Amanda Sweeney is a Junior at the University of Pennsylvania from Philadelphia, PA. She studies Political Science with minors in Environmental Studies and Survey Research & Data Analytics.
The “High Rise Field Before Penn” art installation draws the attention of Penn students to the history of the land we live upon. The stories of Black Bottom residents like Dr. Walter Palmer and Gerald Bolling should not go forgotten; reminding ourselves of this history of displacement can act to stop the cycle from repeating itself.
On-campus housing has become a commonsense ecology that students at the University of Pennsylvania have participated in for decades. In August 2021, I joined approximately 6,000 students moving into the University’s on-campus residences. After hauling boxes of clothes and household essentials to my 9th floor dormitory in Harnwell College House, I looked westward from my window onto High Rise Field–the University’s primary residential area off of Locust Walk between 38th and 40th streets. High Rise Field contains the three identical 24-story high-rise buildings–Harnwell College House, Harrison College House, and Rodin College House–as well as several low-rise dorms, including DuBois College House, Gregory College House, and the newly constructed Gutmann College House.
As I have lived at the University for the past two years, I have observed how students interact with High Rise Field. Recently, as April brings warmth and sun to campus, more students have taken advantage of the little remaining greenspace in the area. Groups of fraternity brothers gather to have Spikeball tournaments in the sunny afternoon. Couples enjoy picnics with assorted Wawa snacks outside, making the best of their last few weeks together before parting for summer. As finals come closer, many have begun bringing their computers outside, balancing work and enjoyment. However, as I have spent time outside enjoying the sunshine with my peers, I noticed that very few people in the space were not students. Past High Rise Field, I can see the West Philadelphia neighborhood that borders the University of Pennsylvania campus. I have wondered what West Philadelphians thought as they looked eastward out their window toward the University of Pennsylvania. The University built these residential buildings only a few decades ago; what sat on this land before Penn? To answer this question, I interviewed former residents of the Black Bottom neighborhood that Penn developed upon, Dr. Walter Palmer and Gerald “Sid” Bolling. They recounted their own memories of the Black Bottom and directed me to resources on the history of the University’s takeover. Then, Dr. Palmer and Mr. Bolling shared the projects they have worked on to keep the memory of the Black Bottom neighborhood alive.
The development of High Rise Field represents just one detail of the University’s historical displacement of West Philadelphians. As a student living in one of the dormitories on High Rise Field, I have complicitly benefitted from this displacement. To interrupt the everyday flow of the High Rise Field ecology, I collected photos from the 1950s and 1960s of the landscape before the University of Pennsylvania’s 1968 invasion and displayed them on lawn signs. Each of the four signs throughout High Rise Field stands on the land where their corresponding images once stood. For example, I placed one sign at the intersection of 39th and Locust Walk, where the dueling tampons stand. As students walk eastward down Locust Walk, they can compare the view they have today with the 1953 view displayed on the sign. Through this art installation, I aimed to bring attention to the University’s invasion of Black Bottom.
In the 1950s, the University of Pennsylvania received an influx of students following the passing of the G.I. Bill–providing increased financial support to WWII veterans (Rogozinski, 2002). In the mind of University administration, this increase in demand for university education called for campus expansion. The University looked westward toward the Black Bottom community. As Penn’s campus crept closer into West Philadelphia, more problems arose between Black Bottom residents and those associated with the University. The tipping point came in 1958, when a group of neighborhood teenagers beat 26-year-old Penn graduate student In-Ho Oh to death for his money. This event led the University of Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Hospital, and other institutions in the area to form the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC) (The Daily Pennsylvanian, 2005). Despite stating intentions to improve the quality of life in West Philadelphia, the WPC selfishly sought to improve the quality of life for students who paid to attend the school by displacing Black Bottom residents who had lived there for decades. This community provided no profit to the University, so the University administration viewed the Black Bottom as disposable.
The goals of Penn and Drexel closely aligned with the goals of the federal and local governments, clearing the way for an invasion of Black Bottom. The U.S. government passed section 112 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1959, incentivizing cities to collaborate with their local universities on urban renewal projects (399, Puckett and Lloyd, 2013). To acquire land for urban renewal projects, city governmental agencies such as the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority would deem low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods as “redevelopment zones” plagued with “blight” (Rogozinski, 2002). Government agencies saw these areas as easiest to displace, as former Black Bottom resident Andre Black states, “Does anyone understand what urban renewal actually means? It means slum, ghetto, and poor… They [the government] relocated us to places we didn’t want to be, from a place where we were happy” (Allen, 2021). Regardless of pushback the University received from Black Bottom residents, the city used eminent domain to physically force residents from their homes (Webb, 2013). In an interview with 34th Street, Dr. Palmer stated, “People who had been paying their mortgages for 40 or 50 years had no choice but to leave, or to live in a neighborhood of abandoned houses, deprived of its upbeat and communal character. Those who insisted on staying were forced to fight court battles with the city over the issue of eminent domain.” (Rogozinski, 2002).
This project focuses on the portion of Black Bottom from Walnut and Spruce between 38th and 40th streets. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority deemed this area Unit 4. From 1959 to 1961, former University President Gaylord Harnwell and University Planning Office Director Harold Taubin collaborated on an Integrated Development Plan– a proposal to build several dormitory buildings. City Council cleared the way for the University to invade West Philadelphia, approving the plans in 1962 and approving an “institutional development zone” for the University in 1965. The federal government also eased the University’s implementation of the Integrated Development Plan as they provided federal urban renewal funds (402, Puckett and Lloyd, 2013).
Before the University’s invasion, a vibrant community resided in Black Bottom. To learn more about the perspectives of residents who lived in Black Bottom before Penn, I met with Dr. Walter Palmer, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Social Practice and Policy. At nine years old, Dr. Palmer and his twelve siblings moved into a two-bedroom apartment at 36th and Market Street in the Black Bottom. When I asked how the University’s invasion of the Black Bottom impacted him and his neighbors, he responded, “It’s more than brick and mortar. It’s a loss of the intangible things, unity, community, protection, security, education, support systems.” Music and other forms of artistic expression had a major influence on the community. An abundance of bars and clubs where locals could see live entertainment lined the streets of the Black Bottom. As a teenager, Dr. Palmer performed jazz music at Club Zellmar. He described how music connected him to other members of the community; friends taught him how to play jazz music, how to tap dance, and how to play percussion instruments. Alongside live entertainment venues, the neighborhood had many black-owned small businesses such as barber shops and beauty salons, eateries, shops, and the Eureka movie theater. Zooming in on the portion of Black Bottom from Walnut and Spruce between 38th and 40th streets, Dr. Palmer described the area as having many small businesses and some tenement housing. One friend of his, Roxanne Smith, lived in the area at 40th and Locust Streets; my dormitory now sits upon this same corner. Above all else, Dr. Palmer emphasized the sense of safety felt in the Black Bottom, despite what the University has claimed. The Black Bottom Archives noted that “parents didn’t worry about their children and doors were left unlocked” (Black Bottom Archives, 2009). When the University invaded the Black Bottom, Dr. Palmer and his neighbors were robbed of the safety and unity that their community provided.
In wake of the news that Penn would develop further into the Black Bottom with the development of High Rise Field, residents were outraged. Dr. Palmer played a part in organizing the fight against Penn’s development. “I did anything and everything to disrupt life on Penn’s campus,” stated Palmer. Dr. Palmer and his neighbors shut down streets as they built trenches and strung barbed wire along 38th and 40th streets. Even many students and faculty at the University that the WPC sought to improve the lives of allied with the Black Bottom residents in the fight against the University’s development. Nonetheless, the corporate greed of the University prevailed; Penn bulldozed through the Black Bottom community to profit off of expanding the University community.
Despite the loss of the “brick and mortar” of Black Bottom, the community perseveres. Dr. Palmer introduced me to Gerald Bolling, the founder of the Black Bottom Tribe. Dr. Palmer and Mr. Bolling outlined numerous efforts that they have participated in to make the memory of Black Bottom, including an effort to place a historical marker of the Black Bottom at 36th and Market Streets. With a historical marker, they hope to raise awareness for the loss that the community faced and to keep the memory of the Black Bottom alive (Allen, 2021). In his course “Neighborhood Displacement & Community Power,” Dr. Palmer has dedicated a portion of class time to have students collect petition signatures for the historical marker.
In addition to symbolic survival of the Black Bottom community, Mr. Bolling continues to fight to preserve the unity and support systems that many Black Bottom residents had lost when Penn took over their neighborhood. Regarding unity, Bolling organizes annual reunions for surviving Black Bottom residents and their families. Black Bottom residents, their spouses, children, and grandchildren come from all over to gather at Belmont Plateau on the last Sunday of August. “The reunion is a family gathering,” stated Bolling. “5,000 or more people gathering together, no fighting, no shooting, no stabbings or nothing.” Outside of the reunions, Bolling has worked to provide a support system for members of the Black Bottom community. He dedicates much of his time providing aid to those struggling with drug abuse, homelessness, employment, and educational needs.
“It’s time to stop marginalizing,” stated Bolling. “We need unity and the opportunity to work together and to make this work.” Bolling, Palmer, and I worked together to find images of High Rise Field before Penn’s invasion of the land. Philly History provided four photographs from the 1950s and 1960s that I printed on lawn signs for my art installation: one photograph from 39th and Spruce Streets, one from 39th and Locust Streets, one from 40th and Locust Streets, and one from 38th and Locust Streets. In bold, each lawn sign displayed the title, “High Rise Field Before Penn.” I placed the lawn signs at their respective sites throughout High Rise Field on Tuesday, April 18th, an evening where Dr. Palmer’s class collects signatures for the Black Bottom historical marker. While no students did not stop at the signs for long durations during my observations, most took notice in some way. In a conversation with Maddie Aloha about the art installation, she noted that many do not know who came before us in this area and that the signs bring awareness to the University’s history of displacement.