The Fight to Bring Chester Back From the Brink
By Jim Waltzer
“Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky / Stormy weather …”
The great jazz/blues vocalist Ethel Waters, a native of Chester, may have been the first to sing this classic song in public, doing so in a 1933 nightclub performance. About four decades later, the sun disappeared from her hometown’s sky. Once an industrial power-house, the city lost its bearings, a victim of urban upheaval and the changing economy. The tax base shrank, the crime rate spiked, and survival became the order of the day.
In the depth and swiftness of its decline, Chester had—and has—plenty of company across America. This city by the river, whose shipbuilding muscle had seen the country through a couple of world wars, fell into the clutches of receivership.
Recently, though, commitment and creative thinking from many quarters have begun to tug Chester from the bog. The trick will be not to backslide. “It will take everybody at the table to help turn things around,” says Mike McGee, executive director of the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County, which promotes economic development.
“We have to harness our human capital,” adds the city’s mayor, John Linder.
As a youth, Linder learned how to swim at the long-gone Chester YMCA. In the years since, city leaders and residents have become accustomed to swimming upstream. With its economy under siege, the impediments to progress in Chester—neighborhood violence, schools in disarray, deteriorating housing, financial woes—have been intractable. That’s all the more distressing, given the city’s rich history.
In fact, there is a Chester of myth and memory. Pennsylvania-bound William Penn stepped ashore here—not at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia—on his inaugural visit in 1682, renaming the Swedish settlement for an English city that also lay by a river and would become an industrial heavyweight. The American version was a county seat for nearly 170 years. The compact stone courthouse, built in 1724, served the county before becoming Chester City Hall. It’s still in use, though not as a courthouse.
From the Civil War through World War II and beyond, shipyards on the Chester waterfront were go-to suppliers for the U.S. Navy and the merchant marine. Sun Shipbuilding was the country’s largest. Ford Motor Company and Scott Paper joined the river lineup, their assembly lines churning out cars and Cottonelle as ships rolled off the slipways.
It’s hard to believe now, but Chester was once a city of downtown shopping and movie theaters, of new and expanding businesses, of professionals hanging out fresh shingles. Chester’s population grew from less than 1,000 in 1820 to 66,000 in 1950.
Following decreases—some of them sharp—every decade since, the number has stabilized. It’s estimated to be around 34,000 today. There are reasons for this. People in and out of government have been working to improve living conditions in Chester and draw people back to the city. They often operate below the radar, but their efforts are yielding visible results.
One is Steve Fischer, executive director of the Chester Housing Authority. Fischer came to Chester from New York a decade ago to run an authority badly in need of an overhaul. It had been taken over in 1994 by a federal judge responding to a tenant lawsuit protesting decayed buildings and rampant crime. On Fischer’s watch, Chester’s public housing has done a 180. The authority was released from receivership earlier this year. “I hope that what we’ve accomplished can serve as a message,” he says. “Things can be transformed.”
The authority now has its own police force and has revamped its housing stock. As for the latter, the most noticeable change has been the replacement of the two Chester Towers with four four-story structures—three federally subsidized apartment buildings, plus a commercial building that accommodates a pharmacy, a dental practice and the authority offices. As federal funding from HUD has shrunk, Fischer has sought other revenue sources—like a childcare center (at the Ruth L. Bennett Homes, one of the authority’s nine communities) and a mini-farm that sells its surplus.
The authority currently oversees 100 owned residences and 2,366 rentals, and there’s a waiting list of applicants. Fischer welcomes partners in his efforts. He’s also looking for private developers who “stick around for the long haul.”
Developer Debbie DeSimone subscribes to that kind of thinking. Her Best Homes has rehabbed more than 150 properties, most of them in Chester. She has a waiting list of 65. Founded by DeSimone and her home-remodeler husband less than four years ago, the business entails more than just nails and drywall. “If you’re home, you’ll be with me for a long time,” she says.
Long-term tenants are good for both business and the community. To create genuine homes, rather than stopovers, DeSimone installs large pantries, washer-dryers and other amenities in each of her units, and provides landscaping and exterior maintenance services not typically associated with Chester rental properties. She recently transformed an authority-owned lot from drug turf into a little park. The site, located near row houses revived by Best Homes, reinforces the direction of this eastside neighborhood.
Next up for the company: an ambitious conversion of the vacant, vintage Wetherill School—“A stone fortress,” says DeSimone—into upscale apartments ready for occupancy by late summer. And there are other like-minded developers who’ve been renovating abandoned properties and restoring them to the tax rolls.
A nonprofit player in the rehab arena is the Chester Community Improvement Project, which seeks to revitalize deteriorated neighborhoods and streamline the path to home ownership. “We strategically pick neighborhoods [to improve] that most people will not go into,” says CCIP’s executive director, Annette Pyatt, whose office is in the historic 1724 courthouse. “Then we help families maneuver through the chaotic process [of home buying].”
Utilizing $600,000-$700,000 in annual funds from the city, Delaware County, HUD and private foundations, CCIP forges partnerships with builders, government and the public to provide new life to deserted houses and their environs. The focus in recent years has been the so-called East Gateway Triangle—formed by the junction of Edgmont and Providence avenues—situated between Widener University and the city’s main entry point, Crozer-Chester Medical Center. Pyatt reports that eight of nine targeted 1930s houses—which had spawned a high volume of crime—are now renovated and occupied.
Meanwhile, CCIP has established a community center at the neighborhood’s North Chester Baptist Church. In 2008, a new Best Western—Chester’s first hotel in 35 years—opened, courtesy of the $50 million Widener/Crozer joint University Crossings project on previously tax-exempt land.
In that same area, a Bottom Dollar Food closed after just five months last year, when parent company Delhaize sold the regional chain to Aldi. That left Chester with only one food mart: the nonprofit Fare & Square, run by Philabundance. That store has been open for less than two years, following a 12-year absence of grocery stores in the city.