By the time the University of Pennsylvania’s 2022 homecoming football game came around in October, tensions on campus had been brewing for weeks.
As always, the game inspired “darty” — daytime-party — attendees to roam nearby fraternity houses as returning alumni swarmed Locust Walk, the Ivy League university’s central pathway. But that warm Saturday in October also marked the 39th day that student activists from the campus group Fossil Free Penn had camped out in front of Penn’s historic College Hall. The group's handwritten banners, a blemish on the otherwise carefully manicured campus, urged passersby to “Save the People’s Townhomes.”
Just a few blocks north of Penn’s campus, the residents of University City Townhomes have been facing eviction ever since the Altman Management Company announced in July 2021 that it would not renew its annual HUD affordable housing contract for the first time in nearly 40 years. For decades, activists have criticized Penn, Philadelphia’s largest private landowner, for its role in gentrifying its neighborhood of University City, which sits atop the remains of the historic Black Bottom neighborhood. (They say the university has historical ties to the area on top of which the UC Townhouses sit and that Penn had worked to expand the school’s real-estate footprint, displacing existing residents, and rebranding the area that eventually included the homes as University City.)
As the eviction date — already pushed back many times — looms this summer, the city and the UC Townhomes developer have reached an agreement that sets aside a half-acre of the site for affordable housing and provides $50,000 for each evicted family. In addition, under this settlement, Penn and other local universities and institutions will contribute to a separate fund that offers support services to displaced tenants.
Prior to that October 2022 homecoming game, Fossil Free Penn had renewed its demands for the university to commit $5-10 million to preserve the whole UC Townhomes site as affordable housing. Though Fossil Free Penn was founded in 2014 to demand that Penn divest its multibillion dollar endowment from fossil fuels, student activists in the club have broadened their focus to include environmental justice issues. “We want to fight climate change,” says Sarah Sterinbach, a junior and Fossil Free Penn coordinator. “But also, with a justice perspective, saying, ‘The systems we have now aren't working. And climate change is exacerbating those systems.’”
Back at the homecoming game, at halftime, the Penn Marching Band donned collared shirts and “P” crewneck sweatshirts to play the school’s fight song, “The Red and Blue,” as usual. When the performance concluded, junior Katie Francis and sophomore Sabirah Mahmud joined around 70 fellow Fossil Free Penn activists as they rushed off the bleachers carrying megaphones and a bright orange banner, imploring the university administration and alumni-packed audience to “Save the UC Townhomes.”
Mahmud had removed her Penn Band crewneck sweater but remained in her band shirt. Penn Office of University Life spokesperson Leo Charney wrote in a comment that one of the two students remained in “full Band uniform.” According to Francis, a different sweater covered the uniform during the protest. But Charney added that the other student “used their credentials to access the media box and used the media microphone” to initiate the protest. Says Francis, “There was no way to effectively dissociate myself from the band, even though I was not intending to act as a member of Fossil Free Penn when I said that.”
For Mahmud, who grew up five blocks from Penn’s campus, this fight is especially personal. When she was in eighth grade, her family was forced to leave as a result of rent increases likely spurred by the university’s presence. Now, she no longer feels comfortable crossing the bridge to the west side of campus, where Penn’s buildings invade her community. “I feel like there is this hate when you come to Penn if you're from Philly," she says. "You know what this university has done.”
After about an hour of coordinated chanting during their protest at the game, Mahmud and a group of other activists walked off the field. Penn police officers used zip-tie handcuffs to arrest Francis, 16 other students, and 2 nonstudent affiliates who remained. “Today I still get anxiety when I think about [being arrested]. But I knew that I was doing the right thing,” Francis says. “Even though it was scary, it was also very empowering, inspiring, and I would do it again.”
According to Mahmud, Penn administrators Katie Hanlon Bonner and Tamara Greenfield King looked on as students were arrested. (Teen Vogue has reached out to both Bonner and King.)
In response to a request for comment, Ron Ozio, Penn’s director of media relations, points to an earlier administrative statement that classifies the homecoming protest as neither in line with open expression guidelines or an “appropriate expression of free speech.” The statement reads: “The student protesters’ conduct does nothing to advance their legitimate policy concerns, concerns the University shares, but rather impinges upon the rights of others in the community to participate in the life of the campus.”
Senior Gigi Varlotta was among the students arrested that day. Being a Penn student places Varlotta in a unique position of influence over the university, they say, and they’re determined to use that voice for good. They’ve been fighting for the UC Townhomes for over a year now, forming close relationships with the kids and families impacted by the impending eviction.
For Krystal Young, a UC Townhomes resident and organizer, the community has allowed her to give and receive support as she helps guide the neighborhood kids, including her own 14-year-old, and to open up with trusted friends. Amid an already hectic schedule, Young has to manage the day-to-day stress of searching for housing that will accept her Section 8 voucher. Yet she is thankful for a community that has grown stronger through shared activism. “We want to have that light continue shining and that love to continue on,” she says.
Rasheda Alexander, an activist who moved out of homelessness into the UC Townhomes 15 years ago, details the myriad changes that have taken place in the area during her time there, emphasizing Penn’s role in replacing community spaces with institutional buildings. This list includes the Charles R. Drew Elementary School, which her daughter attended, located where the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center now stands. Says Alexander, “To see high schools and early-childhood centers be removed from our community, and the University of Penn buying them up to make parking lots to make student living, to make science centers and things of that nature, it was very disheartening.”
The ongoing activism by residents in the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition and Fossil Free Penn students have aided in securing meetings between residents and high-ranking Penn administrators, such as senior executive vice president Craig Carnaroli, Alexander adds.
Another outcome of the protests has been an array of disciplinary consequences. After grad student and Fossil Free Penn coordinator Ari Bortman participated in an August protest led by UC Townhomes residents who disrupted Penn’s convocation ceremony for incoming freshmen, he received an email threatening “disciplinary probation for the fall 2022 semester”; ultimately, Bortman was able to negotiate and avoid disciplinary consequences.
Bortman and senior Emma Glasser were also threatened with disciplinary consequences in April 2022, related to the group’s first encampment attempt. At 2 a.m. on the first night of the encampment, they say, they were awoken by a group of administrators and Penn Police shining flashlights into their tents, with the administrators telling them that the encampment wasn’t safe; they say they were then asked for IDs.
Though the students received emails informing them that their action was possibly in violation of university guidelines, they managed to avoid disciplinary action. “It was clear that what we were doing was really pushing them the wrong way,” Glasser says. “And to us, that was a sign that what we were doing was along the right direction.”
After homecoming, however, there were legal and university-specific consequences. The arrested students were subject to court-mandated community service stemming from the arrests and have been subject to a disciplinary probation period for the spring 2023 semester. Additionally, the Penn Band has imposed a yearlong suspension on Mahmud and Francis for their participation in the homecoming protest.
“I’m a first-generation, low-income student, so I can't really afford to play an instrument other than this,” Mahmud says. “I feel like I got one strike, and that was the one strike I had.” The whole experience has made Mahmud feel less connected to the part of the Penn student body that doesn’t support Fossil Free Penn’s actions and says she sometimes feels a “target on [her] back” walking to class.
For these activists, belonging to an Ivy League institution that has contributed to gentrification while also fighting that institution can be an intimidating experience. Ultimately, tho, it's necessary. “I can only reconcile being part of the university by leveraging all of that power that we gain, to try and create this change,” Bortman says. “Because if we can change the way that Penn operates, the way that Penn interacts with the world and the West Philadelphia community, that will have an immense impact on so many lives.”
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