Listen to Episode 03: Chester, A City Working on a New Narrative
Episode 03 of Grapple takes you to the southeastern Pennsylvania city of Chester, once a thriving industrial center on the Delaware River. Today this small city — which lost nearly half its population — grapples with poverty, failing schools and crime. You’ll hear stories from people who grew up in Chester about how their city has changed over time; a landlord who’s using bright colors to stabilize a neighborhood once overrun with drug trafficking; and a group of investors bringing one of Chester’s oddest-shaped buildings back to life. Plus, you’ll hear how basketball brings the city together and the Chester roots of a rock and roll legend.
The fence that separates I-95 from a neighborhood street in the Feltonville section of Chester, Pennsylvania. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Chester is a city that most people whizz by in their cars. Located between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware — Interstate 95, which is the major East Coast highway that runs from Maine to Florida — cuts right through the heart of the city. If you slow down to notice, there are homes right next to the highway and stretches where there are no protective barriers; instead, just a thin, metal fence that separates the highway from neighborhood streets and driveways.
We pulled off the highway and talked with people about what it’s like living along I-95.
Mary Ann Gutierrez said she rarely allows her children to play outside. Not because of the highway, but because of gun violence.“I’m working real hard to get my kids out of this environment,” said Gutierrez. “It’s because of the high drug area and the shoot outs in broad daylight. Anybody would be scared with their two kids. My daughter is 3 1/2, he’s 6 and that’s all I got. I can’t afford to lose them.”
Landlord Debbie DeSimone painted the homes on Rose Street different shades of bright, pastel colors. “…Somewhere between Lucky Charms and Rainbow Row.” (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Two years ago, 40 people were charged with drug trafficking-related offenses in connection with a federal investigation into the members of the Rose and Upland Drug Trafficking Group on Chester’s East End.
Rose and Upland streets were known at the time as “a hotbed for violent activity and homicide,” said the Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan. Boarded up homes, playgrounds, and alleys were often used to stash drugs and guns.
Today, Rose Street appears very different.
Debbie DeSimone, a landlord, owns more than 100 properties in the city of Chester including most of the homes along Rose Street. Her real estate company, Better Homes, renovated most of the houses along Rose Street and painted each a different bright, pastel color. She calls the block Rainbow Row, after a block of painted homes in Charleston, South Carolina known by that name.
“What it does is set a feeling that this is what it’s going to be like now,” said DeSimone.
In addition to painting the homes on Rose Street, DeSimone added security fences between homes and installed cameras to protect the block from further drug activity. Her company has a crime-free rental program that requires renters to sign a form saying they’re drug-free.
“If there is a police call to your house, if there is drug activity, if there is domestic abuse, if there is noise issues, if you’ve been a part of a raid, or you let your boyfriend come in and there’s a warrant for him, and the police come into your house, you are evicted.”
DeSimone said she’s had to evict at least five tenants.
Long time Chester resident Harry Lewis sometimes works for DeSimone, cleaning out vacant houses and sprucing up the block.
“It’s settled again,” said Lewis. “It’s good. Peaceful. Not a lot of traffic. Not a lot of noise. Only noise come from the children. You can come out sit on your step. You can have a conversation with someone. You can start your day off.”
In order for her business to be successful, DeSimone said she had to buy multiple homes in one area and she had to choose “the right” tenants to live in her homes. She chose to invest in Chester because: taxes are low; there’s a larger number of properties she can buy for little money through judicial sales and there is a strong sense of community.
Keith Taylor spends a lot of time thinking about Chester’s social conditions. By day, he works at the city’s public high school and is a climate manager. His job is to help keep the school safe and orderly and to be someone students can turn to for support.
Taylor grew up in Chester and lived in the William Penn projects. His parents died after his freshman year in high school. He said spending time at the local Boys & Girls Club, and playing basketball helped him cope with the loss of his parents.
Taylor often refs games at the Boys & Girls Club and says basketball helps to hold the city together.
“Whenever things are going wrong inside this city or school, they [kids] resort back to basketball. It gives them an outlet. Come basketball season, we have a good year sometimes — win the state championship — it takes your mind off of the things that’s have happened around you, along with the crime and different things that’s going on. So, that’s why you see so many people pushing their kids to play basketball. To get them out of this environment.”
Janet Riley-Ford, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club in Chester, said the club tries to surround the children with positive energy and give them self-value.
“Often times our young people don’t feel valued. Everyone knows the school district is basically last amongst over 500 other school districts in Pennsylvania. So, there is a stigma already attached to the young people who may attend school in the city,” said Riley-Ford. “We allow the young people to change that story. We want them to be in charge of their own story here in Chester.”
Near Chester’s main train station and right along the tracks is the triangle building. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
In downtown Chester, just off of the main business corridor, there’s an oddly shaped building with an emblem of a crab on one of it’s three sides. On another side of the building you can barely make out an old sign that once read, “Fresh Fish Daily.” It’s called the triangle building. An artist, along with a group of investors, are trying to bring the building back to life.
Sheila Modglin said although the triangle is in rough shape, she see’s beauty in the craftsmanship of the old building.
“I see the validity that is the architecture here — the wood, the cornices, the structure, the tin up there on the roof,” said Modglin. “We can make that better. It can be painted and absolutely ornate as it already is — only totally renewed.”
BILL HALEY & HIS COMETS
Bill Haley was a rock and roll legend and his recording studio was in downtown Chester. Today, the site is a parking lot. There’s no historical marker; but just some images embedded into the sidewalk. Including a few musical notes, a star and some comets trailing behind it.
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: Al Banks and Charlie Kaier
Reporter: Lindsay Lazarski
Photojournalist: Jessica Kourkounis
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin