The Gentrification of the corridor

 

 

December, 2003. University City Village lay in ruins. Dogs, many of them Borzois, wandered unleashed, bumping pedestrians off the sidewalks. Feral roosters and ferrets hunted in packs. Hair braiding salons and stop-and-go delis dotted Baltimore Avenue, and bands of pre-adolescent Negro teenagers hung on the street corners, hefting their AK-47s and brazenly dealing smack.

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In 200 College Hall, President Cherry Rowbottom was about to preside over her Tuesday morning debriefing. At 59, Rowbottom, the first female Ivy League president, was also the highest paid and most curvaceous; her $800,000 annual salary and benefits package made her the third best compensated university president in the nation. She was also one of the most compassionate -- rumor had it she gave most of her salary to charity, reserving only enough for her personal luxuries such as lipsticks, nail polish, and occasional trips to Singapore for face lifts and breast augmentation.

Peter Proven, her personal assistant, boy toy, sex slave and graduate student in English, was laying out a sumptuous buffet of croissants, bagels, and Danishes with an exotic assortment of cream cheeses and Amish jams. Handsome and distinguished Stetson Graykirk, University Counsel, was pensively sipping a molto grande cappucino allegrosso as he stared out at the dozen statues of Benjamin Franklin in various poses that dotted College Green. Vice President for Real Estate, Acquisitions and Mergers Guido Minelli was already seated at the long teak conference table, shuffling through his papers. Down two places across the table sat Eric von Hohenstaufen, Obergruppenführer of the University Police and executive director of the University City Village District.

Cherry Rowbottom emerged from her private office and Proven, buff, tanned and 20-something, rushed to pull out her chair for her. "Down, Peter, down -- oh, behave!" she greeted him cheerily. "Right, let's get started," she said as Graykirk took his place at the table.

"You're looking good," he said, as he snapped open his slim grey Samsonite attaché case. "How was Cancun?"

"Rio this time," Cherry corrected him. "How do you like the cut of my new cheekbones?"

"Awesome, Cherry mon cheri," replied the elderly, not yet senile, though greying University Counsel. “Do you want the damage report first?"

"Oh, I suppose," sighed the extraordinarily well-preserved female Ivy League executive. "Peter, bring me a margarita, luv."

"About par for the course this weekend," Graykirk said, studying a pale purple dossier through his bifocals. "Two or three rapes in the undergraduate dormitories, thirteen muggings out on the perimeter -- "

"That would be 43rd Street," Minelli interjected. "Your territory, Eric, I believe?"

"Well, it's down from 18 last weekend," the young and obese Hohenstaufen responded bravely. "And we've just installed that new Mennonite coffee shop at 43rd and Baltimore -- that should help to anchor the corner and nice things down."

"Let me continue," continued Graykirk. "One graduate student from Hong Kong beaten to death with tree branches in Clark Park; one Russian physicist, a visiting scholar, hacked, stabbed and left bleeding to die on 47th Street; one Yale undergraduate, here for the football game, doused in motor oil and set afire by some rowdy frat boys; and one freshman accidentally flatlined in a genetics experiment over at HUP."

"Darn it!" ejaculated Rowbottom, banging the table with her fist and spilling her margarita. "I told those stupid doctors to lay off the genetics experiments on freshmen. I suppose his parents are suing?"

"Yes of course. But they’ll have to get at the back of a rather long line," remarked Graykirk. "Oh, and there's this little matter of racial profiling by our campus cops. Seems they pepper-sprayed and handcuffed one of our distinguished Negro faculty." He glared down the table at Hohenstaufen.

"It was an accident," retorted the porcine head of University Police, reddening.

"Oh, hell. It wasn't young Michael, was it?" asked Rowbottom, taking a sip of her drink. "Good African-American faculty members are so hard to find these days, and they're so bloody over-sensitive."

"No, it was old Tom."

"That's a relief. Is he still in hospital?" inquired Cherry. "Minor injuries, expected to recover?"

"He should be out by Friday," observed Stetson Graykirk drily.

"Well, send him a fruit basket with my regards," said the President irritably.

"Roger willco that, ma'am," responded young Peter Proven.

"Stop trying to talk like a bleeding RAF navigator," grumbled Rowbottom. "And dammit, how many times must I remind you not to call me 'ma'am'?" Call me Top Banana, if you have to call me anything, for God's sake. Oh, and by the way, did we win the Yale game?"

"Thirty-seven to zero. We're still undefeated."

"Woo-hoo!" hooted the Top Banana. She got up from her chair and did a perky little war dance around the table. "One more victory and we're Ivy Champs for 13 years running!"

* * * * * *

In an enormous round pink bed in an elegant and charming old Victorian mansion, Adeline Dutoit examined herself in the ceiling mirror, then gazed out her perfectly restored natural wood framed windows at the cyclone fence topped with barbed wire that ringed her historically designated University City Village estate.

"Another day, another dollar, "she prattled happily to herself.

Beside her a buff, tanned, 20-something male hunk with a ring in his ear stirred and awoke. "Oh, Ms. Dutoit," he murmured sleepily. "Last night was so wonderful! You were so gentle and kind with me when you broke me in. It was my first time, you know."

"That was quite obvious," observed Adeline sardonically. "Maybe when you have your SECOND realtor you'll be a little more ADEPT."

With a discreet knock, Jeremy, the butler, entered the boudoir. "Will that be breakfast for two, madam?" he inquired in a refined South Jersey accent quite obviously though subtly influenced by his years at Choate and Yale.

"No, Andy is just leaving. And how many times do I have to remind you not to call me 'madam'? Jeez, if you have to call me anything, call me Head Pussy, for God's sake."

"Certainly, Head Pussy," replied Jeremy, withdrawing through a rear door that led downstairs to the servants' quarters.

* * * * * *

The cold December sun streamed through the grimy broken window onto Dexter the Anarchist, sprawled on a torn mattress on the floor of the squalid and wretched squat. "Ho!" he exclaimed, sitting up suddenly and burying his filthy dread-locked head in his hands. "My head is throbbing like a fucking bomb! What the fuck was I doing last night?" He paused. "Pardon my French."

"Smack, crack cocaine, ecstasy and horse tranquilizers," retorted Gretchen, looking down at him dully. Her enormous but unwashed breasts shifted massively beneath her ragged peasant blouse under which she wore no bra. "Plus which you were out past midnight scrawling obscenities on the walls up and down Baltimore. What the hell were you thinking, if you can call it thinking? One of these days the UCD pigs are going to come down on you hard."

"Fuck the fucking UCD pigs!" swore Dexter, as he absentmindedly gathered up last night's used condoms and tossed them through a broken window onto the sidewalk.

"I mean it, Dex," sighed Gretchen, prying open a can of pork and beans with a rusty switchblade. "Those UCD dudes are rough, man. They won't even take you to jail for a shower and a hot meal -- they'll just beat the crap out of you in some back alley."

"Look, Gretch," snarled Dexter, combing his stubby unwashed fingers through his soiled dreadlocks. "Are you down with the revolution or what? Sometimes I wonder about you. I mean, are you part of the fuckin problem or part of the fuckin solution? I mean, are you on the fuckin bus or off the fuckin bus?"

"All I know is that we're almost out of food," whined Gretchen, spooning the greasy concoction of beans and pork fat into cracked and discolored ceramic bowls. "You're either gonna hafta go out and peddle some horse to raise some dough, or else go score more beans up at Philabundance with your homeless routine. And I am *definitely* not going out to walk the streets down on Beaumont Avenue again, if that's what you're thinking."

"Aw, fuck that fuckin shit," growled Dexter, beating out a primitive tattoo on a home-made drum fashioned from a discarded plastic paint bucket. "Pardon my French."

* * * * * *

Back in College Hall, President Rowbottom was grilling the head of the University Police.

"Damn it Eric!" she expostulated, spilling her second margarita. "When are you going to get on top of crime in the Village? You think setting up a Mennonite coffeeshop on 43rd and Baltimore is going to keep those restive darkies under control not to mention the anarchists and graduate students? Look, when I took office here at Penn ten years ago I vowed to clean up University City Village and make it a hip and trendy neighborhood to rival Harvard Square. Hear me? Hip and trendy, with a subtle soupҫon of le bohème! Here it is ten years later and all I see on the Baltimore Avenue business corridor is hair braiding salons, stop-and-go delis, and one stinking Mennonite coffeeshop. Now you listen to me, Mr. Obergruppenführer, and you listen good. I want some tangible results by the end of the year or you're going to find yourself running some hick Keystone cops outfit out in Dartmouth or Cornell -- if you're lucky!" She slammed the table with her open palm for emphasis. "Peter, fetch me another damn margarita!"

"But Dr. Rowbottom -- I mean, Top Banana. Muggings on the perimeter were down by five this weekend. Rapes were down by two, not counting date rapes. Just give us a little more time -- we've laid the groundwork. Those Market Forces are bound to ride into town any day now." Tiny rivulets of sweat were dribbling down Hohenstaufen's fat forehead.

"Oh rubbish," observed the swarthy Italianate Vice President. "You really still believe in that Market Forces nonsense? Next you're going to tell me the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are going to come and gentrify West Philly."

"And we all know there ain't no Sanity Claus. Heh." remarked Stetson Graykirk.

"Oh shut up Stetson! Look, gentlemen -- and I use the term advisedly -- the bottom line is we get some upscale shopping on the Corridor -- lingerie boutique, flower shop, Amish barbecue -- I don't care what it is as long as it says hip and trendy -- the bottom line is we get some gentrification on Baltimore Avenue by the end of the year or you bozos are going to be out on the streets looking for jobs at Community College. Do I make myself clear?"

She collected her margaritas and stormed into her inner office, banging the door on her way out.

There was a stunned silence, broken only by the discreet clatter of Wedgewood china as Peter cleared away the buffet.

"Gentlemen, we are in deep doo-doo," said Stetson Graykirk finally.

"Oh shut up Stetson! Get serious or you're going to be back chasing ambulances in South Jersey," Guido Minelli said grimly. "Eric, double the number of cops on the beat out there west of 43rd Street by the end of the week. And I want them armed with elephant guns if necessary. Stetson, you make a little call to our gal in the Village -- she's still on our payroll, right? Tell her I want property values jacked up 50% out there by the end of the year. And tell that Frankenheimer dickhead I want to see slot machines in the lobby of every goddam apartment building he owns out there -- what's he got, about a hundred by now?"

"Eighty-eight at last count," responded Graykirk quietly, snapping his attaché case shut. "Well, if we can't turn the Village into Harvard Square I suppose we can at least try for Atlantic City with a subtle soupҫon of le bohème."

* * * * * *

"Phone call, madam -- er, Head Pussy," Jeremy said in his silky but gravelly South Jersey twang. "Shall I bring in the instrument?"

"Please." Adeline Dutoit stretched herself and examined her face in her gilt edged hand mirror.

"Dutoit Real Estate."

"Adeline, it’s Stetson."

"Stetson? Oh, Stetson Graykirk. You wanna buy a house?"

"Actually, Adeline, I don’t want to buy a house just now."

"Oh, another 'don't-wanter'. God, I get so weary of these rude and offensive jerks who think our neighborhood just isn’t GOOD ENOUGH for them, insulting me with these LOW BIDS!"

"Stuff it, Adeline. It's me, Graykirk. Pay attention now -- here's what we want you to do. Eric's going to be coordinating an L&I sweep down the Corridor. We figure that's going to drive some of these fleabag African and Asian mom and pop operations out of business. We want you to snap up as much property on Baltimore Avenue as you can in the next two weeks. Capiche?"

"Oh sure, Stetsie. No problemo. Just one little thing -- cash. I'll need a cool two million in unmarked bills. Leave it in the usual place, behind the Dickens statue. I'll have Jerremy pick it up this afternoon when he's out in the stretch, shopping at the Amish farmer's market."

"Alright. Two million shouldn't be a problem. And this is strictly hush-hush -- got that? The Top Banana wants some lingerie boutiques and bagel shops lining the Avenue by Christmas."

"Hell, I can do better than that, Stetsie. Listen to this -- I'm going to put a Banana Republic in the Firehouse."

"Whatever. I don't want to hear the sordid details. Just make it happen. And remember -- we want mass rapid gentrification by Christmas. If not, we can always transfer you back to Detroit, where we picked you up from the gutter." There was a sharp click as he rang off.

* * * * * *

Three weeks later it was Christmas Eve. On the Baltimore business corridor, festive throngs thronged the sidewalks. Things were looking up. Dog-owners walked their Borzois on leashes. Where hair braiding salons had stood, new upscale boutiques, many of them Mennonite, did booming business. University City District gentrification crews scrubbed revolutionary graffiti from the walls.

But as Adeline Dutoit rolled down the Avenue in her BMW, she was uneasy. Many of the passersby on the gaily decorated sidewalks were of African or Oriental descent -- Masai tribesmen, Lao hill people, Siberian fur traders. She passed a Senegalese restaurant. "Darn, I thought we shut that one down," she exclaimed, biting her lip. "Oh gosh, please please please don't let them send me back to Detroit."

As she turned into Clark Park she sensed a strange atmosphere. There was a crowd of people clustered around the Dickens statue, and they didn't seem to be whacking each other with tree limbs or tugging from half gallon malt liquor bottles in paper bags. She stopped the BMW and got out. What was that unearthly sound? She crept closer and peeked through the crowd. There, perched up on the statue, was a band of Amish, singing in a dirge-like chant. It sounded like -- yes, it was Christmas carols -- songs she remembered from her long ago unhappy childhood. Grouped around the Amish were Mennnonites singing in flawless four-part harmony, and, even more surprisingly, anarchists with their hair properly combed politely tapping on their drums and humming "Par rump pa pum pum."

Suddenly a bright purple light shone down on the statue from the sky. Enormous winged thousand dollar bills descended from the heavens. The crowd raised their hands in exaltation as the bills drifted down like winged snowflakes around them.

Was it -- could it be? Yes, thought Adeline; it WAS! It was the MARKET FORCES, falling gently from the heavens above.

Adeline felt the tears coming. She wiped them away, but more gushed out. Soon she was bawling like a sick cat. Just in time! Her doubts were washed away. Yes, Virginia, she thought happily, there IS a Sanity Claus! Just in time for Christmas -- it was the Gentrification of the Corridor!

 

--Ross Bender