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)

Nobody seems more earnest about doing better than the new Drexel president. In the time I spent with him, Fry came closest to straying from his mission statement — and to actually having a laugh — when he told me of a recent midlife-crisis moment, when he had to confess to his wife that he’d spent a good chunk of money on something for his own pleasure. It wasn’t a red sports car.

He had purchased a private library of books about academia — about 3,000 of them. Fry had been working on a doctorate about the dynamic between universities and their communities for a number of years. But of course he’d stayed so incredibly busy actually running universities and re-creating communities that he finally realized he’d never have time to write a dissertation.

Now that he has set out to revive another community, Fry doesn’t just have a full plate; he’s spinning several more in the air. One day, I was his 15th appointment, and he had to attend a function after we talked. On another, I came by at 5 p.m. — he said after normal business hours would be the only time he’d have to talk — and it was dark and going on 8 p.m. when we wrapped up. “I saw Ann Hart today,” Fry said. “The president of Temple. I told her I thought I knew what it was like to work hard. But I’m understanding new limits.”

Fry gave an early progress report on his plans. He was ready to commit “seven figures yearly” for beefed-up policing. The contracts were done for the UCD to expand its services into Powelton and Mantua. Brochures for the employee neighborhood home-ownership incentives had already been printed. To pay for it all, Fry is drawing from an operating surplus derived from a large freshman enrollment and some discretionary funds. Later, the costs will be permanently worked into Drexel’s budget.

Fry has also ordered up a new master plan for university development and started to make contact with real estate developers — “people like David Adelman” — to discuss private-sector partnerships in the neighborhood.

Fry seems a bit sensitive about being perceived as a man with an edifice complex. “Some people think what I’m proposing here is because that’s what I’m comfortable with and that’s what I know,” he told me. “It really is much more than that. It’s because I feel we’re not fulfilling our capability as an institution by not doing this. We talk constantly in this institution about civic engagement. But civic engagement doesn’t only need to be talked about and studied; it needs to be shown.”

Over the course of his career, Fry has, in essence, tracked a large circle around the same 2.4-square-mile area of West Philly, and now he’s landed in an elaborate office just blocks from where he started. “All I remember,” he says of his years at Penn, “is working fiercely. There was such a sense of purpose.” For his dedication, the university named a little pocket park for him when he left for Lancaster. But if the new president carries out even a sizable fraction of his goals at Drexel — if, as Paul Levy predicts, “in five years you won’t recognize the Drexel campus” — John A. Fry almost certainly will have his name on a building someday. And it just might be a mixed-use, high-density structure built on top of some underutilized railroad tracks with a killer view of the city and the Art Museum.