By Matt Fernandez | In about two years, eager undergrads will arrive at Penn’s newest college house. President Amy Gutmann has already predicted that the new dormitory will become even more influential than the Quad. Many others share her enthusiasm. With perhaps the lone exception of the Quidditch team (which can no longer use Hill Field), the new college house’s construction has largely been an uncontroversial affair.
But this would not have always been the case.
An anonymous letter published in The Nation in 1885 described how the University of Pennsylvania’s “policy” was to instill its students with “Philadelphia doctrines, ideas, atmosphere and surroundings.” Dormitories, many argued at the time, would sever the University from the city.
I’m not exactly sure if I could tell you what the “doctrines” of Philadelphia are. But I did spend my senior year in South Philadelphia with a family of longtime Philadelphians, one of whom was a Penn grad. Through rain and shine, snow and sleet, I would hop on my bike almost every morning and make the two-and-a-half-mile commute to campus.
I found this apartment through Penn’s off-campus housing website. It was in a rowhouse on a quiet alley near the Italian Market. I liked the idea of living in this neighborhood. Rent was much cheaper than the high-rise dorms and most apartments near campus. As my senior year intensified (thesis writing, graduate school applications, applying for jobs), the apartment quickly became a retreat.
Each weekend, I would stroll down Ninth Street for groceries, absorbing the pungent odors of whole fish on ice, ripe and overripe fruit, and of course, that inimitable stench of barrels bursting with burning trash. With its ethnic diversity and curious combination of grit and gentility—lest I forget to mention the new olive oil taproom and gluten-free bakery—the market is a kind of microcosm of Philadelphia.
My living situation baffled many of my fellow Quakers. “That’s far!” I often heard. In reality, it usually took less than 15 minutes—the same amount of time it takes to walk from 40th Street to the David Rittenhouse Laboratory.
In some respects, my experience was not unique. Today, around 65 percent of Penn upperclassmen choose to live off-campus. This is in contrast to life at many other Ivy League schools, where students are much likelier to remain on campus all four years. Yet Penn’s reliance on off-campus housing is a tradition that dates to the school’s founding.
While for much of its history Penn’s student body largely consisted of commuters from Philadelphia, it has also always attracted students from outside the region. Undergraduates today usually live in nearby apartments owned by companies like Campus Apartments, or in large developments like the Radian at 39th & Walnut. But at one time, Penn accommodated out-of-town students by relying heavily on boardinghouses run by local residents.
One student who attended the College (in what is now Old City) shortly before the American Revolution noted that widows who were “reputably brought up” often supplemented their income by taking in student boarders “from the southern provinces and the West Indian Islands.” (My landlord was not a widow, but I did grow up in North Carolina.)
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these boardinghouses ranged from families who rented out a single bedroom to enterprising women who rented out most of their houses to undergraduates. Similar to today’s bed and breakfasts, many of these larger boardinghouses also offered full meal and laundry services.
My rent did not formally include meal service, but I did occasionally join my “landlords” for dinner. (Our relationship was so cordial that the word seems to need scare quotes.) Our conversations spanned a variety of subjects, enabling me to consider the city in new ways while getting to meet Philadelphians. For example, I listened to them discuss where to send their daughter to high school next year. The woes of the city’s struggling public school system loom large for families with young children, driving many into the suburbs. (The one I lived with chose to stay.)
Outside the house, where narrow and intimate streets often fostered conversation among strangers, I felt a newfound camaraderie with my neighbors.
Is it possible to be both a Penn student and a Philadelphian? For the past 250 years, the answer has not always been clear.
During the 1760s, the trustees attempted to emulate other colonial institutions like Harvard by building dormitories. Penn’s first dorm opened in 1765, at Fourth and Arch streets. But like Penn students today, pupils in Ben Franklin’s era overwhelmingly preferred the freedom of living off-campus. Within 10 years, the College was forced to lease the dorm to a family who converted it into (you guessed it) a boardinghouse.
The construction of Penn’s second dorm, the Quad, beginning in 1895, was intended to foster a campus community that had not previously existed. It was also a way to maintain greater discipline among Penn’s student body. Provost Charles Custis Harrison C1862 G1865, the namesake of Harrison College House, once noted (somewhat disapprovingly) that boardinghouses were conducive to a “Bohemian” lifestyle. By the 1930s, only seniors were allowed to reside in boardinghouses—which had to be preapproved by the University.
On-campus housing has created a sense of community within the University while building Penn’s reputation by attracting scholars from around the world. But the school’s relationship with the City of Brotherly Love has also soured at times. In the 1920s, the University contemplated moving out of the city entirely and even drafted a plan for a new campus in Valley Forge [“The Road Not Taken,” Nov 1996]. Town and gown relations were especially strained during the 1960s and 1970s, when many residents waged campaigns against Penn’s expansions into West Philadelphia.
Even today, the Penn community’s relationship with the city is, at times, rocky. This spring the local news blog Philebrity composed an open letter to the city’s employers warning them to be wary of “horrible” Penn undergraduates, citing our lack of engagement with the city while praising Temple students for their “non-squeamish” willingness to meet the city head-on. Two months later, Philadelphia magazine tapped the same vein with a blog post about four Penn seniors on a downtown pub crawl who’d paid a $25.60 tab with a $100 bill—which, unbeknownst to the drinkers, had been stuck to a second $100 bill. After the waitress returned the second hundred, along with change from the first, the “Ivy league brats” tipped her 40 cents.
For many undergraduates, the feeling is mutual. A surprising number of Penn students rarely venture outside of University City. I distinctly remember a “Penn in Washington” dinner last summer where someone solicited students’ opinions of Philadelphia. The answers were almost unanimously negative: “It’s really dirty”; “There’s a lot of crime”; “It’s not DC”; and so on.
None of the responses mentioned the people of Philadelphia. The primary benefit of the boardinghouse system was that it helped unite the city’s residents with the student body. My own living arrangement functioned in a similar manner.
And although I hadn’t anticipated it, living in the midst of Philadelphia complemented my work and activities at Penn. (My experience proved to be a particular boon in an urban-studies course I took in the spring semester.) While the Netter Center’s mentorship program introduced me to the wider West Philadelphia community, living outside the Penn Bubble proved to be a different and even more enlightening experience.
Most importantly, it allowed me to be simultaneously a Penn student and a Philadelphian. A few weeks ago, I even bought my first Phillies T-shirt. Come to think of it, maybe I’ve learned at least one Philadelphia doctrine—one that I’m increasingly hearing:
“Well, there’s always next season.”