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Penn History

This exhibit was researched and written by MacKenzie S. Carlson in September 1999

The University of Pennsylvania’s experience in research and redevelopment in the fifteen years or so leading up to the creation of the University City Science Center greatly influenced the Center’s early history. In this time, Penn had been willing and able to take advantage of the fact that the federal government spent more and more money each year on research projects, and the Science Center seemed like a potential gold mine for this type of work. At the same time, Penn had undertaken a very successful program of campus expansion through the urban redevelopment process. The University most likely believed that redevelopment would proceed just as smoothly for the Science Center. Penn’s assumptions indirectly caused several problems and conflicts in the first few years of the Science Center.

The public relations disaster that followed served to cloud the Center’s real mission – to provide an outlet for beneficial (and profitable) research. First of all, the land allocated for the Science Center site was occupied mainly by black renters of generally small means. For many of these people, relocating meant either living in a worse neighborhood than before or paying more rent than they could afford. In addition, the UCSC appeared to some to be just another means by which the University of Pennsylvania could exercise control over University City, and it was not hard to find a basis for claims that racism was involved. The other major conflict over the Science Center was related to classified, military-related research at its facilities. For several years, UCSC officials made no concessions to the pacifist and radical groups, especially at Penn itself, that protested research of this nature. Its officials’ reactionary comments made the Science Center a popular target of hatred for many years. For these and other reasons, citizens and students protested at nearly every step in the development of the Science Center.

In the 1970s, however, the UCSC remade itself into a friendlier neighbor to the University City community as a whole while at the same time gradually weaning itself from Penn’s influence. Conceding to protestors, the Center returned some of its land for public housing and stopped accepting all research of a destructive nature. As the controversy surrounding it gradually disappeared, furthermore, the Science Center’s real achievements became more apparent to many people. With a new image, new buildings, and new tenants, the UCSC came into its own, and if it has not evolved exactly as its creators intended, it has nonetheless made a significant contribution to Philadelphia as a whole.