Penn's "Magic Line:" Why You Won't Go Past 42nd Street

Recently in my introductory sociology course, we discussed the ways in which, historically, redlining affected house values in Philadelphia. Our professor shared with us that while a house close to campus costs around $750,000 on average, a house less than a mile away - towards West Philly - costs around $85,000. We discussed this drastic difference in housing cost as well as the gentrification prevalent in University City.

As always, the conversation drifted to our professor asking questions directly to students about our own experience at at Penn. “Do you find that there is a ‘magic line’ that marks where is safe to go at Penn?” Her question was met with strong agreement across the board: most people would not venture past 42nd Street and its intersection with Market and, in the south, Pine Street.

“T.T.Y.P.,” (our professor’s cutesy term meaning “talk to your partner”), “what makes these other areas dangerous?”

A host of responses followed:

"We get criminal alerts. Dangerous things happen in those areas, so we know not to go there.”  

“Penn Police doesn’t patrol past 40th.”

“The houses aren’t as nice; you can tell that the area isn’t maintained well. There’s more trash around and it is generally less clean.”

I offered up my own response: “Visual cues such as older or broken down cars, people smoking, and an increase in fast food restaurants could alert you to the fact that an area is less safe.”

My answer was in reference to a recent experience I had getting my boots repaired. Being the Gen-Z-er that I am, my immediate response to a broken heel was to type “cobbler near me” into Google Maps. Without paying any notice to the location, I made my way over to the repair shop after class, boots in hand, and found myself venturing farther than usual. As I walked, I noticed the visual cues that I would later mention in class which served as an indicator to me that the area that I was in was, in fact, different from my home on campus.  

In the shop, I felt an acute awareness of how out of place I was; every other person was a middle-aged black man. For once, I could not walk into a room and locate a face that looked like mine. On this rare occasion, I was invading a space that wasn’t perfectly catered to match my identity. Here, I was the outsider, the intruder. The term “visual safety net” is used to describe this such notion, of being able to visually locate a familiar symbol or face in different settings.

This type of discomfort plays a role in why Penn students avoid venturing too far off from campus. Whether consciously or not, many students tend to stay within the realms of our campus because they’re uncomfortable with their outside surroundings — possibly because of the implicit biases they hold regarding both the areas and people around Penn. This also calls into question the roles race and socioeconomic background play in a society as tacitly stratified as ours. Thus, what is often described as “safe” may more accurately describe emotional comfort rather than a real sense of physical danger.

While I left the shop focusing on my own guilt regarding visual safety nets, I was also aware of the aforementioned “magic line.” Crossing back onto streets closer to campus created a tangible shift in the atmosphere.

Even before this discussion in my sociology class, I knew that I was not the only one who has felt this difference. A few weeks prior, my cousin had visited from college in Grinnell, Iowa. Much of our conversation centered around the differences between our two schools, and even after visiting for just 24 hours, she, too, noticed the so-called “magic line.” The line that divides where you can and can’t go is underscored when walking around at night or when choosing which restaurants to eat in. In fact, students often describe the areas around school as “trashy,” “grimy,” and “sketchy.” While there is nothing wrong with taking the necessary precautions to stay safe, especially in a city that’s not as familiar to you, it is important to question the underlying reasoning and prejudices that shade these types of statements.

Especially in an environment that is dominated by a fairly privileged, and — at times — a fairly homogeneously-thinking group of people, there is value in questioning why we make the classifications that we do and thinking about the structures that allow such stark insulation and segregation to occur. In doing so, the Penn community can begin to undo the harmful stereotypes that solidify already ingrained misconceptions about the spaces and neighbors around us.

Afterall, as my T.A. noted, “You have to ask yourself: who are you staying safe from? Who are you afraid of and why?”