Chester on the Brink

Editorial Director Hobart Rowland on the past and future of an embattled Philadelphia city.

I’m embarrassed to say it, but the first time I ever laid eyes on downtown Chester was just last year. It was a crisp, sunny day in November, and I was headed to City Team Ministries to join fellow Main Line Today employees for a few hours of assembling Thanksgiving dinners for Chester’s homeless and poverty-stricken.

As I made my way along Route 352, past the tidy, modern campuses of Widener University and Crozer-Chester Medical Center, the contrast was as stark as it was stunning. East of I-95, Route 352 becomes the Avenue of the States, though it looks more like the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Deshong Park provides the only relief from the abrupt tableau of urban decay. 

Yet, as battered as it is, the infrastructure is still there—and with a little imagination, it’s possible to squint hard and get a glimpse of the thriving city that once was. MLT contributor Jim Waltzer certainly can. He has familial ties to the Chester of yore. His “Hard Road Back” is the first in a three-part series focusing on our region’s three most troubled town centers. As so many of us gravitate to Ardmore, Wayne, West Chester, Media, Phoenixville and other resurgent downtowns, the struggles of Chester, Coatesville and Norristown/Bridgeport have been marginalized. But these are tough towns, where resilient residents and opportunistic community leaders are quietly—and with some success—clawing their way back.

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“Chester’s Eyre Park was my grandparents’ home for a quarter-century through 1965, six years before a flood destroyed the row-house neighborhood,” recalls Waltzer. “Nearby, an old, rickety bridge tested the nerve of those who dared cross the creek. My father called it ‘The Bridge of Sighs’—but we definitely weren’t in Venice.”  

In the late 1930s, Waltzer’s great-grandfather started a business in Chester “on a shoestring.” He called it the Chester Salvage Company. “But after years of hard times, what he really was trying to salvage was his family,” Waltzer says. “I was told he used to sell the same toilet seat twice on the same day. As a kid, I tried to visualize how that was resolved.”

The family business eventually evolved into the Chester Supply Company, which specialized in wholesale plumbing and heating supplies. It did well enough to fund Waltzer’s college education.

Chester, meanwhile, was hit hard when industry retreated, sucking the life out of its vibrant downtown. But like many in the city today, Waltzer sees reason for hope. “Structural comebacks are always slow going,” he says. “But it seems like there is now sufficient groundwork and energy for the town to begin shedding its ‘distressed’ label.” 

Check back next month for the second part in our series: senior writer J.F. Pirro’s in-depth look at Coatesville.

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