The Engine Of Change

The Engine Of Change

Reading, Pa., Has Proven It's Deft at Switching Tracks. As Residents Head to Polls, the Question Is: Where to Next?

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; Page C01

This election is about “change,” they say. Change? This great old railroad and factory town can teach us a little something about change. Except here, they call it “repurposing.”

The people are going to the polls today excited, scared, “bitter” — yes, Reading is one of those hard-luck, high-pride places Barack Obama must have had in mind — and most of all hopeful and skeptical at the same time.

Do you blame them? First they took a ride on the Reading Railroad, which was good while it lasted, until coal was no longer king: End of the line, do not pass Go. But everyone still had jobs in the factories, foundries, knitting mills. Then most of those closed, or took permanent vacations in Mexico.

Never fear! Plucky Reading repurposed the knitting mills as retail and became the Outlet Capital of the World through the 1980s and 1990s. Millions of visitors came each year to shop.

Then a bunch of the outlets closed. Reading officially dumped its Outlet Capital slogan two years ago.

Chin up! The new thing is arts, entertainment, sports, waterfront development, repurposing warehouses as condos, salvation by Imax theaters.

The Reading human identity is being repurposed as well. From white to brown; Pennsylvania Dutch, German, Polish, Italian — to Hispanic. According to the latest Census estimate, the urban center of the area that gave us Daniel Boone, John Updike and essential Monopoly property has just tipped to majority (50.6 percent) Latino.

The demographic change has been as painful for some as the economic change. The last presidential election took place with federal monitors because the Justice Department alleged Latinos were being denied access to the polls. Some whites say the newcomers don't share their European immigrant values. Some Latinos say they aren't being given a chance.

How familiar all this is! America, are you paying attention to Reading? Reading is a core sample of the nation. Reading is who we were, who we are, who we are going to be.

Now as the people of Reading make their way to the polls, some to cast ballots for the first time in their lives, they are wondering: Will the result be change — or just another repurposing?

Bird's-Eye View

Climb Duryea Drive up Mount Penn to the Japanese Pagoda to get the big picture of Reading.

The locally iconic and beloved 72-foot-tall pagoda is one of those quirky, incongruous landmarks whose very weirdness certifies its locale as authentically American. A hundred years ago an industrialist thought his quarry was rather ugly so, hey, he erected a pagoda. The five stacked terra-cotta slanted roofs are symbolically stylized on all the city's printed propaganda. At first you think the images are Christmas trees, except they are pagoda-red. At night, the roofs are edged in red lights so the pagoda looks like signal-strength bands on a cellphone. It's Japanese art repurposed as American kitsch.

So here we are in the shade of the pagoda (way up the hill where they used to test Duryea autos, which were made here for a time), with graffiti in English and Spanish on the parapet, and Reading spread below.

The few tall buildings of the county seat are at the center of the tableau. Huddled beside them are the streets of handsome limestone and granite edifices, four stories with elaborate cornices, built generations ago for bankers, lawyers, insurance men, now with nail salons and orthopedic shoe places on the ground floors.

From there fan out the blocks and blocks of rowhouses, once good homes for German American factory workers, now affordable real estate for the Spanish-speaking exodus from gentrifying Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.

To the west snakes the Schuylkill River, beckoning with its promise of a waterfront future.

On the outskirts of town are the big industrial carcasses, fabulous brick Gibraltars with faded white painted letters giving the names of things, a catalogue of the order of the industrial universe, like something from the Bible, bespeaking a time when this country hammered, welded and created form out of the void: “Reading Foundry and Supply Co.,” “Reading Company,” and so on.

Updike set his “Rabbit” novels hereabouts.

From “Rabbit Is Rich” in 1981: “Everywhere in this city . . . structures speak of expended energy. . . . All this had been cast up in the last century by what now seem like giants.”

Those giants are gone, but perhaps new ones walk among the 83,463 people living in the valley below the pagoda.

'Entra, Entra'

Principal Wynton Butler shoulders his way with amiable authority through the teeming halls of Reading High School between classes.

“Get rid of the headphones,” he says to students right and left. And, trying some Spanish, he motions like an usher to a classroom: “Entra, entra.”

In many ways the future of Reading is here, in Pennsylvania's largest high school, which looks enough like a castle to be called “The Castle.” About two-thirds of the 4,300 students are Latino. The dropout rate is 67 percent. Counting the elementary and middle schools, about three-quarters of the students in Reading are Latino. Yet none of the nine school board members is Latino.

Butler is African American, a 1984 graduate of the high school, who thinks he can name practically all the few Latinos in his graduating class. A former social studies teacher, he used to try to engage his students in presidential politics. Then, they were apathetic. Not now.

“I've never seen the kids as jacked up” about politics, Butler says. He credits Obama, “the message of hope that he's been able to send to the kids.”

Seizing the teachable moment, Butler gave his blessing to a voter registration drive initiated by students with the help of the nonpartisan national group Democracia U.S.A., which focuses on getting out the Latino vote. Some 250 students registered, and Butler supported an unprecedented plan to bus eligible student voters to the polls today. To top it off, Obama visited the school Sunday.

“Hillary is trying to get all the older votes,” says Ariel Araujo, who will turn 18 in time for the general election. “Obama is reaching out to us.”

“It's got to be some sort of change,” says Erlina Ortiz, 18, who was still making up her mind between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Ortiz and Araujo were born in the Dominican Republic. Families like theirs saw in Reading the precise whereabouts of the American Dream, after having sampled more obvious, crowded and expensive destinations such as New York City. The Dominicans followed the Puerto Ricans to Reading, and now the Mexicans are coming. Reading is getting so famous in Latin America that now many immigrant families skip the sojourn in New York and head directly to the city of the pagoda.

They are adding another touch to Reading's self-portrait, which never seems to be complete, like America itself: Immigrants (some illegal) filling the schools to bursting, dedicated laborers serving the new lower-paying economy, bilingual professionals joining the social scene, a new class of poor swelling welfare rolls and in some cases committing crimes, and, of course, most visible the length and breadth of Reading, generations remaking rowhouse porch culture with a sprawling family-picnic-style flair that makes square Pennsylvania Dutch descendants draw the shades.

Araujo's uncle is a mechanic, his father a welder, his mother a baker, and he works at Burger King after school. Ortiz, the daughter of a cook and an accountant, is starring in the school play, “South Pacific,” before heading to Temple University in the fall. She wants a president who will take care of places like Reading, because she plans to be back. She likes the idea of being part of a place where generations can build a family tradition. Reading has been a city of immigrants putting down roots since the coal cars started rolling and the train whistles started blowing through the valley in 1833.

“I like the roots connection,” Ortiz says. But “we need things for kids to do. We need all these abandoned buildings to be made into something.”

The students were registered to vote by Gabrielina “Gabby” Polanco and her colleagues at Democracia U.S.A., which has registered about 5,000 Latinos in Reading in the last 18 months. Polanco knows Latinos won't gain a say over Reading's future until they join the political process with the same gusto as the Germans, Poles and Irish before them. Democracia's white-smocked canvassers have been out every day urging the registered to go to the polls.

Polanco's face lights up when you get her talking about the first time she laid eyes on Reading.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she moved to Queens in 1986 when she was 24. Then the family heard of a place called Reading. They dispatched Polanco to check it out.

“You know when you see a place, and you feel you belong there?” Polanco asks.

On her say-so, the entire clan picked up and moved. Her twin sons graduated from the high school and now are in college.

“Now I feel as if I am in the Dominican Republic,” she says. “When I visit there, people say, 'Are you going to move back here?' I say, 'No, I'm happy in Reading.' ”

Forging Change

Postindustrial, post-outlet Reading is the kind of place like Buffalo, or Flint, Mich., where sincere, tireless, true-believing civic missionaries undertake second careers trying to forge hometown destiny in a labor every bit as dramatic as that of their ancestors smelting steel from iron.

Up in his office on the second floor of city hall — a repurposed stone edifice that used to be a boys school — Reading Mayor Tom McMahon is one of those. He's a retired engineer who came to Reading in the 1960s. Framed on the wall is a caricature of the mayor: bespectacled, with the slogan “Naysayers Begone!”

He thinks Obama, with his cross-racial appeal, sets an example for him. The mayor's challenge is to govern a city where half the population cherishes Reading as a memory that has little meaning for the other half of the population.

“Reading has been going through some real assimilation problems,” he says. “We have such cultural differences now. It is a threat to a whole lot of people. It is an opportunity to a whole lot of other people.”

Only one of the seven city council members is Hispanic. Counting the city school board and the county commissioners, the majority of the city's population is almost completely absent from the elected power structure. The police department has 14 Latinos on a force of 206 sworn officers.

The disparities have led to lawsuits over lack of police diversity, over lack of bilingual elections assistance. In each case, federal judges made sure Reading or surrounding Berks County addressed the issue.

Now most official communication, including the message on the mayor's office answering machine, is available in Spanish, to the annoyance of some, such as Mark C. Scott, 56, one of two Republicans among the three county commissioners.

“I voted against publishing the ballots in Spanish,” he says.

Scott — a loquacious, law school-educated part-time farmer who hatches trout and bottles a condiment he calls Commissioner Scott's Berks County Ketchup — says Latinos are being led to abandon the old-fashioned values of people such as his own German-immigrant grandfather. “I maintain that all the well-intentioned hand-holding we do for Latinos and other groups is in a perverse way holding them back,” he says.

Still, he knows demography is destiny: “At some point, we will see a Latino mayor and a predominantly Latino council only because the demographics are shifting.”

The challenge for Reading is to hammer out a post-outlet economic future to support its inexorable demographic future. The civic missionaries, the business community — including the relatively new Berks County Latino Chamber of Commerce — have faith. To them, “renaissance” is a verb, and greater Reading is “renaissancing.” They see the bright side, such as all the manufacturers still in business, typically the higher-end ones, specialty steel and so on.

The same cannot be said, alas, about the York Peppermint Pattie factory, which is supposed to close this year, exporting jobs to Mexico (and Mexico returns the favor by exporting laborers to cultivate mushrooms outside Reading).

But what's not to like about the new Miller Center for the Arts down by the river, four professional (minor league) sports teams, a symphony orchestra, a historic district of stately Victorian homes — and look at the GoggleWorks! That's an old industrial safety goggle factory repurposed as a home for artists and crafts, modeled on the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. A Maryland developer recently announced a billion-dollar waterfront project. Last fall NBC's “Today” show named Reading one of four top “up-and-coming neighborhoods.”

Latinos will have a place in this bright future, if it comes to pass. Some will make the beds in the hotels and cook the food in the restaurants, while others will live in the waterfront condos and serve on the boards of the fundraising balls.

Reading will endure, McMahon maintains, appealing to his basic faith in urban resilience: “Cities have always been the place where people gathered and faced change and created something new. That's the beauty of cities.”

A New Horizon

At the corner of 12th and Buttonwood streets, directly beneath the pagoda, sits the red brick mystery of an institution called the Ivy Leaf Association. The door is locked. Ring the bell. Welcome.

Leave behind the Dominican front-porch culture outside and step inside a place where old amazing vanished Reading still exists, in stories, in the mind's eye.

Okay, it's a bar. But it's a special bar. It is a 122-year-old “gentlemen's club.” It started admitting women as members in January.

The Ivy Leaf is not, nor was it ever, one of those snooty rep-tie men's clubs, the kind the owner of the Reading Railroad might have frequented. Set among the rowhouses where the white immigrant working families lived, it was for working people of good character. If you got laid off, you could sleep upstairs. The co-founder, according to current members, was an Irish cop.

Today's denizens are the cigarette-smoking, 75-cent-draft-beer-nursing, pension-collecting native sons and daughters of Reading, who still love the city — even if they think it has gotten harder to love, what with all the changes, you know.

Obama might say these people “cling” to the Ivy Leaf, with its ancient slate-topped pinochle table and the wedding reception hall hung with pictures of ghosts. For the record, most people here seem to be Clinton supporters.

Talking about Reading — the Reading of their memories — their faces light up as much as Gabby Polanco's face lights up, and the students' faces light up, when they talk about Reading. Same city, different point of view.

“Good old Penn Street,” the main downtown drag, says Bob Schell, 64, who started working in the knitting mills, and later became a trucker. “I miss downtown Reading.”

“The movie theaters, the stores, restaurants,” says his wife, Chris, 68, who was a stocking pairer in the knitting mills.

“This was a boomtown,” says Wayne Gass, who served in Vietnam and worked for a manufacturer that kept changing hands until the Reading operations closed. “It was magic.”

Now instead of wedding receptions in the big room, they rent the hall out to Latinos for parties. When the fiesta organizers come to make arrangements, they bring a child to do the translating, because the adults don't speak English, according to the Ivy Leafers.

The Latino adoption of Reading itself is similar, Gass says. “They're coming in, they're using it,” he says. “We put our sweat and blood into it. That's what sticks in people's craw. They want to be a part of it, they got to put sweat into it. Get a job. Learn the language.”

As it happens, sitting in the middle of the bar, is one object of such talk, which takes place out of his earshot.

Emmanuel Fernandez, 35, an Obama supporter — “I'm looking for change; what do we got to lose?” — is not a member of the club. He is a guest of Richard Burns, 49. Fernandez is slightly higher on the pecking order of the plastics factory where they work on the same line.

“This guy,” Burns says, slapping Fernandez on the back, “he gave me an even break. We became friends.”

Son of a Dominican father, Fernandez was born in New York and moved to Reading for a job and a more affordable lifestyle.

“When I moved in 13 years ago, Reading was a nice place,” Fernandez says. But that changed. His older daughter was having trouble in school. A bad element was coming to town.

“The Latino community is trying to do good things in Reading,” Fernandez says. “There's a lot of good people trying to make a difference. But I can't wait for it to happen. I have to take care of my family.”

So in December, Fernandez, with his wife and two daughters, joined the cutting edge of what may be the next change: Latino flight. A repurposing of the suburbs.

Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this story.