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Behind Temple attacks, rage often comes with exclusion

I was at once heartbroken and horrified as I watched video of our children - black children - brutally punching, kicking and, in at least one case, robbing students near the campus of Temple University on Friday night.

I was at once heartbroken and horrified as I watched video of our children - black children - brutally punching, kicking and, in at least one case, robbing students near the campus of Temple University on Friday night.

It was an orgy of violence that was arranged through social media, a forum where the impulsiveness of youth and the efficiency of technology too often result in chaos.

When the attack was over, a police horse had been punched, a police officer had been knocked to the ground, a Temple student was hospitalized, and several others were hurt.

At press time, four teens had been arrested in connection with the incidents. An estimated 100 or more were involved.

But even when the physical scars are healed and justice is meted out, the distance that separates the impoverished black teens of North Philly from the white college students of Temple will remain. They live in the same community, but their realities are worlds apart.

I know because I spent my teen years at 25th and Oxford, just a mile from the 1400 block of Oxford St., where one of the assaults occurred. I know because those same streets nearly swallowed me before I earned my journalism degree from Temple.

But woven between the swirl of drugs, crime and poverty that sometimes marked those streets, there was also a proud and hardworking group of people who were brutally honest, unceasingly real and generous enough to share what little they had.

It was that North Philly that shaped me. It is that North Philly where the attacks took place, and it is that North Philly that is dying under the weight of gentrification.

For more than a decade, on whip-thin streets with names like Sydenham and Colorado, longtime community residents and their children watched white men from other places come in to build new rental housing. That same community sought jobs on those worksites, but contractors who required union labor and unions that were largely white and male excluded community workers. Then community members were forced to watch as Temple students were welcomed into that same new housing by landlords who used various methods to exclude community residents from renting them.

As a result, the neighborhood rapidly changed, and younger, whiter residents moved in.

The Pew Charitable Trusts examined the changes in the community surrounding Temple University in a study called "Philadelphia's Changing neighborhoods: Gentrification and Other Shifts Since 2000."

In census tract 147, which encompasses 1400 W. Oxford St., the area where one of the attacks took place, Pew found that the area was 96 percent black in 2000. That was virtually cut in half by 2010.

Thanks to a proliferation of newly constructed student housing, property values also went up. In fact, according to Pew, the area west of Temple saw the most extreme change in property values of all university areas in the city, with the median sale price of a house going from $11,250 in 2000-01 to $140,000 in 2013-14.

"There were 14 census tracts in the city that had gone from majority African American to no longer majority African American," Larry Eichel of Pew told me in an interview. "Eight of those were adjacent to universities. We had some data and some observations.

"From the point of view of the longtime residents that were still there, there were some pluses and minuses: improved amenities, sometimes the university police patrols the area so community residents feel like they have extra security, retail options and grocery stores and stuff like that. But they also feel that there's noise; the students don't respect them, don't understand them, don't respect the neighborhood. Some longtime residents feel they're not as comfortable in the neighborhood as they were."

And therein lies the problem.

In a city where poverty is concentrated outside the universities, we can't truly expect the poor to watch jobs and wealth and excess pass them by without any reaction at all.

To be sure, violence is the wrong response. And the kids who engaged in it will surely be prosecuted, as they should be.

But I believe those teens are expressing something that has long simmered beneath the surface. They are expressing the rage that comes with exclusion. They are expressing the hurt that comes with invisibility. They are engaged in the inevitable push and pull of change.

Temple University, my alma mater, has reached out to the community with scholarships for local youth, according to spokesman Ray Betzner. They've put reading programs in place, tutored high schoolers and even talked to their own students about respecting longtime community residents. But Temple would be wise to reach out into the community with an eye toward creating stronger relationships and greater opportunities for the young people who've been pushed aside by a generation of exclusionary development.

The community would be wise to reach back.

Solomon Jones, whose column appears Tuesdays, is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM). More at