From grassroots, a new revitalization effort for Chester

Posted: July 08, 2013

Imagine abandoned storefronts with crumbling facades on an empty downtown street suddenly springing back to life with avant-garde art galleries, boutiques with bright vintage clothing, and the aroma of freshly brewed espresso.

It isn't hard to do - not when it has happened in recent years to formerly gritty neighborhoods such as Philadelphia's Fishtown, Brooklyn's Williamsburg, and dozens of other reclaimed city streetscapes from coast to coast.

But could such a social and cultural beachhead ever take hold in Chester - the now-deindustrialized Delaware County river city of 34,000 that had 23 homicides last year and has some of the most entrenched pockets of poverty on the Eastern seaboard?

A new generation of civic leaders and activists, who have watched previous ideas for downtown revitalization die from lack of money and commitment, now think Chester is finally ready to take small, measured moves - "just baby steps," one acknowledged - toward an arts and cultural renewal in the central business district.

"I see no reason it can't be done here, with the right people working it and contributing to it," said Reha London, a longtime Chester resident and former landlord who is a member of the Overtown Revitalization Committee, a renewal project that recently planted flowers in long-abandoned pots along city streets and is holding Chester's first downtown street festival July 20.

The renewal project also includes a push for state funding to repair facades and make other improvements in the business district, plans for an arts corridor along Avenue of the States, and hopes that the looming opening of a barbecue joint will persuade other restaurateurs to follow.

"We have to make people understand that, eventually, it will be something to come back to," said Helen Litwa, another resident working on the Overtown committee. "It will never be what it was," referring to the city's heyday in the mid-20th century, "but with culture and arts and history, it should be a place where people would like to come."

Chester scored what officials contended was a coup in July 2011 when it was named one of six cities - and the smallest - in a new federal initiative called Strong Cities, Strong Communities. The program was set up by a special team of officials from U.S. agencies such as Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration. It provides no new money, but rather tries to leverage existing funds and programs.

Jacqueline Parker, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority, which is spearheading the revitalization, said officials were also working to qualify the city for the Main Street Program run by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. It provides grants to help existing business fix up facades and make other cosmetic improvements, such as adding benches or flowerpots.

"Right now, we have eating places that are pretty attractive, and we have services - there are reasons to come downtown," said Parker. "What we need is more retail, boutiques, coffee shops."

She cited the forthcoming opening of Charlie's Texas Barbecue near the popular Phatso's Bakery on Welsh Street as an example of the kind of incremental progress that officials like to see.

But officials noted that the other part of the equation would be cleaning up or possibly removing some of the blighted and abandoned properties that dot downtown Chester.

"We still may have some empty properties. We want to get rid of the gated fronts so it doesn't look like a disaster zone," said John Linder, the Democratic mayor, who took office in January 2012 promising urban renewal as well as blight removal. He said the city had stepped up code enforcement and worked with HUD through Strong Cities, Strong Communities to get the dilapidated Chester Arms Hotel demolished.

"We're hoping to get businesses to move in around the barbecue place and Phatso's," Linder said, adding a reference to a revivified Philadelphia neighborhood: "Something like the Northern Liberties model."

In addition, Linder is hoping to bring economic development to other neighborhoods that could serve as an improved gateway to downtown - most notably the former 19th-century Deshong mansion and surrounding park along Edgemont Avenue, which has fallen into disrepair.

But a lot of the drive to revitalize Chester is coming less from City Hall than from residents, including some who are drawn to the rundown city by its historic architecture and who now hope to persuade others of its potential.

One of those is Linda Braceland, a local landlord who in 2011 started Art on Avenue of the States, a cooperative of 17 local artists in a Formica-tiled gallery. She said that a cafe was opening next door and that there were plans for a juice bar with poetry readings two doors down, as well as a sculpture gallery around the corner near other artist studios.

She acknowledged that any rebirth of downtown Chester wouldn't happen overnight, but that every step - such as a Main Street designation from the state, and a hoped-for full-time manager of that program - would bring a sense of momentum.

"Chester is its own unique place," said Braceland. Its downtown renovation "has been tried many times with flawed premises and flawed approaches. This time, it's more a consortium of residents. Before, it was a political thing."


Contact Kathy Boccella

at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8232, or follow

on Twitter @kathyboccella.

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