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)

Many of those new students arriving on Drexel’s side of University City needed to find a place to live. Even the whirlwind, favor-trading Papadakis was only able to grow Drexel’s endowment from an anemic $11 million in 1995 to as much as $590 million. (By contrast, Penn is sitting on $5.7 billion.) There simply wasn’t enough money to build dormitories fast enough. The new students overran Powelton Village and made a beachhead farther out in Mantua, taking fragile neighborhoods and pushing them to the precipice of being ghettos — albeit student ghettos.

As Fry gave his first major address to the campus in October, he was armed with both unpleasant imagery — “graffiti, litter, piled-up garbage on the sidewalks” — and ominous statistics. “Only 16 percent of the houses in Powelton Village are occupied by single-family homeowners. Of all the households in the Village, only seven percent have children.”

There were no children around on a bright and frigid Election Day morning when George Poulin took me into the tiny little gymnasium of the Powel School, a ’60s-style brick box on the corner of 36th Street and Powelton Avenue. Though Poulin believes that Powel is generally well thought-of by local parents, he’s noticed that many of the ads for homes for sale on the other side of Market Street mention that they’re in the catchment area for the Penn Alexander school. Little Powel School is never used as a lure by real estate agents.

Other neighborhood schools are viewed more critically. “It does bother me that on one side we overlook a great Eds and Meds complex,” the Science Center’s Steve Tang told me, “and on the other side we overlook one of the worst performing high schools in the city.” That would be University City High. “Nobody should tolerate that.”

Poulin has no children. He is a 27-year-old architect who came to Drexel for college, lived in the neighborhood through school and stayed after graduation. Two years ago, he bought an 1870s Victorian twin and settled in. He is now president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, and as such a neighborhood point man for John Fry’s ideas to improve the area.

As he walked me around the neighborhood that morning, sipping from a mug of his home-brewed coffee, Poulin talked about the promise of Powelton, its beautiful tree-lined streets, the “good bones” of the housing stock, its easy proximity to Center City and the recent growth of amenities nearby. Then we walked onto some streets that Poulin said were completely owned by absentee landlords, and things got ugly pretty quickly.

Trash spilled onto the crumbling sidewalks, which were littered with that ubiquitous symbol of collegiate nightlife, the big red plastic Solo cup. A row of what had once been cute red-brick Victorian twins was slipping into disrepair, yet seemed full of student occupants, the worn-out couches and chairs of one generation serving as the porch furniture of the next. “We’re right at the edge of Drexel’s campus,” Poulin ventured to say. “I think the university could do better than this.”