drug program? Did we do a crime prevention program? No, we just built houses and put people back here.” On Point Breeze Avenue, Islam identifies the property where Universal plans to build a $12 million performing arts center. “We just got $6 million from the [state] government to do it,” he says proudly. He expects to complete that project in two years. Simultaneously, the company plans to renovate the historic Royal Theater on South Street, which will serve as an entertainment venue for local and national talent.
As one would expect, Universal’s origins are steeped in music. In 1977, Philadelphia International Records, a music label and former BE 100 company, owned by Gamble and Huff, joined with CBS Records to launch an urban beautification program. Gamble and Huff, along with several Philadelphia International’s performers, including Teddy Pendergrass, Archie Bell, and the O’Jays, recorded a single called “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto.” Proceeds from the single and the accompanying compilation album were used to finance inner-city cleanup projects. “The song was pretty much a culmination of us traveling all over the United States and seeing how devastated African American communities were,” says Gamble, who along with Huff gr
aced the December 1979 cover of BLACK ENTERPRISE. “We decided to bring attention to it and eventually developed a program.”
The following year, Gamble took the message of “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” to heart and began the arduous task of restoring South Philly by purchasing 120 dilapidated buildings–the first one was his abandoned childhood home. “At that particular time I was living in another area of the city called Gladwyne,” says Gamble, who left that posh locale and moved back into his childhood home. “You don’t see how devastated a community is until you move back into it. The conditions [African American] people come from–on a psychological, economic, and educational level–are unbelievable.”
When South Philly’s native son returned to his roots, he inspired others to follow suit. Among them was Islam, a former transportation analyst for Sun Oil Co., who was looking to redevelop sections of his own Philadelphia neighborhood, Tioga. The two met in 1992. “I was basically trying to rebuild my home community, and he was trying the same for his,” recalls Islam. “But he had more going for him than I did, so I thought my best shot to get this done was to partner with him.”
In 1993 the two men formed Universal Community Homes, a nonprofit community development corporation that provided low- and moderate-income families with homes built or refurbished by the corporation. By September 1999, the company became the umbrella entity Universal Cos., with Islam overseeing the operations as chief executive. But affordable housing was only a portion of the equation. Gamble and Islam decided to go into education as well. “Our goal was to make the cleanup of the ghetto a reality by improving the standard of living in the African American community,” says Gamble.
One of the results is Universal Institute Charter School, an academic program for students in