In an unused train station that shut down decades ago, next to a building where rooms rent by the week, in a pocket of downtown Reading that has seen better days, a party came to town – and with it a breeze of optimism.
It came in the form of an emotional, exuberant production called “This is Reading,” that was performed in the former Franklin Street Station to capacity crowds the last three weekends in July.
“This is Reading” was a multimedia performance piece that used acting, dance and film to tell the story about the decline of Reading’s industrial past, its present and hope for its future.
It was conceived by playwright Lynn Nottage and was an outgrowth of “Sweat,” the taut drama she wrote about a group of factory workers from Reading. Nottage spent two years interviewing Reading residents, and their stories inspired “Sweat” and “This is Reading.”
“Sweat” won a Pulitzer this year and had a brief run on Broadway.
“Sweat’s” timing was prescient, capturing as it did the zeitgeist of the past election season which gave expression to the angry, unheard voices of the working and middle class, people who work hard but can’t get ahead and who have lost jobs to companies that closed and moved overseas. “Sweat” and “This is Reading” both end on a note of hope.
SHIFT IS UNDERWAY
Reading has plenty of civic boosters, businesspeople, politicians and development leaders who have been working hard to reverse the city’s economic decline over the decades.
There have been successes – the planned $20 million National Velodrome and Events Center at Albright College, the conversion of the former Abraham Lincoln hotel and outlets into apartments, the gleaming new DoubleTree hotel that opened across the street from the Santander Arena, which along with the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts opened more than a decade ago.
While there is still work to be done until a true renaissance has taken place, something seems to be shifting in Reading.
It was palpable on those evenings when “This is Reading” performed, an optimism and the afterglow that followed that animated audience members who came from the suburbs and inner city, and who danced together in the aisles at the conclusion of each performance.
‘READING IS RISING’
After one Saturday evening performance, a beaming State Sen. Judy Schwank exulted, “I wish everyone could see it. It makes you feel like you’re in a very special place. People here don’t recognize what they have.”
“This is Reading” may be the most novel economic development tool yet.
“Reading is rising. We’re more than our past,” said Schwank, minutes before she and Reading City Councilwomen Donna Reed and Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz members presented Nottage and her co-creators Tony Gerber and Kate Whoriskey with honorary citations.
Nottage, in an interview before the performance, said “This is Reading” was an attempt to use art to bring the community together, diverse voices that may not always talk to each other, and to help change the narrative about the city.
“The community has to take care of each other,” she said.
POOREST CITY OF ITS SIZE IN AMERICA
Nottage set out five years ago to learn Reading’s story after she read a New York Times article about its dubious distinction as the poorest city of its size in the United States. She spent years visiting Reading and interviewing its residents, who told her stories about its heyday, about the tight ethnic neighborhoods, about racial tensions and a struggling economy.
Nottage said she was struck by how people spoke to her in the past tense about Reading.
“I think in order for a city really to actualize itself, it has to see itself in the present tense,” she said.
“I think at the moment when I began those interviews it was a particularly difficult and fraught and dark point in Reading’s history, to have the realization that it was the poorest city in all of America. I think that people were really looking back with a great deal of nostalgia to the golden age when Reading thrived.”
Nottage has noticed a change.
“I think that now when you talk to people there is certainly a greater sense of optimism and hope,” she said. “You feel people reaching toward the future in ways that I felt I didn’t encounter when I first came here.”
STARTS WITH PRIDE
Santo Marabella, film commissioner for ReadingFilm and a producer for “This is Reading,” said sometimes it takes an outsider to teach a community about its strengths.
“I think economic development starts with pride about where you live and work,” said Marabella, who grew up in Reading and is a professor of management at Moravian College.
“We have to start feeling good about ourselves and see ourselves differently in order to be attractive to others. The interesting thing is that sometimes those catalysts have to come from outside because we can’t always do it for ourselves for the community.”
Marabella said the community now has a responsibility to take the hope and goodwill engendered by “This is Reading” and put it into action.
“It has to be all of us, it can’t just be the Chamber of Commerce. We have to really want this.”
GUTTED THE COMMUNITY
The notion that communities need to take care of each other factors heavily in Nottage’s work. In “Sweat,” a character who has been literally and figuratively beaten down, is handed a dish cloth and given an opportunity to work.
Like “Sweat,” “This is Reading” notes some of the blows to the city’s identity and economic stability, such as the demise of the Reading Railroad, urban renewal attempts in the 1960s and 1970s that wiped out neighborhoods and erased iconic landmarks such as Pomeroy’s department store and the loss of factory jobs because of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Collectively we as a community, we as a culture failed to nurture and support each other,” Nottage said.
Of companies that have closed factories here and taken production to countries where there is cheaper labor, Nottage said, “It’s incredibly shortsighted. They are sort of filling their coffers in the moment, but the impact is going to be far reaching. They are not creating a class that buys their products, they are not creating a community. They are destroying a community.”
ON THE CUSP
While Berks County is no longer the manufacturing center it once was, it still comprises a healthy segment of its economy. The county has about 32,000 people employed in manufacturing, making all manner of goods, from chocolate candy to steel tubes.
“We still make things here in Berks County,” said Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber & Economic Development Corp.
Berks has a balanced and diversified economy today, with manufacturing making up about 22 percent of its gross domestic product.
Peers is bullish on Reading’s future and said investors who had been waiting on the sidelines are starting to consider the downtown.
“There is a sense we are turning a corner in the city and that people are willing to step up to the plate to make things happen,” he said.
LOVES THE CITY
On a recent Saturday evening, Barbara Waller, deputy director of Co-County Wellness Center, a nonprofit health care organization, waited with anticipation with about 200 people on wooden benches inside the Franklin Street Station.
A longtime Reading resident, Waller said she could have easily left the city, but stayed because she loves it.
She remains optimistic about Reading’s potential but, like others, knows it’s not easy.
“Nothing happens overnight,” she said.