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  • The University Fix and John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire
  • Andy Hines (bio)

John Edgar Wideman's novel Philadelphia Fire (1990) reconstructs the 1985 MOVE bombing, which left eleven people dead (including five children) and sixty-one homes destroyed.1 In the novel, Cudjoe, one of three black protagonists, returns to West Philadelphia from self-imposed exile abroad to find a missing boy who fled the bombing. Soon Cudjoe's inquiry expands to the underlying political, economic, and social forces that led the Philadelphia police to drop a satchel charge from a helicopter onto the compound that housed the liberation group. Cudjoe's quest to find meaning in MOVE's destruction swerves away from the archives of public documents or the public airing of grief and responsibility brought before the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission. Instead, he looks to "grasp the pattern" of the city by coming to terms with what shaped him and his time in West Philadelphia.2

Cudjoe identifies this pattern in Philadelphia's geography, its planned and plotted spatial arrangements, which carry an extended history of violence, dispossession, and exploitation. The novel's epigraph from William Penn's original plan for the city reflects this diagnosis for the MOVE catastrophe: "Let every house be placed, if the Person pleases, in the middle of its platt … so there may be ground on each side, for Gardens or Orchards or fields, that it may be a greene Country Towne, wch will never be burnt, and always be wholsome" ([vii]). Penn invokes the white settler imperative of improvement and liberal order guided by a pursuit of mastery over nature. That Philadelphia "will never be burnt" suggests that the incursions and burns necessary to clear the land for rational development are left for the surround, the area outside the settler's fortifications.3 This deliberate bracketing of the burn's violence allows the city to appear as "wholsome" for those with the capacity to own a plot. Indeed, as Katherine McKittrick argues, "prevailing spatial organization gives a coherency and rationality to uneven geographic processes and arrangements: a city plan, for example, can (and often does) reiterate social class distinctions, race and gender segregation, and (in)accessibility to and from specific districts; the flows of money, spaces, infrastructure and people are uneven, in that the built [End Page 129] environment privileges and therefore mirrors, white heterosexual, capitalist, and patriarchal geopolitical needs."4 William Penn's plan for Philadelphia—and the political, economic, and social grammars of settler colonialism and slavery that make it possible ideologically and materially—structures the city's ongoing development, rather than marking a singular founding event.5

While Philadelphia's late seventeenth-century plan haunts its ongoing development, Wideman identifies a contemporary agent for that plan's execution: the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Fire depicts the University of Pennsylvania as a key actor in perpetuating the uneven development of Philadelphia both through the university's urban renewal and gentrification activities and by its production of a class to manage the extraction of surplus from nonwhite racialized populations. The management of surplus extraction extends both to labor power and to the territory that these populations precariously inhabit. On the terms of William Penn's plan, higher education institutions channel the necessary social forces to structure urban geography. When referring to Penn's plan for Philadelphia, we might think of its dual valence—it is the plan of the university for its city, as well as the plan of the settler city's founder—as highlighting the continuity between the university's spatial will and the spatial arrangement, development, and improvement that occurs with Philadelphia's settlement.

In suggesting that the university plays a crucial role in creating, managing, and policing surplus extractions from nonwhite people, as well as providing a spatial fix to idle urban land use, Philadelphia Fire anticipates a recent turn in scholarly inquiries to the contemporary and historical function of the American university.6 That turn can be understood as an exploration of how "all of higher education benefits from inequality in some way," as Tressie McMillan Cottom has put it.7 Some of these benefits include the exploitation of adjunct faculty, service workers, and...


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pp. 129-153
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