Many Philadelphians are familiar with the constant struggle between Drexel University and Powelton Village. The cause of the well documented fights are almost always concerning the university’s attempts to expand its campus and Powelton residents’ struggle to preserve the neighborhood character and sense of community.
So it’s no surprise to hear about another dispute between the two, only this time the cause wasn’t expansion but homophobia.
In 1999, Kurt Conklin, a gay male living on 35th Street in Powelton Village, had his rainbow flag ripped from a flagpole mounted between the first and second floors of his house. He put two more flags up and each time they were ripped back down. Conklin believed Drexel students were behind the acts as he had previous run-ins with students saying derogatory things about his sexual orientation.
“He came to me and confided in me. I knew that something had to be done,” said Patricia Pearce, then pastor of Tabernacle United Church located just outside Powelton on 3700 Chestnut St. “I didn’t want him to feel alone.”
Pearce, who lived in Powelton at that time, went to her landlord, Betty Baumann and asked if she could fly a rainbow flag outside of her house. After Pearce explained the situation to Baumann and got her approval, Baumann asked what else they could do to help him.
“We went around the neighborhood and made exclamations about it,” said Baumann. “We went to every Drexel building, sorority and household. We went to all the houses in the neighborhood. I said we weren’t going to tolerate this in our neighborhood.”
After the pair informed the other residents about what happened they came up with a plan to show solidarity. Pearce was inspired by a story involving a white supremacist who threw a cinder block through the window of a Jewish family that was displaying a menorah during Chanukah. As a result, thousands of non-Jewish residents in the same area displayed menorahs in their windows in defense of their Jewish neighbors.
Following along with this example, Pearce and Baumann decided they wanted as many neighbors as possible to show solidarity with Kurt Conklin by placing rainbow flags on their homes even if they weren’t gay.
Most neighbors agreed to the tactic and Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni’s Room, sold discounted rainbow flags to the participants.
“It was amazing.[There was] almost 40 houses flying rainbow flags,” said Hermance. “I mean I had never heard of straight people coming out and demonstrating like this. And it even got worse. Somebody ripped down a flag and wrote ‘Kill Faggots.'”
The community and the Powelton Village Civic Association continually put pressure on Drexel to do something about the problem. However, the only entities at the university which took any initiative towards a solution was student groups, like the Straight and Gay Alliance, according to Drexel’s students newspaper, The Triangle.
The group worked with the 16th and 18th Police Department to get more patrols in the neighborhood.
Then University President Constantine Papadakis did not really do anything to rectify the problem.
In 2000, after the Powelton Civic Association asked to have a joint task force to try to solve the problem, she rejected the idea but that same year she issued a statement of commitment to diversity and tolerance.
Eventually the attacks stopped but not with any real prompting from Drexel University administration. Though the intolerance displayed by some Drexel students lasted for a short time a number of years ago, the memory of how one community stood up and fought alongside its neighbor will never be forgotten.