The best way to wake up is a half-hour morning run where I can get lost in my thoughts or an engrossing podcast. Sometimes when I change up my route, seemingly minor elements along the new path stand out. A few weeks ago, I spotted a plaque noting that a stately old house once belonged to artist Herman Ottomar Herzog. Herzog was born in Germany and there embarked on his globe-trotting artistic career until he decided to move to Philadelphia and settle on the edge of University City.
While Herzog traveled and painted all over the United States, his best works depict the Pennsylvania countryside and its beautiful wilderness, forests and waterfalls. Here was a man who had beheld the renowned fjords of Norway and canyons of the American West; yet he found himself pondering the Susquehanna River and the backroads of rural New Jersey, observing deer in their natural habitat. While not a regional artist per se, Herzog exemplifies how one can come to a place and learn to love it. His home and studio on the corner of 41st and Pine Street in West Philadelphia was the wellspring of most of his creative endeavors. Befriending Pennsylvanian artists like George Cope, Herzog put down his Keystone state roots, biking and hiking seemingly every corner of the state. Herzog lived in his West Philadelphia house and continued to paint Pennsylvania scenes until the remarkable age of 100.
Today the house is a student apartment, cycling through generations of college kids and likely numerous rowdy parties. The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) represents the modern elite, its upsides and downsides alike. As Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits notes, Ivy League schools do accept students with high test scores and exceptional achievements; but these ostensibly meritocratic metrics end up reflecting accrued opportunity as well as talent. Despite its laudatory approach to diversity, the University of Pennsylvania’s median family income is $195,500, with 71% of students from the top 20% of the income bracket. A whopping 45% of students hail from the top 5%, with 19% from the top 1%. The college’s very culture is off. Instead of churning out leaders in the model of Penn’s founder Benjamin Franklin, it sometimes feels like today’s Ivy Leagues churn out cogs for the machine of finance capital and consulting. For too many, West Philadelphia is just a pitstop on the way to New York City.
“The striking contrast between the mostly wealthy Penn community and the poorer parts of West Philadelphia creates an enormous divide, economically, culturally and even politically. Beyond individual students, the problem’s institutional roots require deeper change for Penn to fully embody solidarity with its surroundings.”
Perhaps it’s futile to implore today’s college students to cultivate a more integrated relationship with their surrounding communities. Graduating students, some of whom carry a heavy debt burden, understandably seek gainful employment where it can be found. Regrettably that is too often confined to a handful of urban centers like New York City. College is often a whirlwind of a time and sometimes it is hard to even stay above water. However, a mindset of coming to a place and existing parallel to it instead of seeking to improve it is unproductive.
Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has written extensively about how the brain drain out of smaller towns and cities into major metropolitan areas represents a sort of “social injustice” and a “human strip mining operation”. Nevertheless, when people leave their hometowns they sometimes remain isolated from the places they move to, a trend cultural critic Christopher Lasch brilliantly chronicled in his 1996 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Lasch argued that America’s elites, intellectuals among them, were engaged in a retreat from democracy and community itself. This separatist mentality distances them from the realities of working class and poor Americans. Consequently, the deepening divisions between groups British political thinker David Goodhart calls the “anywheres” and the “somewheres” fuel resentment and backlash.
While the reigning ethos of Penn students too often seems to be “up and out”, the West Philadelphia community demands more. Just down Market Street, Zip Code 19139 has a median adjusted gross income of $31,200 per year. Especially since the 1970s and 1980s, West Philadelphia and its mostly Black residents have felt the pernicious effects of deindustrialization. During the last year, the poverty-stricken area suffered a high number of COVID-19 cases and simultaneously dealt with skyrocketing opioid overdose and violent crime rates.
The striking contrast between the mostly wealthy Penn community and the poorer parts of West Philadelphia creates an enormous divide, economically, culturally and even politically. Beyond individual students, the problem’s institutional roots require deeper change for Penn to fully embody solidarity with its surroundings. Numerous specific issues reveal how entrenched the divide is.
For one, the controversy over Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) is telling. Penn argues that its activities in the community and employment of a significant number of Philadelphians justify its not making payments in lieu of property taxes, which it is exempted from due to its nonprofit status. While the University’s endowment is $14.7 billion and it owns $3.2 billion of untaxed property, Penn has been one of the two Ivy League schools not to provide any PILOTs. Local schools depend on property taxes. Without proper funding, local students are stuck with decaying asbestos-filled buildings and understaffed classrooms. Penn recently committed to donate $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia. While this is an important and laudable step, it falls short of activists’ demands.
Beyond a financial interest, signs abound of a strained relationship with the community. Recently, it emerged that the Penn Museum was keeping the bones of children killed in the 1985 bombing of MOVE in West Philadelphia and even displaying them in teaching videos. The remains must be returned to affected families, who are understandably upset about “seeing them in this context.” The Penn Museum promised a solution, but this problem should not ever have arisen. Even worse, the school has not atoned for human experimentation it conducted in primarily Black Philadelphia prisons in the 1970s. These experiments were an affront to human dignity and some of the people who underwent them are still alive and suffering from their effects today. Surely these Philadelphians deserve an apology and reparative justice.
Don’t construe this as a broadside against this school which I’m immensely proud to be a part of — Penn does provide immense benefits for Philadelphia, creating nearly 50,000 jobs, coordinating community service activities, and conducting essential research. The positive economic impact provided by Penn is over $14 billion; that is nothing to scoff at. I have high praise for the experiences and opportunities this school has given me, but I often wonder how Penn can better represent the caring sense of place Herzog drew from his West Philadelphia home.
“To paraphrase renowned philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in Chapter 15 of After Virtue, the story of Penn is always embedded in the story of those communities from which it derives its identity. A greater appreciation for the neighborhood requires awareness of one’s continual role in that story.”
Importantly, Herzog teaches us the value of homecoming. The artist spent years traversing the world and could’ve gone anywhere with his global pedigree. Yet he settled down and made Philadelphia home. Perhaps it lacked the glamor of Paris or Puebla, but he came to love his little corner of the world. Herzog’s recognition of the beautiful and the good around the state led to some of his best art. This ability to bridge the worldly and the rooted would help the university community. Even if students only pass through Philadelphia, they can make themselves more aware of the city around them and its needs. They can commit to volunteering in schools or charities just down the street. Surely the creative energies of America’s ascendant business and political elite can be put to use on behalf of the city they inhabit.
Nonetheless, individual change is not enough. Herzog additionally stands for perceptiveness. His realistic paintings display immense attention to detail. Awareness is the first step towards mending the cultural divides between Penn and the neighborhood around it. As Herzog committed himself to depicting regional landscapes others might ignore, Penn should better engage with its surroundings and recognize West Philadelphia’s historically-rooted struggles. Institutionally, Penn cannot free itself from this history.
To paraphrase renowned philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in Chapter 15 of After Virtue, the story of Penn is always embedded in the story of those communities from which it derives its identity. A greater appreciation for the neighborhood requires awareness of one’s continual role in that story. Consequently, Penn should commit to regular payments to the Philadelphia school district, expand volunteering programs and boost admissions initiatives targeting students from Philadelphia Public Schools. The school must also apologize and atone for its complicity in human experimentation and its unethical dealings with the remains of MOVE bombing victims.
Yet these actions alone don’t constitute a paradigmatic shift. Penn’s fundamental culture must change. Perhaps this could spur productive growth at other Ivy League institutions in struggling cities, such as Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Herzog leaves us with the lesson that you don’t have to be conventionally from somewhere to care for it. For Herzog, that appreciation manifested itself in memorializing Pennsylvania’s landscapes. For students, academics and administrators it could manifest itself in a concerted attempt to become a part of the West Philadelphia community. Universities must treat their surrounding cities as ends in themselves and not simply a means to an end. Herzog’s example paints a picture of this better alignment with the common good.
Andrew Figueiredo is a law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He grew up in Kansas and graduated from McGill University in 2019. Andrew enjoys cooking, reading, and writing and attends St. Agatha-St. James Parish in Philadelphia. His writing can be found on his personal Medium blog, at New Conservatives, and at Alternet.