Knowing What Our Neighbors Know

By Byron P. White

Pushing Back the Gates: Neighborhood Perspectives on University-Driven Revitalization in West Philadelphia. Harley F. Etienne. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.

The evolution of what is sometimes called the university-community engagement movement and the economic pressures of our day have led forward-thinking leaders of urban universities to look beyond their campuses and become involved in surrounding neighborhoods. University leaders can direct their institutions to serve as economic anchors of not only their regions but also their local communities, leveraging their impact as employers, purchasers, and real estate developers to revitalize nearby distressed neighborhoods. They can also engage more democratically with residents and community-based organizations in those neighborhoods, treating them as peers and cocreators of solutions rather than as clients or research subjects. Urban universities that take their responsibilities to the community seriously—and an increasing number of them do—pride themselves on achieving results through both of these approaches, despite the tension that sometimes occurs between them. In fact, though, leaders of these institutions are hardly ever certain of how effective they are being. And the people who are perhaps most informed about whether they are succeeding—the residents of the neighborhoods they seek to assist—are not the first ones administrators turn to for evaluation.

That is why the premise of Harley F. Etienne’s recent book, Pushing Back the Gates: Neighborhood Perspectives on University-Driven Revitalization in West Philadelphia, is so intriguing. Etienne is mostly concerned about how universities pursue their economic revitalization priorities. He has chosen for his study the University of Pennsylvania’s much-touted, decade-long foray into West Philadelphia. Part of the appeal of Penn’s efforts was that they were intended to engage citizens as participants in the work.

Etienne delivers a passionate though somewhat well-worn argument that challenges the motives of Penn and other urban universities that pursue strategies of physical revitalization ostensibly meant to improve the lives of nearby residents as well as to serve the welfare of the university. He questions whether the selfish ambitions of the institutions to make surrounding neighborhoods more appealing to students and protect their own real estate interests have overshadowed the social goals of helping the economically disadvantaged and whether revitalization efforts have, in fact, done more harm than good. Unfortunately, as the book unfolds, Etienne fails to discuss these concerns with the depth of insight that the book promises in its opening chapter. The perspectives offered by Etienne’s neighborhood “informants” through what he terms an “ethnographic study” emerge as a relatively unorganized compilation of varying opinions rather than careful analysis that promotes a deep understanding of the viewpoints of residents.

The book’s weaknesses are unfortunate, because Etienne is correct in his observation that such perspectives are sorely missing in the university-community engagement literature. He also is justified to focus on Penn. The university’s West Philadelphia Initiative is often praised as the model urban university-community engagement program. As Etienne points out, Judith Rodin launched the signature West Philadelphia Initiative during her tenure as Penn’s president from 1994 to 2004 largely to improve the safety and the physical appearance of the area around campus through commercial and housing development. Notably, despite the use of the university’s financial and political muscle to advance its self-interests, Penn appeared, at least to distant observers, to defy the stereotype of the imperialistic urban university. Rodin, herself a product of West Philadelphia and a Penn alumna, made improvement of the community— including education and safety—a central and personal theme of her tenure. More than a project carried out by a few select champions, the effort was embedded in the institution, prompting administrative reorganization in some cases. Moreover, concurrent with the administration’s emphasis on physical development were numerous faculty initiatives aimed at social conditions in West Philadelphia, led largely by Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and its charismatic director, Ira Harkavy, who also graduated from Penn and is prominently featured in Etienne’s book. Those who know Harkavy’s teachings or have studied under him, as I did as a doctoral student at Penn, are aware that his efforts to mobilize researchers to address matters of equity and justice through what he calls “democratic practices” of engagement have been a deliberate counterpoint to the physical development strategy. At Penn, these approaches were allowed not only to coexist but seemingly to play off each other, striking a balance that most urban universities covet.

The legitimate question that Etienne raises is whether this dual approach benefited the community in ways that match the hype generated by the media, the university itself, and higher education and community-planning admirers outside Philadelphia. More specifically, did it work from the vantage point of the residents who live there? While he never takes a firm stand on this issue, unwilling to label Penn as either villain or hero or to provide an incisive analysis of how it might simultaneously be both, his general sentiments become clear in two chapters that explore prevailing place-based strategies and provide snapshots of how four other universities have pursued them. Though somewhat disconnected from the Penn case and more descriptive than analytical, these chapters reveal Etienne’s central thesis: current revitalization and planning theories, which universities have enthusiastically adopted, examine the spatial and structural elements of neighborhood change and fail adequately to take into account the social relations and structures that are more relevant to poverty alleviation and racial inequity. His implication is that universities have bought into this deception and, whether intentionally or unwittingly, use the rhetoric of community engagement to justify their physical development impulses—which he too narrowly frames as “gentrification”—while never truly addressing systemic, social transformation.

Such charges have been raised by others, most notably community leaders whose neighborhoods border urban campuses. Etienne’s book, however, does not move us any further toward resolution. He concedes early on that he does not intend to evaluate Penn’s activities; he is not looking for objective data to quantify whether the quality of life has improved for West Philly residents. In fact, he argues persuasively that residents’ sense of the cultural disruption resulting from the university’s outreach is as legitimate an indicator of quality of life as are economic measures— all the more reason to investigate residents’ views rigorously. Etienne says that the book is based on fortytwo interviews of university and community respondents conducted from 2004 to 2006, though he is not clear about exactly how many community respondents were interviewed. In chapter 2, where the community’s case is most deliberately put forth, he quotes from only seven interviews. Still, from among these voices, Etienne gives us insights that only residents can provide. One theme he touches on is the university’s notorious lack of transparency about plans and motives, which generates mistrust and suspicion among residents even when the university’s public intentions seem benign and constructive. Another theme is the cyclical nature of the university’s attention to the community, which may not be appreciated by administrators who come and go every few years but is quite apparent to long-term neighborhood residents. Still another is the sometimes dramatic difference between the views about crime and safety held by those associated primarily with the university and those who are not.

As a university administrator, I agree with Etienne that credible community accountability for university-led engagement efforts is desperately needed. The literature is full of accounts of the great work that urban universities claim to be doing in their communities. Hundreds of presentations are offered at national conferences each year declaring our fruitful community partnerships. Seldom, however, are residents on hand to verify our claims. As Etienne states, “The perspectives of West Philadelphia residents are instructive exactly as they are and without defensive posturing and finger wagging from the university’s administration. It is important that the residents’ assessments of the process and their perspectives on it stand as credible information—even if they may be misinformed or factually wrong from the perspectives of the other.”

Pushing Back the Gates falls short of satisfying the university-community engagement field’s need for such assessment. However, perhaps by posing a challenge to one of higher education’s most revered models of university engagement, Etienne has opened the gates for ongoing study of this mostly unexamined yet critical area of activity.

Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University. He was previously vice chancellor for economic advancement for the University System of Ohio and associate vice president for community engagement at Xavier University in Cincinnati.