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A City in Transition

By JENNIFER POST STOUDT

It’s a place that’s attractive, clean and safe. A place where jobs are plentiful and there are fun and exciting things to do downtown and along the river. It’s a place where residents enjoy a high quality of life and diversity is an asset rather than a challenge.

This is Mayor Tom McMahon’s vision for Reading.

 

Since the mid-90s, Reading has faced a series of challenges. A city government that has seen red ink on its books for many years; a loss of jobs caused by the closing of companies such as Lucent Technology, DANA Corporation and Agere Systems; the closing of the Reading Outlet Center which once boasted 80 stores and gave Reading its renown as “The Outlet Capital of the World;” and a crime rate that, in 2002, labeled Reading the 25th most dangerous city in the United States, have left the once thriving city gasping for air.

A Look Back

When George Meiser was a kid, Saturday mornings in Reading were exciting. With his allowance in hand, he’d head downtown weaving in and out of the crowds that leisurely strolled along the sidewalks of Penn Street as they window shopped. On his way to the movies, he had to make a big decision…cartoons at the Astor Theatre or cowboy films at The Ritz. “Saturday mornings in Reading were big,” says Meiser, president of the Historical Society of Berks County. “Penn Street was filled with people going to the 10 a.m. movie. Lines would go from the front door, down to the railroad track and around the block.”

And safety was not a concern. “When I lived in Reading as a kid, no one locked their door unless they went on vacation for a couple of weeks. Crime at that time was non-existent. I never even thought twice about walking home from a movie at 10:30 p.m.”

Alive with shoppers, workers and entertainment seekers, many of whom took the nickel and seven-cent trolleys into town, Reading was booming in the early to mid-1900s. “It was a classy town,” says Meiser. “Going to Penn Street was an occasion. People would get dressed up to go to concerts – ladies in long gowns and tiaras and men in tuxedos – some people went in just to window shop.”

It was the center for hosiery manufacture and the production of builder’s hardware. Retail was flourishing with large department stores like Pomeroy’s, Shaffer Dry Goods and Whitners, as well as a slew of Mom and Pop stores that lined Penn Street -- “the absolute hub of Reading and essentially all of Berks County,” according to Meiser.

Reading was a major manufacturing center that boasted one of the largest railroad industries in the nation and employment was plentiful. From working in the hosiery mills and large department stores to churning out builder’s hardware, there was a job available to anyone who wanted to work. “My mother left school in the eighth grade and got a job in a hosiery mill,” says John Kramer, director of Albright’s Center for Community Leadership. “There were a lot of jobs for those with less than a high school education.” Reading was flourishing.

In the 1950s, retail started to take a turn. The first discount store, Miracle Mart, opened on Pottsville Pike. Nickels soon followed and despite the Blue Laws, which mandated that only necessities could be purchased on Sundays, the store was open seven days a week, a first for a store in Reading. (Blue Laws were enforced until the early ’70s.) In addition, large supermarkets like Acme moved in, lessening the need for Mom and Pop stores. “Once the stores came in,” says Meiser, “people only went to Mom and Pop stores for small items. By 1960, many of them closed up and the stores became homes.” In fact, he notes, “Not a single store I used to go to as a kid still functions as a store today. They’re all homes.”

The ’70s brought yet another new retail element to town. The Reading Outlet Center opened in a cluster of five former factory buildings. In 1984, it doubled to 10 buildings and thrived for years, with 80 stores at its peak in 1990. Busloads of shoppers from all over the tri-state area would visit what was once called the “Outlet Capital of the World.”

A Changing Population

But over time, as in many small American cities, things began to change.

There has always been a perception that Reading is predominantly Pennsylvania Dutch. True of Berks County as a whole, it is not accurate for the City of Reading. While the demographics of the city have changed since the ’40s and ’50s, Reading has always been a melting pot.

Today, Latinos comprise 39 percent of Reading’s population. But according to Kramer, who grew up in Reading, the city has “always been an ethnically diverse community. For many years it was predominantly Italian, Irish, Polish and German. Today’s immigrants are just from South American cultures as opposed to European cultures.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s Hispanic population grew to 58 percent in the past decade, making it the fastest growing minority group.


“We need to embrace our changing population and turn it into an opportunity and an asset.”

- Angel Figueroa, Reading City Council


The first Latinos who migrated to Berks County were Puerto Rican agricultural workers who arrived in the late 1940s through employment secured by the Department of Labor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. These migrants were provided with housing in the employer’s camps. Later, many secured year-round work in the mushroom industry and began to bring their families over and settle in the area.

Today, the Latino population is much more diversified with a predominant number of Mexicans, Cubans and Dominicans.

Angel Figueroa, member of Reading City Council and Albright Accelerated Degree Completion student, believes that “We need to embrace our changing population and turn it into an opportunity and an asset.” Kramer agrees, “The city has to look at the Hispanic community as an opportunity, as a marketplace. Where we at one time had German and Italian corner markets, now we need to have Hispanic markets.”

Figueroa adds, “This is a population that is eager to spend money and hungry to live the American dream. Look at places like Texas, Florida and Los Angeles…they’re good examples of places that have moved ahead, captured the Hispanic population and run with it.”

However, Figueroa also realizes that the changing population brings challenges with it as well. “If we don’t resolve issues of education in our community we will have a huge crisis on our hands.”

According to a study on the Latino community conducted by the Wyomissing Foundation, due to the large influx of Latinos and the realities of facing a technological rather than an agricultural era, they are not easily absorbed into the workforce. “We have an ethical and a moral responsibility to get involved,” says Figueroa.

Greg Eichhorn, vice president of enrollment management and dean of admission, says Albright is interested in attracting local Hispanic students to the College, and knows that there is more that can be done. Efforts to attract Hispanic students to Albright include the Joseph Coleman Scholarship, outreach through local community and church groups and work with the Talent Search Program to have students spend a day on campus. In addition, Eichhorn says, “We have done some financial aid nights for families at the Hispanic Center of Reading, but I would be the first to say we can do better.”

Looking to the Future

Regardless of the challenges, Figueroa says, “Reading is at a turning point, a positive turning point. The city has a lot of hope and energy right now.”

Since last year, the overall crime rate in Reading has decreased seven percent and homicides have decreased 40 percent, and McMahon has made it his number one priority to continue the fight.

Reading is not the only city on the eastern seaboard with these problems. In regard to crime, Kramer says, “When Guiliani cleaned up New York, it drove them (criminals) right down Route 222 through Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, York…we all have the same problem.” But it’s a problem that the new mayor is willing to tackle head on.

A joint venture with the county police and the Muhlenberg police is working to reduce vehicle theft, while Operation COBRA has assigned 12 officers from the patrol division

to street level. “It’s made a real impact,” McMahon says. He has also established neighborhood crime-watch organizations. Twenty-nine groups have come together so far, he says, and “we’re in the process of securing funding to have one or two part-time people to help.” The groups, which encourage people to get involved and take charge of cleaning up their own neighborhood, puts more eyes on the streets and helps to secure a better quality of life for residents. “The neighbors have really started to step up to the plate,” McMahon says. “People really do care about this city.”

While there were plenty of critics and naysayers during its construction, the establishment in 2001 of the downtown entertainment complex, comprised of the Sovereign Center Arena and Sovereign Performing Arts Center on Penn Street, has renewed residents’ hopes in the economic vitality of the city. In its first year, with acts like Stevie Nicks, Bill Cosby, the Harlem Globetrotters and Disney on Ice, as well as the hometown Reading Royals ice hockey team, the complex finished the season in the black. Each year since it has seen higher attendance, with more profits generated for the city and downtown business owners. In fact, according to a June 2004 article in the Reading Eagle, the complex recently climbed the ranks from a third-tier venue to a second-tier venue, meaning it gets more and bigger events. This year Elton John and Cher were among the headliners.

With his goals firmly in place – to fight crime, create a business friendly environment, revitalize the downtown and its neighborhoods, and restore the financial health of the city – Mayor McMahon has his hands full. But he’s not doing it alone. Many organizations have come together for the economic development of the city, he says.

The Berks Economic Partnership (BEP) has been charged with marketing the city and looking at its competitive advantages.

Mike Ehlerman, chair of BEP, says the ultimate goal of the organization is to attract new businesses into the city and help businesses that are already here to expand. Created in 2003, the organization, which is both privately and publicly funded, is led by a board of directors that includes representatives primarily from the business community. An executive committee of other organizations that affect economic development in the city such as volunteer organizations, the Chamber of Commerce and the five colleges, has also been appointed. David Stinebeck, Albright’s interim president, is a member of this committee.

The goal of the organization is to create new employment opportunities in the city, says Ehlerman. “But my personal goal,” he adds, “is to make as many as possible at the higher end of the scale.” Ehlerman notes that the organization is already working with a large computer software operation, currently headquartered not far from Reading, which is looking to expand.

Albright is also working towards bettering the city. In 2003, the College led the countywide art exhibition Mexico Illuminated, the largest exhibition of contemporary Mexican art ever held outside of Mexico, which drew more than 50 Mexican artists and thousands of visitors to Berks County.

One of the exhibition’s venues, the new Albright Cultural Center at 645 Penn Street, brought the arts to the downtown. Today, the center hosts exhibitions, poetry readings, film showings and events with the goal of creating a lively cultural venue in the downtown area. “Such a cultural space can be an asset in revitalizing the downtown business community,” says Chris Youngs, director of the Freedman Gallery and member of the City’s Arts Board, who spearheaded the project.

And through the efforts of the RiverPlace Development Corporation, a non-profit organization, local politicians and business leaders are developing a master plan to revitalize the riverfront area. “There are a whole series of projects being toyed with right now,” says McMahon. “It’s a long-term process, but we’re going to get it started. The river itself is a gathering place for people in the city and the county. It started that way historically and we’re going to bring it back.”

The vision for the riverfront includes parks and playgrounds, an amphitheater, museums and fishing docks.

Last year, a group of students in biology professor David Osgood’s environmental seminar class focused their senior project on geographic information technology (GIS) and how it applied to the environmental problems of the Riverfront. “Their task was to build a computerized map base of the Riverfront,” says Osgood. Mapping out where the endangered species are, what the different soil types are, possible land uses around the river, and pollution sources, the program then allows planners to overlay roads, parks, trails, etc. over top to see what coincides with the space. In July, Osgood will present the class’s work to the RiverPlace Board.

“Albright College is part of the City of Reading,” says David Stinebeck. “What affects Reading affects us. Because we are tucked away up here in this corner of the city by the mountain, it is easy to forget that we are part of Reading. But our students live here, faculty and staff live in these neighborhoods, thousands of visitors to Albright come to Reading. As the senior educational institution, we have an obligation to use our expertise and resources to benefit this city. There is much energy being put to work here, all focused on charting an exciting future for the city, and we intend to be a part of it."

“Some folks feel that the city has gone down so much that it can’t come back,” Mayor McMahon says. “Our job is to change their minds.”

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