as "economic inclusion" -- making sure the community and minority companies get a piece of the success.

Today, Penn is the among the hottest schools in the country -- sitting smack in the middle of a clean and vital retail neighborhood where crime has been reduced by 49 percent in the past decade, and where students swarm the streets shopping at upscale stores. Penn has jumped in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to No. 4 and attracts significantly more applicants -- successes that school administrators attribute in large part to Penn's "West Philadelphia Initiative."

Penn is at the forefront of a national trend of urban colleges that are aggressively trying to bridge "town-gown" tensions by investing heavily in adjacent troubled neighborhoods -- and by making a connection with local civic life. Since Penn launched its efforts in 1996, officials from more than 100 schools have made pilgrimages to study how it transformed a decaying neighborhood with a thriving drug traffic into a vibrant college community.

The sea change on city campuses comes when urban school applications are at an all-time high -- up 14 percent since 2002 -- as the children of baby boomers drift away from bucolic academic settings toward the action.

"The return to urban schools reflects a broad shift in popular culture -- cities are cool again," said Bruce Katz, urban expert at the Brookings Institution. Consequently, "there is a greater appreciation that a university's fortunes reflect the place in which they are situated -- there is no separating the interests," he added. "They know they have to step up to the plate."

Many schools have. Yale University -- in the notoriously shabby downtown of New Haven, Conn. -- has developed retail and office space nearby, offered financial incentives to employees to buy homes in the neighborhood, and joined with local schools to offer tutoring, internships and college advisers. Trinity College and local partners spent more than $100 million to turn a run-down area in Hartford, Conn., beset by drive-by shootings and condemned buildings into a 16-acre Learning Corridor with four local schools. Temple University, in a marginal neighborhood in North Philadelphia, is involved in running local schools and is working with developers to bring in restaurants and retail.

Clark University in Worcester, Mass., took similar steps, improving the historically poor and run-down area around the college by opening a school that starts in seventh grade, renovating housing and providing funding to refurbish storefronts.

In Columbia University's historic struggle with Harlem in 1968, the school proposed building a gym near the campus, touching off neighborhood opposition and the student takeover of five buildings. Facing new suspicions over expansion plans, the school established a 40-member community advisory council in 2003 to assure residents that the plans will come with job training, jobs and opportunity for small businesses.

In the District, schools have struggled to smooth community tensions brought on by campus expansion and rowdy students. At Howard University, administrators started investing in the community about a decade ago, agreeing to rehabilitate 28 run-down, boarded-up houses that the school had owned for 30 years, and had once intended for use in an expansion. Howard took a loss to offer the homes at reasonable prices to university staff members. Community relations improved overnight.

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