Drexel Steps In

  • By Mark Eyerly

Three LeBow Faculty Members Talk About Change in West Philly

Stan Ridgley, assistant clinical professor of management, moved two years ago into a three-story apartment building at 41st and Spring Garden; his adult children occasionally live with him.

Daniel Dorn, associate professor of finance, moved 10 years ago into a row house at 45th and Baltimore, where he and his wife now raise four children. The oldest is 9 years old; the youngest has yet to turn 1.

Joan Weiner, professor of management, moved to (or invested in) Powelton Village nearly three decades ago and now lives in a converted house on Baring Street, just a few blocks from campus. She marvels that her block is home to five children under age 5, a “double digit” (10 year old), a high school student, a college student and a neighbor who moved into her current house 61 years ago as a child.

Together, these three Drexel LeBow professors embody the tradition, the challenges and the potential of the West Philadelphia neighborhoods that Drexel President John A. Fry is looking to transform. Can the area attract more families and professionals without concurrent gentrification that forces out residents of long-standing?

Fry’s activist approach – he arrived here planning to make Drexel “the most civically engaged university in the nation” – has led to creation of university centers for civic engagement and neighborhood partnerships, Drexel’s purchase of the 14-acre site that included University City High School and the Charles Drew Elementary School, forgivable loans for faculty and staff who purchase or renovate homes in designated areas near campus, and plans for an Innovation Neighborhood bordering 30th Street Station.

Extensive press coverage of Fry’s efforts once led Dorn’s wife to ask him: “Why does Drexel have to do all of this?” Politico Magazine answered that question with the sub-title of a 3,500-word July story on “West Philadelphia, Reborn and Razed.” That subtitle? “Can a university step in where a city fell down?” In other words, if not Drexel, who?

Weiner is not only a LeBow professor and three-decade resident of the neighborhood near Drexel; she is chair of the Powelton Village Civic Association’s campus/community committee, representing the neighborhood in bi-weekly meetings with Drexel administrators. “I was viewed with suspicion by both sides for a while,” she says. “But I think focusing on the win-win won over the skeptics.”

And she sees a win-win in the current town-gown climate, which has evolved from acrimonious and contentious to one of increasing respect and trust. “I care deeply about Drexel and about this community,” Weiner says. “Drexel’s vision is great and I have strong hopes for the long-term.”

One neighborhood leader, Michael Thorpe, told Politico: “Before, Drexel was considered to be the villain, that all they wanted was to gentrify the neighborhood and push poor people out. People are starting to realize they can be good partners. They came in and said, ‘How can we help you?’ That’s a change. Now the community is actually being asked.”

Dorn, a German native (“The World Cup win will give me four years of bliss!”) who moved into West Philadelphia to be close to campus and reduce commuting time away from his family, says that improvements to the schools are the key to transforming West Philadelphia. His two oldest children attend the Penn Alexander School, which Fry was instrumental in creating when he was executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dorn is keeping his eye on what Drexel can make happen with the properties it just purchased from the School District of Philadelphia.

How important are quality schools? “Two years ago when I went on sabbatical, people with children wouldn’t rent our house for the year because Penn Alexander was at capacity and couldn’t promise admission to any more kids,” Dorn says.

Ridgley, who practices his Spanish by shopping at a local Dominican market, is skeptical of efforts to engage communities through what he calls “one shot” service projects. He supports, instead, the steady engagement of the sort that “we business people embrace.” That is, fruitful exchange and encouragement of a vibrant, capitalist environment that teaches and encourages people how to build businesses and create wealth. He notices during his morning walks that vacant lots are being replaced by townhouses, and he thinks: “Drexel is encouraging individual initiative and tilling soil that can produce a safer, more livable community. I hope to see more Drexel folks join the neighborhood.”

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