Fighting “Penn-ification” with the People’s Townhomes
The ARD spoke with Darlene Foreman, a resident of Philadelphia’s University City Townhomes. The Townhomes are a 70-unit low-income housing complex in West Philly’s Black Bottom neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood next to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University campuses. For decades, both universities have led the charge for ethnic cleansing in the Black Bottom and its transformation into “University City,” a hub of research parks and student housing. But when property owner Altman Management told University City Townhomes to leave last year, they decided to fight back. Residents and supporters called mass rallies (6 ABC), crashed U Penn’s commencement (Daily Item), and held a protest encampment for over a month until police evicted them (WHYY). Dozens of low-income residents are now scheduled to be put out onto the streets on October 8th — unless we support their fight to stay in what they now call the People’s Townhomes. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
• Call UC Townhomes owner Brett Altman at 215-884-8590 and demand that he meet with residents. You can follow this call script:
I’m calling to demand that you, Brett Altman, meet directly with residents of the UC Townhomes. They want to keep this site 100% affordable for very low income seniors and families and give residents who choose to leave the option to relocate to proper low-income housing of their choice. We will make our voices heard until you agree to sit down and face the residents of your properties.
• Follow and donate to support UC Townhome residents. Philadelphia area residents should check social media to learn about upcoming actions.
Q: What does staying in this neighborhood mean to you?
I was born and raised in the Black Bottom. I used to play over here on my bike when I was 14 and 15 years old. Everybody looked out for each other, and that’s what we have here. You don’t have to worry about your children.
I have three children that I raised here. They’re all grown, moved out, and doing well, and that’s because they had a stable home. They went to school here, went to the doctor here, went to the supermarket here—we have everything we need. I wouldn’t give this up for anything.
Q: What would the consequences be of losing your housing?
When I talk to people, every now and then, I just break down and cry because this is my life. I’ve been here 29 years. Raised my children here, I have friends here, this is home. This space is special because when your children have that stability and security, they learn, they thrive, they grow. You need that foundation to live. This is the last standing property of the Black Bottom (WHYY). It’s one of the last standing totally low-income properties in West Philly. This is totally low-income, hard-working families. Everybody in here works. But we have disabled people, elderly people, and bed-ridden people that live on this property. How can you just put people in the street like that? Because that’s what’s going to happen.
Why would you want to break families up like that? If people do not find a place to live, they’re going to be on the street. The children are going to suffer (Urban Institute). You talk about people with guns, people stealing? That’s where it starts. When you make people homeless, you’re causing crime. People need this. So many people need low-income housing. I’m on a fixed income. I cannot afford the rent that’s out there.
Q: The Black Bottom is now called University City. What’s the role of universities in gentrification?
The whole Black Bottom went from 32nd Street to University Hospital. Penn and Drexel took everything. They just took it, they moved people out, and did whatever they needed to do to get all that property. So now you have all the student housing popping up everywhere around here. The rent is ridiculous. We call it Penn-ification (Billy Penn, 34 St).
Penn is the biggest employer in the city (Chamber of Commerce). You don’t have to do this to us. You don’t have to do it to anybody. This is Penn, Drexel, and the city’s 2035 Plan for the city (PCPC):
They want this to be the next Center City. But what about the residents? We had no say-so in this plan. Y’all did all of this planning (Transportation Alternatives). What about the communities? You didn’t ask anybody in any community, how do you feel about this? Or, what do you think we should do? They offered us nothing. This was done in 2012. I was living here, y’all could have had a community meeting and said, “Listen, this is what we plan to do. This is what we can do for the residents.” No. They just want to evict us.
Q: What will happen when the UC Townhomes residents win?
I’m going to tell you something. If we win this fight right here, it’s going to open up so much stuff for everybody. If we win this fight right here in University City, it’s going to be world news. Other cities are going to wake up. If these residents start fighting like we did in West Philadelphia, it’s going to open up a lot of stuff for a lot of people.
• West Philly residents from the People’s Townhomes are fighting to maintain accessible housing for families and seniors.
• The University of Pennsylvania drove the displacement of the Black Bottom to create “University City.”
• Developers, large employers, and “democratic” municipal governments plan the “redevelopment” of neighborhoods behind closed doors without consulting residents.