January 31, 2014 by David Stephenson
President Barack Obama has directed federal agencies to focus a helping hand on the neighborhood that borders the northern outskirts of Drexel University’s West Philadelphia campus, labeling the area a Promise Zone. First mentioned during last year’s State of the Union address, Obama’s Promise Zone Initiative is designed to channel federal resources to create jobs, improve education and improve safety.
The Mantua neighborhood, which stretches along the northern border of Powelton Village where many students live, was announced as one of the first such areas to receive the president’s designation. In a Washington press conference, Obama said that the first five zones would be located in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, San Antonio and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
“We will help them succeed,” Obama was quoted as saying in The New York Times at a news conference that was attended by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “Not with a handout, but as partners with them, every step of the way. And we’re going to make sure it works.”
In the year since the 2013 State of the Union address promised to have federal agencies “partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet,” Drexel helped to craft the proposal that eventually brought federal focus to Mantua as one of the first neighborhoods.
The team that submitted the proposal to designate the area, running from around Haverford Avenue to the Philadelphia Zoo, as a Promise Zone included Drexel, the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and several local nonprofits. Philadelphia officials were also involved in the application.
The area will be specifically targeted because of poverty rates that have approached critical levels. Of the 33,315 residents in the Promise Zone, 51 percent live in poverty with 13.6 percent of residents being unemployed, according to NBC Philadelphia. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has the unemployment rate for the city at large at 9.5 percent.
On the program’s website, the White House laid out three goals for the neighborhood. The first two goals, reducing crime and putting people back to work through skills training and education, will be carried out by city agencies and nonprofits.
The third goal is directly linked to Drexel University.
“[A goal of the project is] improving high-quality education to prepare children for careers, in partnership with Drexel University and the William Penn Foundation,” the White House said in a news release. “Through increasing data-driven instruction that informs teacher professional development; developing school cultures that are conducive to teaching and learning; mentoring middle and high school youth with focus on college access and readiness; and increasing parent engagement.”
The William Penn Foundation is a Philadelphia area foundation with programs focusing on getting area high school students ready for college.
Obama was quick to point out that the program will not be a simple surge of money into the neighborhood but that it will be a collaborative effort between the private sector and government. A primary goal will be accountability, with each zone reporting their outcomes along metrics developed by both the government and third parties, the White House said in a news release.
The neighborhood will get priority access to federal grants and investments as well having five AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America members assigned to each neighborhood to help with organizing the various groups involved.
The fact that the program was announced last year but the neighborhoods were chosen this year was criticized by some Republican members of government.
“The fact that it’s taken more than 330 days for the president to move on a fraction of his proposals shows a remarkable lack of urgency to address a situation that has only gotten worse on his watch,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Despite the program’s national political implications, its effects will be specifically local. The White House program fits into Drexel President John A. Fry’s vision for the area surrounding Drexel. Shortly after the start of his tenure as president, Fry unveiled his own plan for an Innovation Neighborhood that aims to connect the school with employers and nonprofits in the urban neighborhoods of West Philadelphia.
Drexel’s plan actually includes more area than the White House and has produced several results since its inception. In a July 1 update on the Innovation Neighborhood, the University stated that plans had started to develop 10 sites and 6.4 million buildable square feet between 30th and 32nd streets and Market Street to John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
The University was also key in helping the state to designate local neighborhoods as part of the Innovation Neighborhood’s Keystone Opportunity Zone, which provided tax abatements to developers interested in University City. Recently, Drexel submitted a bid to the city for the vacant University City High School property at 36th and Filbert streets.
While he was employed at the University of Pennsylvania, Fry pursued a similar development project that has been widely credited with transforming the University of Pennsylvania’s western border. Drexel has also helped to broaden the scope of the Drexel-PECO Community Education Collaborative, which supports local schools, and the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. The University’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships has a building directly situated in Obama’s new Promise Zone, which combines Drexel University expertise and community knowledge to solve problems in West Philadelphia.
“Where do you go if you want to work with Mantua neighborhood?” Fry asked in a Hidden City Philadelphia article published in December. “Well the fact is that there are many different groups, all trying to do their best. I just feel for us, our commitment to civic engagement and neighborhood revitalization would have been incomplete if we only thought of Powelton Village or even West Powelton, but know that you can take a look at our police boundaries and our housing programs, we put our arms around all of Mantua, and it’s not that we want to gentrify Mantua because we have all this space east down to the station, we have millions of square feet that we can develop so this isn’t, ‘let’s move into the neighborhood so we can buy up the properties and we can develop them’ — it’s quite the opposite.”