Power to the People
West Chester’s long-neglected East End finds its champions.
It was an easy decision for the Porters—and for Stephen E. Bond, too. The Porters had been retired for six years, running a beachfront bed and breakfast in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Bond was an IBM field engineer living in Virginia.
It was heart—literally and figuratively—that brought them home to the historic but hurting East End of West Chester, the borough’s largest and poorest African-American neighborhood.
What were they thinking?
“Marvin was thinking he wanted to live,” Shirley Porter says of her husband, who already had a heart condition when the couple moved to St. Croix, where Third World medicine just wouldn’t cut it.
Bond moved back to the East End more than a decade earlier, after his father and 43-year-old brother both had fatal heart attacks two days apart. Within a month of their double funeral at the West Chester Community Center, he’d come home to stay. Bond now anchors his native East End with his sister, Doris, who never left.
These days, when the Porters, Bonds and others convene at the community center, they gather as leaders of the East End Neighborhood Association, the group behind a reunification effort designed to reverse the area’s rampant regression with a self-help approach to leadership and activism.
“This is our home, and it has to be valued and protected,” says 71-year-old Marvin Porter, whose wife, Shirley, is the EENA’s president.
Marvin himself is the group’s past-president and co-founder with Bond, who, at 52, is now in his third year of a four-year term as a borough councilman representing West Chester’s 2nd Ward. Bond’s sister, Doris, co-chairs the arts and education center’s board with Steve Graves; both are EENA board members.
South of Market Street on the eastern fringes of West Chester’s booming downtown business district, the 400-household East End has both an industrial and a cultural heritage—all of it set against the disturbing backdrop of segregation.
“We felt like this neighborhood was getting squeezed,” says the EENA’s Graves. “Things were falling apart. We had no control over it. We knew we needed people.”
The East End was suffering from neglect and financial woes, sure. But maybe more than anything, it was black-and-blue from a lack of respect. Yet there’s plenty of history to inspire pride. It was in the East End where leading civil rights activist Bayard Rustin rallied the neighborhood for the historic March on Washington, D.C. This past September, Bayard Rustin Senior High School opened in his honor, but like much of the East End’s percolating progress, it didn’t come without a struggle.
After the West Chester Area School Board voted on the school’s name, opposition poured out of the woodwork. So the board, led by June Cardosi (who resigned in June 2005), reconsidered its decision. Former local NAACP president Doris Bond recalls that when she spoke in front of the board, reading a letter from distant relative and current NAACP president Julian Bond, she was
Doris says the bigotry didn’t center only on race: Rustin was also a gay rights activist and a conscientious objector during World War II. He later served jail time for refusing to engage in alternative non-combat duty. Regardless, another name was never even proposed. “It was just ‘anything but,’” says Stephen Bond.
Marvin Porter’s father, Charles, was the first to raise the school segregation issue in West Chester in the mid-1950s, when his son attended Gay Street School, where Borough Council now sits. All of West Chester’s blacks went there, no matter how far they had to travel. Six years later, the elder Porter, an artist who painted with the Wyeths, refused to send his younger son, Gregory, to a segregated school. And besides, he pointed out at the time, Biddle Street School was half a block closer to home. By 1959, the stink Porter had raised helped integrate West Chester schools.
Victories past are one thing. But victories present are more precious.
The EENA’s first campaign was waged against traffic, but the group was destined for greater things. In 2003, Bond ran for, and ultimately won, his council seat. He was inspired by a local family history dating back to the 1830s. In 1882, his great, great uncle, Moses G. Hepburn, was West Chester’s first black councilman. He won by a single vote. It took 90-some years before another African-American would win that office.
Running as a Democrat, Bond won his primary by three votes. Challenger Joe Norley contested the count, as three elderly voters had used incorrect ballots. If their votes went against Bond, there’d be a tie, and it was suggested the winner be drawn from a hat. Instead, the court called for the three senior citizens to reveal their vote. When Bond’s attorney, Sam Stretton, lost an appeal to protect the sanctity of their votes, Bond says he withdrew rather than have the elders suffer further intimidation.
A few days later, destiny called. The 2nd Ward Republican, Steve Ramos, moved. Bond turned Republican and won a “landslide” general election over Norley. “Well, it was a 50-vote difference,” Bond says. “But in a split ward, that’s a landslide.”
The East End community rallied around Bond’s run for office. Record-setting voter turnout from the East End exceeded 90 percent, the highest in Chester County. “We organized, unified and became recognized,” says Marvin.
Bond’s grassroots campaign hasn’t been the only plus on the East End. The neighborhood has secured $475,000 from a state-piloted Elm Street Revitalization Program in cooperation with the West Chester Business Improvement District, which sponsored the EENA’s application. The funds are earmarked for residential improvements—sidewalks, lighting and infrastructure—within a defined area bordered by Market, Union, Bolmar and Matlack streets, along with a block of Adams Street south of Union.
In the program, homeowners make a 10 percent down-payment and hire and schedule contractors; the state pays the remaining 90 percent. But the revitalization effort isn’t proving easy.
“The problem is we have 80- or 90-year-old owners who think their house is fine, or they distrust the system. Or they simply won’t sign anything because they think they’re going to lose their house,” Shirley Porter says. “But if we weren’t doing this, we wouldn’t already have houses ready to be fixed.”
In working with BID, the EENA has learned what positive exposure can do. They’re filming a community video; they have a website (eastendwc.org); and they publish a monthly newsletter, The East End Voice, shepherded by Earlene Brown and Karen Faggioli.
The EENA also has reclaimed its community headquarters, now called the Charles Melton Arts and Education Center, and the new board has a vision and direction reminiscent of days when the place buzzed with aquatic programs, multicultural events, scout meetings, summer camps, dance lessons and more. Organizers are slowly bringing back these offerings, and they would also like to make vocational counseling available again, further restoring the center as a resource hub. And they’ve kept the community center “out of the clutches of business’ hands,” says Marvin Porter.
Sitting on 4.5 acres of prime real estate, there have been “thousands of offers” to sell the center, says Doris Bond. One of the latest proposals was a four-story fitness center. “It wasn’t going through,” says Ramona Lang, an EENA board member.
Adds Marvin Porter: “Our feeling is that this belongs to the community, and it must remain that way.”
In other East End news, Habitat for Humanity of Chester County has built the first of 16 owner-occupied houses on Barnard Street at the former Davis Fuel Company lot, once a dumping ground of rusted tankards and gas pumps. There vermin feasted and bred, touching off an infestation that led to another EENA fight with the borough, which issued traps—but not before neighborhood postman Kevin Johnson suffered too many encounters with skunks to count.
All said and done, the vestiges of an industrial presence—a mushroom factory, the National Phone Co. and old 30-acre Wyeth Lab site—are vanishing. What goes there now determines whether it’s progress or not.
Another good sign is the Neighborhood Watch program, which is building strength. “The bottom line is the East End Neighborhood Association is a group of people who care about making our neighborhood safe, no matter what,” says the EENA’s Graves.
Everywhere there are reminders that there’s still work to be done in the East End. Between this summer and last, the area has had two murders and two shootings. Vandella Williams, an EENA board member and community center staffer, routinely polices the center’s parking lot. In one case, she reported drug activity in a parked car with an Illinois license plate. “We’ve been telling them to get lost, but they keep returning like fleas,” she says.
Rental properties—including four apartment complexes—comprise 70 percent of all housing in the East End. And only since June 2006, has the Fair Rental Ordinance begun to hold landlords more accountable for tenet registration, building codes and overcrowding. Then there’s also the community center’s 60-year-old pool, which remains unusable.
The EENA also wants the area’s five multi-denominational churches to re-establish a presence. But none of the pastors lives in the East End. “It’s only when we come together that we can be something,” Marvin Porter says.
And if they hadn’t come together?
“I’d have moved out again,” Stephen Bond admits.
Then Bond thinks of his father—a political and social force in the community—and a resolve wells up inside him. “He fought all the same battles I’m fighting,” Bond says.
Marvin could move again, too—maybe to Hershey’s Mill, a top-flight retirement complex outside Malvern. But no. “I chose to be here,”