Powelton Village: University Expansion Destroyed a Community
It began with a seemingly innocuous trip to the mailbox on 36th and Hamilton Street on an April night in 1958. In-Ho Oh, a 26-year-old Korean exchange student studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania, walked out of the home he shared with his aunt and uncle intending to mail a letter, not knowing he would soon become the target of a few disgruntled youth.
The youth were turned away from a neighborhood dance for not having the 65 cents needed to get in, so they were looking for a way to get the money. They attacked Oh with a lead pipe and pop bottles only to discover that he had no money. They left him on the ground, bleeding until he died 10 minutes later.
The crime upset the already fragile relationship between the black and white populations in the Powelton Village area as the youth were black.
“The murder was a huge event in Philadelphia because it was unusual,” University of Pennsylvania history professor Eric Schneider said. “The fact that it was an interracial murder, which really didn’t happen a lot, was unusual.”
Most newspapers that reported the incident immediately blamed the actions taken by the youth on their race. Marya Mannes, a reporter for the magazine The Reporter, blamed the crime on “the deprivation of the Negro community and the indifference of their established neighbors.”
Many Philadelphians were outraged by the murder, but none more than the University of Pennsylvania. The university was understandably shocked by the incident, but instead of attempting to re-establish a relationship with the community to ensure the safety of students, then-President Gaylord Harnwell decided to purchase the land known as “the Black Bottom” neighborhood.
The Black Bottom was an area in West Philadelphia, which stretched from 32nd Street to 40th Street and from University Avenue to Lancaster Avenue. The area gained its name from its economic position and its racial makeup. It was known as the “bottom” since most of the residents were African-American while the wealthier, white residents lived farther west in what was called the “top.” Most of the residents of the bottom were black migrants from the South who lived there due to the affordable housing.
“The university was originally expanding west, but the murder got the attention of the administration,” Schneider said. “They began consolidating land purchases and formed a consortium which formed the West Philadelphia Corp.”
The West Philadelphia Corp. was formed in 1959 by the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and Presbyterian Hospital. The purpose of the corporation was to eradicate the blight and develop a neighborhood of services and residences for students and faculty.
“Their homes were taken from them by a variety of institutional strategies under the rubric of what is called urban renewal, but what folks in the neighborhood laughingly call, to use what James Baldwin called ‘Negro removal,’” former University of Pennsylvania professor Billy Yalowitz said.
“The working class African-American neighborhoods throughout the country especially in large cities were involved, through a variety of means that would favor the large institutions, in land grabs to displace the residents of these neighborhoods and destroy neighborhoods with a lot of vitality and viability,” Yalowitz said.
Although the sudden uprooting of their community was a surprise to the residents, legally the area was fated to be demolished.
“Technically, the land was condemned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which sighted a lot of areas around the city to be rehabilitated. The Black Bottom had been labeled for urban renewal,” Schneider said.
As a result, the university was able to obtain the Black Bottom neighborhood legally through eminent domain, which allows the government to take private property as long as it’s for public use and the property owners are justly compensated.
Since most of the residents in the community were not homeowners, rather renters, they did not gain any wealth from the process.
“White slumlords, who owned the housing, were now getting paid to give up property and they had no problem with that,” Schneider said. “The renters got screwed; there was some money available for them but not very much.”
The destruction of the neighborhood didn’t take long as the final buildings were demolished by the late 1960s. Even though the community was powerless to stop the taking of their homes, the residents were able to organize and in 1976 they formed the Black Bottom Association.
The University of Pennsylvania has taken few steps over the years to acknowledge the destruction it caused. In 1997, the university formed a partnership with former Black Bottom residents to create the Black Bottom Performance Project. The project, led by Billy Yalowitz, attempted to educate the students on the community uprooted through the testimony of the actual residents.
Although the performance project was the largest example of the university’s acknowledgement of its wrongdoing, it has made it a mission to reconnect with its West Philadelphia community.
“At the time that I was teaching at Penn, I was on the staff for the Center for Community Partnership which is an agency within Penn that has done some useful and some would say model community and university partnership kinds of projects,” Yalowitz said. “It has worked a lot in the schools there, in fact, they were the ones that helped develop the partnership between the Black Bottom Performance Project and University City High School.”
The school also offers courses centering around the consequences of its expansion in the 1960s.