Sarah Alderman has always wanted to go everywhere, meet everyone and ask everything. She loves people, and she’s curious about how they live. “Haters would say I’m nosy,” she quips.
Alderman was born in Coatesville and raised there by her mother in an apartment where she was “surrounded by risk.” Her mom’s family goes back four generations in the once proud, but now blighted city. Her late grandmother, Theresa “Chille” Puglisi, was a town historian known for her warmth and her popular grocery store on Coates Street. It was her generation that lost so much when the city spiraled downward, along with Lukens Steel Company. “She was my favorite storyteller of all time,” says Alderman of her grandmother.
Now, it’s her turn. BYPASSED, Alderman’s grassroots documentary celebrating her embattled, beaten-down hometown, is set to premier this month. At press time, a screening was planned for either Coatesville’s Ash Park or Gateway Park. The project features “a great assortment of community storytellers” sharing what drew them to the city, what keeps them here, what’s changed and what they hope remains.
Alderman and director/photographer Ryan Beacher didn’t want to sensationalize the poverty, but they also didn’t want to downplay it. And they certainly hope that they haven’t made Coatesville “look like a place of pity,” says Alderman.
A 36-year-old wedding photographer and single mother of 10-year-old twin daughters, Alderman was forever changed by her experience collecting field stories for a National Geographic project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “The ethnographic work ignited in me what I didn’t know was there,” she says, adding that this was fostered by coursework in anthropology at West Chester University. “My mother and grandmother said, ‘You don’t need to go to an Indian reservation—there are those kinds of stories here.’”
Alderman first left Coatesville in her early teens, when her mother was able to capitalize on a special rural home-mortgage program in Honey Brook. She later attended Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown and has since lived in West Chester, Kennett Square and Phoenixville. She now lives in West Marlborough Township and has a Coatesville mailing address.
During a stint as a realtor, Alderman witnessed client after client say they’d be willing to buy anywhere in Chester County—except Coatesville. “They held so firm a view of a place they never even visited,” she says. “Coatesville has an edge to it and a humanity that’s been slightly neutered compared to the rest of Chester County. But I also feel like nothing else has the potential richness and personality of Coatesville.”
BYPASSED offers a compelling communal conversation that avoids politicians, officials and powerful players. Instead, it focuses on people like Ross Kershey, a teacher in the city’s schools for 42 years, who’s interviewed in a gymnasium named after him. Also featured are twins Avery and Aja Thompson. “The blend of stories and voices can show others how powerful they can be when they reflect, appreciate and understand the value of their journeys,” says Aja, who was with the Coatesville Youth Initiative and is now a work-study intern at Chester County Futures. “Hearing my voice on the trailer made me feel like I was part of something great, something bigger than myself, something that will ultimately inspire people to be proud of where they come from.”
Pam Depte is Alderman’s proudest “get.” A founder of the Oak Street Project, the single mom is a mother to many. “She’s a strong, wise woman,” says Alderman. “Her part still humbles me.”
Dorothy “Dot” Carter died just after her interview for the film. She had an Underground Railroad museum in her home. “That would be a story that disappeared,” says Alderman. “Wisdom is lost everyday.”
While she acknowledges “there are Coatesvilles everywhere,” Alderman knows BYPASSED must first serve its purpose locally. The Coatesville stereotype is of a city that resists outside interest, and Alderman’s intentions were often the center of rumors and speculation there. One source went so far as to record their conversation at a lunch she initiated. “It hurts, but the only way to combat that is to show up and do your work,” says Alderman. “There were times when I took a month off, so it has taken longer.”
Initially, to break the ice, Alderman hosted community writing workshops to generate content for interactive projects, teaming with Art Holding Hands and Hearts director Jan Michener. That’s how Aadil Malik’s poem became a feature in the trailer. “He came up with this, and I started to cry,” says Alderman. “He captured all I was feeling when growing up in the community.”
Mailk’s parents moved to Coatesville when he was 11, living there for over a decade. Too often, he says, its story is told from the outside in. “We wanted to allow Coatesville to tell her story from inside-out,” he says. “That motivated me.”
Malik performed his poem at Coatesville’s centennial celebration.
“It was at that moment, hearing the reaction of Coatesville natives, that I knew this city was ready for a rebirth,” he says. “This city is ready to tell her story, and to rewrite the stories that have already been written. Coatesville is to be bypassed no longer.”