6.08.2017

A Tale of Two Murders

A couple of years ago Penn Press released a book chronicling Penn's evolution in the 2nd half of the 20th century.  Entitled "Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic University, 1950-2000," it is by no means a hagiography of the institution, according to my read of reviews of the book (I haven't yet gotten around to reading it myself, so I reserve the right to modify my comments once I do), but delves fairly deeply into past wrongs and their present ramifications.

My informal subtitle for the book, and of that era in Penn's history, is "A Tale of Two Murders."  In 1958, In-Ho Oh, a grad student at Penn, was murdered during a robbery attempt (which family member David Oh powerfully recounted at In-Ho's grave when David announced his candidacy for City Council for the first time, in 2003).  Penn's response back then embodied much of what passed as "urban renewal" during that era, which was to trample over its immediate neighborhood in an attempt to manage campus safety and growth aspirations through a fortress mentality.

When I was an undergrad at Penn in the early 1990's, Vladmir Sled, a popular professor was stabbed to death on the sidewalk not far from where he lived, not far from where I now live.  It was a do-or-die moment for the university, and under the leadership of President Judith Rodin and Executive Vice President John Fry Penn embarked on a different path than 30+ years prior: investment and engagement.  Soon after the shocking murder, Penn implemented a mortgage incentive program, supported a new public K-8 school, and subsidized public lighting for local residents.  They aggressively invested in retail corridors where campus and community met, and helped seed a special service district called University City District to provide additional clean and safe resources.

It is inarguable that these efforts are not without their downside, since investment and engagement is tricky and Penn hasn't always been right.  Gentrification and displacement are real things, and they are set into motion by many forces global and local, with the most devastating effects sadly borne by the most vulnerable among us.  Still, I and my neighbors of different vintages, from those who are new to the area to those who have been here multiple generations, have seen a significant enhancement in the quality of our living experience, on just about every measure that matters for urban living: safety, school quality, retail choices, public spaces, and so on.  So there is much good to balance the bad, and unquestionably Penn's response to Sled's murder was better than to Oh's.

The Penn story goes back almost 300 years, and has many more chapters to go.  The future is all that's left to live, and if we hope to have a good one, and even to play our part in making sure it is so, we do well to look back and learn from what was. 
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