The Black Bottom: “A Ghetto Fabulous Place”
As you walk past 23rd and Chestnut St in Philadelphia, PA, you will eventually hit a bridge with the words “Welcome to University City ” plastered on its dark steel surface. The message introduces you to a distinctive part of the city, neither entirely West Philadelphia nor Center City. On the left of the greeting is the University of Penn’s symbol and the ivy league’s name beside it. Although the region technically encompasses Drexel University and the University of the Sciences as well, Penn and “University City” have become practically synonymous.
If you were to have walked through this part of Philadelphia only a couple of decades ago, your experience with the area would have been entirely different. Where “University City” now stands, was once a robust Black, working-class neighborhood: The Black Bottom.
Amaan Stewart’s podcast, “The West Philadelphia Problem: From RedLining to Penntrification” delves into the changing dynamics of the neighborhood now so widely associated with the image of bustling Penn students. Looking as far back as the 1930s, Stewart connects the erasure of the Black Bottom with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, racist housing practices of the 1960s and University of Pennsylvania’s revitalization projects. The podcast depicts historical systems like red-lining, White flight and urban renewal to give insight into the impact the university had on the local community. Stewart incorporates her grandmother’s testimonies living in the area from the 1950s to the 1960s to provide an important personal element to her research. Therefore, the project is just as much an analysis of the region’s changing demographics as it is a deep exploration into the creator’s personal family history.
“The West Philadelphia Problem” asks listeners to problematize concepts like “safety” and “crime,” and to interrogate the role academia has had in legitimizing these terms. Listeners are encouraged to wrestle with questions like, “What is the impact of racist practices like redlining and gentrification on the inhabitants of the area? How did white flight and suburbanization make West Philadelphia easily susceptible to urban renewal, gentrification, projects? [And finally] Why are words like ‘slums’ and ‘blighted’ not only used to describe certain spaces but also its inhabitants?”
Considering the tragic murder of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. by two police offers of the Philadelphia Police Department on Oct. 28, 2020, “The West Philadelphia Problem” feels like a double entendre: that while Black Philadelphians are cast as the “problem,” the true issue at hand is the city’s commitment to violence over “brotherly love.
“[Displacement] did not occur in a vacuum. This and other examples should just go to show…No one is safe from the throws of economic growth.”