13 September 2004

this probably doesn't interest you, but...

La Salle University has been in its present location since the 1920s, located along a stretch of Olney Avenue, at the corner of 20th Street, north of the downtown part of Philadelphia. When the University first relocated here from a mansion closer to Center City, the campus was surrounded mostly by farmland and the beginnings of a few residential neighborhoods, while the motocar was still just catching on.

Today, however, the neighborhood around La Salle, particularly to the north and west, is solidly residential and commercial, with two large city high schools just down the street--Girls' High and Central High--a hospital, and a business district in either direction. And the traffic through campus has only increased over the decades, particularly during the morning rush hour.

This has made for a somewhat dangerous situation at the corner of 20th and Olney, where students must cross the street from their dorms, the library, or the sports complex in order to access the main part of campus where most of the classroom buildings are located.

While there is a traffic light, it never goes red in all directions at once in order to allow for pedestrian traffic and, while there is supposed to be "no turn on red," that limitation is regularly ignored by drivers. And although pedestrians have the right of way against a vehicle turning, cars often attempt to squeeze through groups of students, if they slow down at all.

As a result, while we've had no student deaths, we do have a number of accidents every year injuring students and staff, along with plenty of close calls. In some instances, of course, the accident is at least partly attributable to the foolishness or naivete of students, but the larger number is certainly the fault of aggressive drivers.

For nearly 40 years, La Salle has been petitioning the city to close 20th Street south of Olney Avenue, as it heads downhill, allowing cars to race through, often 25 mph above the posted speed limit. While 20th Street doesn't look like a main thoroughfare, such a street closure, however, could lead to traffic problems given that many people use 20th as a back way through through the neighborhood to access more main arteries. Moreover, the Councilperson for La Salle's district has always opposed such a closure.

A couple of years ago the University did get the City to install a button-activated traffic signal partway down the hill on 20th Street, thereby breaking up the block and allowing for pedestrians to cross there, rather than at the corner, redirecting some of the foot traffic away from the main intersection. While, in some ways, this did incrementally improve matters, it also led to new problems as drivers ignored the signal or attempted to race through the yellow as it turned to red.

Well over a year ago, the University, City officials, the local Councilwoman, block captains, and neighborhood leaders met in order to work out some kind of compromise. After a number months of negotiations, a compromise was reached with uninamous backing among the various parties: to turn 20th Street into a one-way street, going uphill, thereby solving the problem of cars speeding downhill and careless turns onto the street, the University itself offering to pay for any construction or studies.

Last December, during the Christmas break and at University expense, the street was temporarily transformed into a one-way road using concrete barriers and a series of relfective posts, while permanent rebuilding of the street would await a study period that looked at the effects of the change. That period has passed and, with City, Councilwoman, and neighborhood approval, the downhill western side of the has now been ceded to the University and plans are underway to rebuild the street, making it permanently and attractively one-way.

Nevertheless, since January, every single weekday morning from 7am through 9am (i.e., morning rushhour) there has been a group of 5-10 protesters at the corner of 20th and Olney, opposing the street closure, holding signs asking motorists to honk in opposition to the closure, accusing the University of being a "bully," and attempting to turn it into an issue of "justice" and civil rights. After all, La Salle Univeristy (perceived as a largely white institution) is supposedly inconveniencing the surrounding (and largely African-American) neighborhood.

The protesters not only hold signs, but also started out with bullhorns, whistles, air horns, and the like, in addition to verbally harassing students on their way to class, which probably isn't a great idea after having awakened them at 7am. In addition, by standing the middle the street, they have slowed down traffic and exacerbated drivers adjusting to the new traffic patterns. While freedom of expression naturally cannot be violated, the University's attorneys did manage to get a court order limiting the decible level of the protesters, thus preventing the use of the bullhorn.

What's more, the bulk of the protesters are not even members of the immediately surrounding community, but are daily transported in and provided with signs and so on by some organization that has seen the street closing as an important issue. I've heard a rumor that the protestors are paid, though I'm not sure this is, in fact, true.

There are, of course, all kinds of reasons for the actual neighbors to have complaints about La Salle, given the kinds of unneighborly behavior our students sometimes exhibit, particularly when drunk in the wee hours of the morning. The partial closure of 20th Street could easily enough, I imagine, be the occasion for long-standing resentments surfacing in protest, but that doesn't seem to be what's primarily going on.

In any case, I find the sociology and politics of the situation to be interesting.