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“Wake up everybody no more sleeping in bed
No more backward thinking time for thinking ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be
There is so much hatred, war, and poverty”
—”Wake up Everybody” (Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The Philly Sound, Volume 3)
In south Philadelphia, rows of dilapidated husks haunt this once-thriving community. The skeletal structures, remnants of homes long since abandoned, are as numerous as the boarded-up storefronts, each symbols of entrepreneurial dreams unattained—another indication of a collapsed local economy no longer capable of supporting such ventures.
But on a hot summer morning, as the thermometer flirts with the 100-degree mark, there are signs of improvement amid the blight. On street corners where drug dealing and prostitution once flourished, there are now well-lit residential neighborhoods. Construction sites boast signs advertising new housing, schools, and retail locations—all with the ubiquitous Universal Cos. logo. On 18th and Christian streets a convenience store with an ATM is open for business in an area where just months prior there was none. And although it’s summer, class is in session at the newly renovated Universal Institute Charter School, where children clad in plaid uniforms flood hallways decorated with images of prominent African Americans.
These are among the fruits of the Herculean labors pioneered by music-legend-turned-philanthropist Kenneth Gamble. The two-time Grammy Award winner, who along with Leon Huff, penned hits such as “Love Train,” “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” has assumed a role as urban redeveloper.
Since 1963 the songwriting and producing team of Gamble and Huff has earned 175 gold and platinum records and created what was known as “The Sound of Philadelphia,” a style of music that dominated the pop and R&B charts for two decades.
These days, Gamble, 59, is also known as founder and chairman of the nonprofit Universal Cos., the umbrella company comprised of a slew of real estate development, educational, and retail operations. In this post, Gamble is helping to redevelop his native South Philadelphia and is constructing a how-to model for urban redevelopment he hopes communities across the nation will adopt. From education and affordable housing to promoting entrepreneurship and creating jobs, Universal Cos. is looking to effect social change in these communities through economic and educational improvement, one neighborhood at a time.
The company, which employs 180 people and grossed $15 million last year—75% of which came from government grants and private sector donations, with the remaining 25% coming from earned income—is on a mission to redevelop three neighborhoods within South Philadelphia: the 15-square-block area of Hawthorne, 40 blocks that constitute Southwest Central, and 72 square blocks that make up Point Breeze. Launched with $6 million to $7 million of Gamble’s own money, the company’s assets now include:
- Universal Real Estate Development Co., which has a portfolio valued at $14 million. Its assets consist of 250 developed residential properties, an additional 300 units under construction, and approximately 250,000 square feet of commercial space. Some 450 people currently reside in housing provided by