I never thought of “local” as a dirty word until I came to Temple. Now, whenever I hear the word used in casual conversation around Main Campus, there is usually an acrid, almost offensive connotation attached to it, as if it is meant to sting those who fit that description.
On social media, you can easily find a number of people, including many Temple students, using the word “local” in this way. One recent tweet by @cassaracarly caught my attention. It read, “Philly locals need to stop robbing temple students, work for your own s–t and stop being lazy.”
This is not unusual, and tweets like this one are not the only comments that can be found on social media that degrade and blame North Philadelphia residents. Conversations like this can be overheard all over Main Campus. To students, the neighboring community is not seen as a part of the Temple family. Instead, they are perceived as intruders, simply taking up space in what could be a safer, nicer place if they all just disappeared. The word and its use around Temple may seem like nothing serious, but it actually plays a huge role in the dangerous mentality that fuels gentrification in the North Philadelphia community.
Eighty-two percent of Temple students live in what is considered off-campus housing, including commuters, according to the U.S. News and World Report. As more students arrive and enrollment increases, this number of off-campus students will likely increase as long as the amount of residence halls stays the same. Because of this, there has been a significant rise in the number of off-campus apartments that have been created around the community by private developers. During my four years here as a student, I have seen empty lots and older-looking apartments turned into fancy, modern, well-lit apartments that have “Student Housing” and “Temple Town” banners proudly hung from them. But as these new properties go up, pieces of the local community are taken out. What personally hurt to witness was a new apartment property being put up on 16th Street and Montgomery Avenue that covered up a beautiful mural that had been there long before I became a student.
In an open letter on philly.com, University of Pennsylvania faculty member Chad Dion Lassiter shot right at the university for being the cause of the gentrification, saying that “Temple University’s encroachments upon North Philadelphia should no longer be shocking for it is real.” What I think Lassiter could have added, however, is that the culture of students treating the community members as intruders feeds into this gentrification as well.
When students move into these properties, they take with them this sense of entitlement, as if to say, “This is MY block, and you locals just happen to live on it.” Students throw loud parties well into the morning, completely disregarding the local families with young children that live around them. Trash is aimlessly left on blocks without much consideration of the community they are expected to share the neighborhood with. And little to no interaction is made with anyone who looks “local” out of the irrational fear that it could become dangerous. Officially, the university does try to encourage students to be more inclusive of the local community with its Good Neighbor Initiative, but it’s hard to take any of it seriously when the university and its aggressive plan of expansion is very much at the heart of this entire problem to begin with. Because of this, a strong sense of animosity is shown to the local community, which is reciprocated by some members of the community who are desperate to hold onto their neighborhood that they see disappearing right in front of their eyes.
Unfortunately, there is no grand or flawless fix to this growing issue that is affecting our community. What we can do, though, is start small. All Temple students, myself included, need to catch ourselves when we use “local” to describe members of the North Philadelphia community. We need to understand the attitude of entitlement we adopt when we use “local” with such a negative connotation and ask ourselves what we can do to be a part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem. Instead of alienating the local community, students need to work harder to embrace them, and losing that one now-dirty word from our vocabulary isn’t such a bad place to start.
Ndidi Obasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @NdidiObasi