Offering Drexel resources, West Philly center aims to solidify ties with neighborhood

 Drexel University's Dornsife Center, prior to renovations being unveiled late Thursday (Image courtesy of Drexel University)

Drexel University's Dornsife Center, prior to renovations being unveiled late Thursday (Image courtesy of Drexel University)

A new West Philadelphia education center at 35th and Spring Garden streets will bring together Drexel University and neighborhood residents.

The center will offer free legal help, a health and wellness center, arts programs, architectural design-build studios and engineering demonstrations. The programming was developed based on community feedback.

Lucy Kerman, vice provost for University and Community Partnerships at Drexel, said the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnership is believed to be the first privately run urban extension center in the country.

“The idea is that it will connect to the university’s academic expertise and allow our faculty and students to work with community residents on problem-solving,” she said.

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Michael Jones, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, said the new center may help longtime residents feel better about their growing university neighbor. Before this, he said, neighbors interacted with Drexel students more than with the university.

“Who are living in the community, whose behavior isn’t always exemplary, who are living in properties that were purchased by absentee landlords,” Jones said. “So there’s a whole set of peripheral impacts that the university has been having on the neighborhood for especially the last 15, 20 years.”

Jones said the center will give neighbors a chance to have much more positive interactions with the school and its students.

The executive director of Youth Service Incorporated, a nonprofit that offers families support and parenting services in Mantua and Powelton Village, agreed that the Dornsife Center could help neighborhood-gown relations.

“There is an active partnership with community leadership and young people and seniors in both communities,” said Gwen Bailey. “So that if there are challenges that come about because of Drexel’s presence in this neighborhood, there’s actually an opportunity for discussion around that.” 

During planning for the center, the school has learned that it is valuable for communities to have a space where dialogues can help between people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds, said Kerman.

“That includes the university and residents, it includes different races, it includes different classes — where people can come together and talk,” she said. “So not only to have workshops and education, but also to have a place where dialogue is embraced and where it’s safe to talk.”

The center comprises a 1.3-acre site with three historic buildings that were vacant for years before being renovated.

The Dornsife Center was funded with $10 million from Drexel alumna Dana Dornsife and her husband, David.

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