MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We've been exploring urban design as part of the NPR Cities Project.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: More unified community.
LUCY KERMAN: Engaging the neighborhood that much more deeply.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: If other cities can do it we can do it.
BLOCK: Many cities look to universities to spark new neighborhood life, and expanding schools spurs the economy around campus; developers want in, real estate prices go up. That's starting to happen around Drexel University in Philadelphia. It's taking place in a predominately black community, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. And Drexel is trying to counteract that real estate pressure with a hands-on approach to redevelopment. Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team takes us there.
ROSE SAMUEL-EVANS: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Dinner is served in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua.
SAMUEL-EVANS: You look like you're ready to have a great Dornsife neighborhood partnership meal. Am I right about it?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.
WANG: Rose Samuel-Evans warms up the crowd for a free community dinner hosted by Drexel University. She works in this orange-brick schoolhouse that's part of Drexel's Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. Just a couple years ago, this building was boarded up.
KERMAN: This building was actually full of cats...
WANG: Stray cats.
KERMAN: Stray cats, and it smelled like it.
WANG: Lucy Kerman oversees the Dornsife Center as a vice provost at Drexel. The center opened its three buildings last summer north of campus. Stepping outside on a rainy day, Kerman says they're designed to serve not just faculty and students, but mainly local residents.
KERMAN: Developers were saying, boy, we could put a lot of student housing on the block. What's intentional is to look at this as a resource for the community and to say no, that's not what's going to happen.
WANG: There is a computer lab and rooms for career building workshops and legal clinics, many staffed by Drexel students. Kerman says these resources are in high demand in Mantua, where more than half of people live below the poverty line. Walking around, i'ts easy to see the signs.
KERMAN: The sidewalk is totally broken up here.
WANG: Lucy Kerman shows me some of the blocks around the Dornsife Center. Old tires, potato chip bags and strips of yellow caution tape fill many empty lots here.
KERMAN: Oh, another vacant lot even worse than the other one. You can see the remains of the house over there.
WANG: It all makes the Dornsife Center's main building - a freshly painted white mansion - stick out like a lily in a barren field. The center also serves as a kind of olive branch from Drexel to Mantua. More students are moving here as the school scrambles to build more housing on campus. Kerman says it's in Drexel's interest for Mantua to thrive, and the center is trying to solve some of its problems.
KERMAN: Can we protect longtime homeowners who are in trouble from losing their homes? Can we deal with rising real estate taxes? That's harder. It's a tough situation, and it's one that we're very, very aware of.
ANDREW JENKINS: My name is Reverend Dr. Andrew Jenkins. I lived in this house since 1969.
WANG: Residents like Reverend Andrew Jenkins are also aware of Mantua's tough situation. Jenkins is a board member of the Mantua Civic Association. He lives a few doors down from the Dornsife Center in a three-story townhouse that stands as a reminder of better times. This was once a stable working-class community that over decades, white flight and the loss of manufacturing jobs turned into a neighborhood of poverty by the 1960s. Just as Jenkins shows me the gazebos and rosebushes in his backyard, we're interrupted by the sounds of Mantua's future - drilling and hammering from a nearby construction site.
How do you feel about that, to have new neighbors?
JENKINS: Oh, I'd rather see buildings going up than an empty lot.
WANG: Private developers are transforming these empty lots into new apartments that some longtime renters feel certain they won't be able to afford. Jenkins says he's worried that eventually homeowners like him will be pushed out.
JENKINS: Once all the land is obtained, naturally, developers are going to approach the people who have aged and offer them something they can't refuse.
WANG: It's a kind of change West Philadelphia has seen before around another school - the University of Pennsylvania. That's where Drexel's current president, and Lucy Kerman, also helped to lead neighborhood development efforts that some derisively called Penntrification. Kerman says they've learned how universities can unintentionally displace longtime resident.
KERMAN: What we didn't know as well at Penn, I think, was that we needed to be proactive in engaging the neighborhood that much more deeply.
WANG: Let's head back to where that engagement between Drexel University and Mantua is most direct, back inside the Dornsife Center.
TAMICKA STEPHENS: Hi, everybody. Did you bring your appetite?
WANG: Volunteer Tamicka Stephens greets neighbors at the center's free community dinner. She's a single mother of two and says Drexel's presence is helping her children envision a better future.
STEPHENS: It lets my children see college is not just somewhere else. College can be here, so I hope it's something that they'll be like, oh, I want to go to college 'cause I want it to be like this.
WANG: But the benefits of redevelopment come at a high cost.
STEPHENS: The landlord just kept saying the rent is going up, the rent is going up, the rent is going up, and when it went up it was way too much.
WANG: So much that Stephens had to move last summer from her Mantua apartment into a shelter less than four blocks from the Dornsife Center. She's now living in an apartment three miles away. Can longtime residents stay if the neighborhood improves? That's a question Drexel officials say they know is on the minds of many people in Mantua, a question that will determine the future of this Philadelphia neighborhood.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Can I have a plate for my child, too, or do we have to share?
WANG: At Drexel University's Dornsife Center in Philadelphia, Hansi Lo Wang for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.