Feature: Is West Philly the Next Center City?

It’s the age of brains, Philly, which means the real action in town is happening west of the Schuylkill, where new Drexel president John Fry and a host of other bold thinkers are building what could be the city of the future. (Amazing what a guy can do when he only sleeps four hours a night)

“I THINK THAT’S WHERE VLADMIR SLED DIED,” says Fry, looking down an attractive block of Osage Avenue toward the corner of 42nd Street. On Halloween night 1996, the 38-year-old Russian-born biochemist and his fiancée and co-worker, Cecilia Hägerhäll, were walking home from a laboratory on the Penn campus. A man and two women attacked the couple. Sled fought back and was stabbed numerous times. “Neighbors heard Hägerhäll’s screams, and when they arrived on the scene, they found her holding her bleeding boyfriend,” according to an account written recently by Judy Rodin. Sled died that night, and that “random act of violence in a neighborhood that had become increasingly rife with crime” — there’d been almost 30 armed robberies in the previous month — was, Rodin writes, “the last straw.”

Fry had joined the Penn administration about a year before the Sled murder, recruited by Rodin not from academia, but from the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, where he’d spent five years in the somewhat obscure specialty of consulting for academic institutions. Fry remembers finding a box in his new office full of old studies about how Penn could improve the neighborhood around its campus. “There was a lot of good thinking in the studies,” he recalls, “but it all seemed to be contingent on getting a foundation grant or a government grant.” The Sled murder was “a precipitating event,” he says. From then on, the university’s leaders decided, “‘We’re just going to spend our own money.’ That released a lot of energy.”

And as Rodin’s point person, Fry was someone with energy to spare. Out of the house after four hours’ sleep for his regular 5:30 a.m. squash game, he could easily be on his fifth meeting by the time other Penn bureaucrats were arriving for work. Over the next several years, working doggedly, Fry helped initiate what Governing magazine called “a staggering array of initiatives” to improve West Philly.

One of the first things Fry did was round up all the usual suspects from the big institutions in University City — something that, remarkably, had never been done before. He added some unlikely entrants, like neighborhood activist Barry Grossbach and young campus landlord David Adelman, to create the governing board of a newly formed University City District, inspired by Paul Levy’s Center City District. The mandate for the UCD was safer and cleaner streets, spruced-up commercial corridors, and brightly clad “ambassadors” roaming the neighborhood — unarmed, but directly connected to the police, adding hundreds of what urbanologist Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.” The Penn Public Safety department was overhauled and beefed up, and Penn helped add more than 500 streetlights to the neighborhood.

Penn also began to buy up vacant and run-down buildings in the neighborhood and renovate them, in an effort to stabilize declining blocks. Penn later struck a deal with Adelman for his Campus Apartments company to manage all off-campus housing owned by the university. Fry “understood that the university had to get private industry involved,” Adelman says.