Witness to a Demolition
For years, Elaine Simon GEd’71, adjunct associate professor and director of Penn’s urban studies program, would pass University City High School as she walked to campus from her Powelton Village home. In the spring of 2013, she was teaching an academically based community-service course there when the strapped Philadelphia School District announced it was closing that school and 22 others.
UCHS was controversial even before it opened in 1971. The original idea was to “complement the development of the Science Center venture along Market Street from 34th to 40th,” Simon notes. Philadelphia would thus become a “national high-tech hub. The high school would be a science magnet school, draw on University and Science Center experts, and attract talented students from across the city.”
It didn’t work out that way. Residents protested the demolition of their neighborhood and demanded that the school serve local students as well as those from other parts of the city, and were supported by Penn students opposed to the University’s role in war-related research. The massive building itself was often compared to a fortress.
But if it never came close to realizing its original promise, UCHS educated thousands of Philadelphia students and left its mark on teachers and students alike, “many of whom fought to keep it open,” points out Simon. Through Penn’s Netter Center, “hundreds of undergraduates got involved in education,” working with UCHS students.
Simon took this photo in September 2015. Her goal was to “capture the stages of demolition as a way to remember the site and make a statement about cycles of destruction, displacement, and development.” Noting that Drexel University, which bought the land from the district, “plans a shiny mixed-use development called University City Square,” she asks: “Was this urban renewal all over again?”—S.H.