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How ‘Penntrification’ turned Black Bottom into University City, and changed the neighborhood forever

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, community centers and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love University City? Buy the stuff.

Welcome to University City, the area in West Philadelphia that surrounds, you guessed it, several universities. What was once a tight-knit black neighborhood that anchored West Philly was changed into its new name by developers and marketers who wanted to lure those students into the neighborhoods (and drive up property value).

Today, it’s home to an enormous development boom, as more than 80 percent of new office development in the region is taking place in University City, and housing projects abounding as well. Here’s what’s up in UCity:

Boundaries

The University City District’s boundaries are: On the east, 29th Street and the Schuylkill River; on the west, 50th Street; on the north, Spring Garden Street (to 40th Street), Powelton Avenue (to 44th Street), and Market Street; and on the south, Civic Center Boulevard, University Avenue and Woodland Avenue.

We know these are very generous boundaries, and encompass more than just the typical University City neighborhood. They also include smaller ‘hoods like Cedar Park, Spruce Hill, Squirrel Hill, Walnut Hill and Powelton Village.

For all intents and purposes though, University City is often thought to be constricted to the general area west of the Schuylkill River to about 45th Street in the vicinity of Penn and Drexel’s campuses. We’ll focus mostly on that general area in this post card — click here to learn more about Cedar Park, found to the west of University City.

Population

22,120

Population 20-to-34

14,290 or 64.6 percent

Racial composition

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Rent vs. own

No surprise here: Renters make up 92.8 percent of occupied homes, while only 7.2 percent of homes are occupied by the homeowner.

Home values

The median home value in University City is $314,300, which represents a 4.8 percent increase over last year, according to Zillow.

Name origin

The name “University City” wasn’t used to describe the area until the 1950’s, when developers wanted to market to faculty members from Penn and try to get them to move into the neighborhood. Before then, it was largely just called West Philly. Some residents still call it that and dismiss the “University City” name as nothing more than a marketing scheme.

History

What’s now known as “University City” sits on the ruins of what was once called “Black Bottom,” a neighborhood named for its tight-knit black community that was essentially destroyed by the expansion of Penn and Drexel in the area between 32nd and 40th streets.

In the early 1900s through the 1960s, residents of Black Bottom remembered leaving their doors unlocked because they trusted their neighbors.

But in the 1950s, Black Bottom was officially designated by the city as a redevelopment zone. According to Curbed Philly, it was around this time that Penn, Drexel and University of the Sciences saw a huge change in enrollment numbers because of GI Bill-related subsidies. They joined forces with Presbyterian Hospital to create the West Philadelphia Corporation and created a common goal of “the need for elbow room and a more healthful campus environment.”

This was the beginning of the end for Black Bottom. What became known in the neighborhood as “Penntrification,” the universities spread by buying up properties. Residents protested, but final blows were dealt using eminent domain. By 1970, about 5,000 residents had been displaced — many moved west — and the colleges had effectively overtaken the area, giving rise to the University City name that sticks around today.

Nowadays, real estate developers are moving into the neighborhood with both housing and workspace projects. A University City District report released last year showed that 82 percent of all office construction happening in the entire region was occurring in University City. In the last five years, about 10 million square feet of real estate projects were developed in the neighborhood, representing a $4.5 billion investment.

The expansion of both the universities and the nearby hospitals means that about two thirds of those occupying new housing units in the area are students, but many of the rest are families and other residents who are employed in the area.

What used to be

When it was first built in the late 1800’s, Drexel was called the “Drexel Institute” and featured just a few departments in the arts and sciences. It kept that name through the 1900’s.

In 1965, Drexel Institute of Technology students participate in spring clean-up.

In 1965, Drexel Institute of Technology students participate in spring clean-up.

The Evening Bulletin Archives via Temple University

Backdrop

Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia-1993-Front-Cover-80368

Philadelphia DVD cover

In this early 90s film, Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, studies case law in the University of Pennsylvania Fine Arts Library on Walnut Street.

Transformers 2 (2009)

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Transformers 2 movie poster

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the second iteration of the popular film series and was directed by Michael Bay and produced by Steven Spielberg. Many of the college scenes starring Shia LaBeouf, who plays Sam, were shot on Penn’s campus. His fraternity house is Penn’s Psu Upsilon fraternity which sits at the corner of 36th and Locust Walk.

How do you know? (2010)

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How Do You Know movie poster

Portions of this rom-com starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd were filmed on Drexel’s campus.

How to Get Away with Murder (2014)

How-To-Get-Away-With-Murder-Fanfiction

How to Get Away with Murder poster

So this one is a bit of a stretch, but we’ll include it: ABC’s new hit show produced by Shonda Rhimes is essentially based on Penn, as it takes place at a prestigious Ivy League university based in Philadelphia. Some shots were apparently taken near the campus, but the show didn’t get full permission to shoot the entire series there — most of it is filmed in LA.

Alumni

There are tons of famous alumni from both Drexel and Penn that you can read about. There’s only one that *truly* matters right now.

trump at penn
Bobby Chen/Billy Penn

Thing to check out

The Palestra

The sun sets over the Palestra

The sun sets over the Palestra

Wikimedia Commons

Yes, inside the Palestra on Penn’s campus is basically just a gymnasium. But it’s a special gymnasium. This legendary basketball arena that serves as the home to the Big 5 has been around since 1955 and has hosted more games than any college arena in history.

Legendary event

The Penn Relays

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R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia

The Penn Relays have been going on at Penn for more than 120 years and is the first and widely-recognized relay event in the world.

Baltimore Ave Dollar Stroll

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J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

So the Dollar Stroll is probably not as legendary as say, the Penn Relays, but it’s legendary around here. The twice-yearly Dollar Stroll along Baltimore Avenue between 43rd and 51st streets shows off businesses by offering eats and things to buy for only $1. This event draws in thousands of people every year — one already happened at June, but be sure to swing by the Dollar Stroll in September.

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The new Porch at 30th Street Station relaunched this summer with a new space and menu.

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