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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)

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Howard established its Center for Urban Progress to tie academic programs to work in the community, and last August opened a magnet middle school on campus. The college is working to develop a new residential-retail center on Georgia Avenue that it hopes will bring life back to community streets.

"We sees ourselves as an extension of the community," said Maybelle Taylor Bennett, director of the Howard University Community Association. "It's enlightened self-interest."

The issues are different for Georgetown University and George Washington University, which are in upscale residential and business areas that do not need the intervention and financial support required by Hartford or West Philadelphia. Still, seeking to maintain strong relations, the two schools established a 24-hour hotline so neighbors can report loud parties or other inappropriate student behavior.

As a case study, Penn's urban renewal effort is probably the most comprehensive -- targeting every service and institution that makes a community vibrant. The university restored shuttered houses and offered faculty incentives to move into the neighborhood; invested $7 million to build a public school; brought in a much-needed 35,000-square-foot grocery store and movie theater; and offered the community resources such as hundreds of used Penn computers.

"We said we teach our students about civic engagement. You can't do that and not be role models for civic engagement," said former Penn president Judith Rodin, who was a catalyst in the renewal efforts.

But Penn was a long time coming to that philosophy, and when it began its overtures the community was skeptical. In the 1950s and '60s, the university -- with the help of federal and local officials -- displaced residents to expand. Homes were abandoned, businesses fled, crime took over -- and Penn simply fortified its walls.

"We destroyed a neighborhood that had existed for 50 years. And we replaced it with a neighborhood that had no life, no vibrancy on the streets," said Omar Blaik, Penn's senior vice president for facilities and real estate services.

"The animus," Rodin said, "was legitimate."

Rodin arrived in 1994 at a low point for the university. During her first month, a 26-year-old graduate student was robbed and killed outside his West Philadelphia apartment. By mid-1996, 30 armed robberies had occurred near the university, an undergraduate was shot and wounded, and Vladimir Sled, a Russian doctoral student, was stabbed to death trying to thwart a robbery.

"We hit the wall," recalled Maureen Rush, Penn's vice president for public safety.". . . It was clearly becoming an issue for admissions."

Administrators quickly agreed that there had to be a full-scale assault on the problem. The first steps were to form a partnership with community leaders and neighborhood associations and to light the neighborhood, clean it and make it green. Lights were enhanced at 1,200 properties, and 400 trees were planted as well as 10,000 flower bulbs.

Gradually, university buildings were refaced to open out toward the streets, and all new buildings had ample windows facing the street, making the school appear welcoming and providing additional lighting on the streets for safety. The school spends more than $20 million annually on security -- among the highest amount in the country. It employs 350 security officers and 100 sworn police officers, who operate out of a station on campus.


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