Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Philadelphia Politics
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Historical Preservation
The 20% federal tax credit for historic preservation is said to have been the special pet of Senator Lugar of Indiana. Much of the recent transformation of Philadelphia's downtown is attributed to this incentive.

With a long history of welcoming and assisting the poor, Philadelphia has always risked swamping the lifeboat by attracting more of them than it can handle.

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Delaware County, Pennsylvania

Chester: To the Dark Tower

William Penn

Chester is the original word for Castle in old English, and accounts for towns called Manchester, Lancaster, Dorchester in the Midlands of England. Although much is made of his Welsh ancestry,William Penn grew up and lived in the neighborhood of Manchester. When he first landed in his new colony, he named the place Chester before deciding to move upriver to be above the mudflats and snags at the abrupt turn of the river where we now have an international airport. On several occasions, this protection from pirates and invaders made it possible to remain rich and prosperous without abandoning Quaker pacifist principles. As a further bit of history, the second public reading of the American constitution took place in the courthouse at Chester. During the industrial revolution, Chester became a mighty industrial town somewhat in advance of Philadelphia. The industry has, sadly, abandoned Chester.

Chester repeats the age-old tradition that slums are created when towns are abandoned, making cheap housing available. There's even a particular Chester twist to this principle: the old Sun Shipyards have been turned into a casino. Now, that will create poverty if anything will.

{Amtrak's Northeast Corridor}
Amtrak's Northeast Corridor

Peter Barrow is a local real estate man who is determined to lead a revival of the old Chester, and certainly makes a good case for its future. Although much of the city was abandoned, the infrastructure remains. The roads, sewers, water supply, railroads, port facilities may be old but they are essentially intact, making revival much cheaper. Chester is still served by the R2 train from Philadelphia to Wilmington, and is on the main line of Amtak's Northeast Corridor. It's now near the airport, and near the electronics industry developing in Chester County along Route 202. Those things are economic drivers, and they are social ones, too. The old Chester urban Democratic machine and the rural Delaware County Republican machine can no longer afford to remain ossified in perpetual denunciation, in the face of new residents with new outlooks on things. So, there's agitation for reforms and both votes and discontent to propel it forward.

Given a magic wand, the one thing Mr. Barrow would change would be education. The public schools are undisciplined and unsafe, and mobilized by the teachers' unions to resist charter schools no matter what. Things have even gone to the point where Widener University is thinking about starting a charter high school, and the more graduates of charter schools the more momentum builds up for still more charter schools. Hidden in this struggle are two less defensible issues: parochial schools and vocational schools, pro, and con. The struggle over church schools goes back to the founding of our country in the sixteenth century and firmly resists any objectivity about whether parochial schools are better schools, or not. For them, that's not the point. The other tradition at play here is the historic opposition to vocational schools by trade unions. This one might be a little easier to work with since resistance to the development of more plumbers and carpenters was understandable enough during the industrial days of the city, but really is no longer relevant in an era when we now must import illegal immigrants to serve our needs in the mechanical trades.

Chester seems to have a chance to get its act together. Success or failure of this important the struggle could well depend on one or the other of the entrenched political machines, urban and suburban, seeing an opportunity -- and grabbing it.

Originally published: Monday, October 22, 2007; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019

You overlook the elephant in the room: Chester's remaining population. Chester is now in the main occupied by people of low IQ and family structures/value systems that perpetuate that. Work ethic and future time orientation are nonexistent. Impulse control is rare. Hard work is considered unfair. Excellence was long ago shoved out to make way for cultures of grievance and destruction. Education is simply not valued, and the children are given unrealistic expectations, then taught to throw tantrums when they are frustrated. The producers of degenerate culture are worshipped--the new idols! This is nothing new in Chester. My parents pulled me out of the public schools in 6th grade, back in 1971. In even my very modest parochial school, in a poor West End neighborhood of refinery, shipyard, and factory workers, we were being given reading assignments and text books that my nieces and nephews didn't see at Chester High until 12th grade! My family was very poor, but valued learning. I ended up scoring at or above 95th percentile on SAT and GRE, and thanks to UPenn's recognizing my potential, and helping me achieve it, my family's investment in me has turned into a return investment in society through my career and volunteer work. Industry would be foolish to move to Chester. They would be required to hire a bunch of locals who in my direct experience of them want something for nothing and aren't willing to work for anything. They can destroy in one month what takes good people generations to build.
Posted by: Carol Tollins   |   Apr 7, 2014 5:23 PM
Dear Dr. Fisher: Thanks so much for this posting. I am a resident of the suburbs, having moved here in the mid-'80s from Buffalo, NY. Working at Boeing for over 20 years, I observed that the blighted areas of Eddystone were indeed improving, and perhaps there were better days ahead for Chester. Like you, I see the infrastructure is there. The Army Corps of Engineers is improving the riverfront now, finally acting on projects that have been on the books since the '80s. I bought a house in Sun Village (a five-minute drive from work) in September 2012, with intent to restore it, not necessarily to make a profit, but to make a change in the trajectory. I've climbed ladders. I've mowed, shoveled, planted, painted, cleaned, cleared debris. If kids show interest, I harness the teachable moments. I've met good people, lots of them. But I've also discovered I need a mentor to keep perspective and momentum, but also for guidance in how to harness the resources I have. Perhaps Peter Barrow, who you mentioned, would be interested in talking once in a while with me if it is possible?
Posted by: Shelley Ashfield   |   Feb 22, 2014 6:15 PM