Diamond in the Rough?

Crippled by decades of crime, corruption, poverty and neglect, Coatesville is struggling to redefine its precarious future. And yet, there is life among the ruins—signs that all is not lost.

Former Coatesville police chief William Matthews, at the site of one of the many arsons in the city.Urban snapshots typically are rife with juxtaposition. A well-to-do neighborhood converges on a street corner claimed by drug dealers. A lushly landscaped square rubs elbows with a decrepit row home. A slick new eatery appears across the street from a vacant warehouse.

But in the once-thriving steel town of Coatesville, it isn’t so much about the stark contrast that accompanies evolution as it is about the relics of an illustrious past. Everything looks pretty much the same here—worn-out, dated and devoid of hope.

Government ineptitude and a well-publicized string of arsons have done a number on public perception of a place most people in this region have ignored. But the reality is that Coatesville has been a city under siege for a long time.

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Downtown Coatesville is hard on the eyes—especially for anyone who happens upon Main Street (Route 30 or Lincoln Highway) via a wrong turn off Route 82 while coming from Marlborough Township, an area with the largest contiguous woodlands and rolling hills in Chester County. Suddenly, a vast steel mill appears, along with miles of railroad track and heaps of scrap metal piled sky-high. A half-mile farther, the neglected city enfolds in all its hollowed-out glory—a half-dead main drag, with groups of young black men congregating on its corners; vacant land waiting, like the city’s residents, for something to take root.

Downtown Phoenixville or West Chester, it’s not. There are a few bars, though they’re not the sort of places you’d go for a glass of wine before dinner. Decent places to eat are few and far between. There’s no ice cream shop, grocery store or movie theater.

High on a hill, a gorgeous cemetery overlooks the valley where Coatesville sits. A small historical section off Route 82 pays homage to the heyday of Lukens Steel with several large mansions maintained by the charitable trust of one of its most prized executives, Stewart Huston. In the 1960s, Lukens was the county’s largest employer, with over 10,000 workers. But after a series of acquisitions and mergers over the years, its workforce was reduced to less than 700. The city never recovered.

Greetings from Nowhere

Modern-day Coatesville has undoubtedly drawn the short straw. It’s the poorest city in Pennsylvania tucked inside the state’s wealthiest county. Its 11,000 working-class whites, blacks, Asians and other nationalities have a median household income of $28,000. A pervasive hopelessness and lack of opportunity have sucked the life out of many of its residents. For most, there are few ways up—or out.

The workforce at Lukens Steel’s most recent incarnation, ArcelorMittal, was winnowed down to 652 steelworkers after layoffs in February. Currently, the mill is only operating at 75 percent.

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Lukens was acquired by Bethlehem Steel in 1997, but its real demise came in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The company store closed, as did the weld shop. By 1990, the mill employed a little over 1,300 workers.

As production fell off at the mill, nothing was done to accommodate the loss of jobs in other sectors; no plan was in place to attract new businesses. Coatesville languished.

In 2000, the city’s population saw a 6-percent increase. While that might’ve been seen as a positive sign, the socioeconomic profile of these newcomers pointed to something else: Flooded with housing projects, the city was becoming a popular destination for Section 8 beneficiaries.

As the situation turned increasingly desperate, residents took to cyberspace, blogging about the spike in robberies, aggravated assaults and other drug-related crime. When Coatesville grabbed front-page news with an execution-style double murder last summer, bloggers came down hard on the ravaged city, calling it “a slum,” “pathetic” and “a lost cause.” There was even a plea for arsonists to “torch the whole city, because that’s what it deserves.”

“There’s a dangerous perception,” says Scott Huston, a descendent of the Lukens Steel family and executive director of the Stewart Huston Charitable Trust. “The police force needs to make the city safe and ensure people that it will stay that way. The city’s administration has been MIA. Why isn’t [making the city safer] their No. 1 priority?”

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Huston is referring to Coatesville city manager Harry Walker, and its former police chief, William Matthews, two of the city’s most maligned public figures. Like all the city’s leaders, Huston, Walker and Matthews are struggling with how to sell Coatesville to outsiders. After all, with no amenities, rampant crime and little in the way of employment, why would anyone bother coming?

Walker’s “if we build it, they will come” mindset is at odds with the philosophy of his chief opponent, Chester County district attorney Joseph Carroll, who believes the criminals need to go before redevelopment begins. Matthews’ stance was closer to that of Carroll’s—but he was hired by Walker and had little credibility with residents.

Matthews had been under intense scrutiny since his arrival in 2006 and a subsequent shake-up within the ranks of the Coatesville Police Department. “There’s no doubt that transitions within the department—timed with an increase in crime—sent up a red flag, but so much is sensationalized,” says Matthews. “It’s been a barrier to bringing people together calmly. We’ve collected many, many guns off the street, but we have to stop producing drug dealers. We’re making arrests, but we have to break the cycle. People don’t feel safe in Coatesville.”

When rumors surfaced earlier this year that Matthews was planning to resign once the city was no longer in a state of emergency, bloggers applauded him for “finally doing something for the good of the people.”

They got their wish when Matthews stepped down in March. City council named Lt. Julius Canale as his successor. Two years ago, it was Carroll who recommended Canale. And while it’s too early to tell what the appointment means for the city’s future, his 21 years on the job in Coatesville certainly can’t hurt.

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Where There’s Smoke …

The first in a series of gut punches to Coatesville’s already-reeling psyche came in January, when the 300 block of Fleetwood Street went up in flames—the worst in a string of arsons terrorizing the community.

“The fires have become the core of our struggles and, to many, of who we are,” says Walker. “So much of our attention—and funds—have been redirected to help protect our people and find the arsonists. It’s kept us from the other prevailing issues, and it’s going to present a problem in the future as the economy continues to be tough and budgets limited.”

In February, Walker asked city council to free up $900,000 from a reserve trust to cover expenses related to the ongoing arson investigation. In response, council members requested an update on city expenses and revenues. Walker came clean: Instead of the balanced budget he’d reported earlier in the year, the city had nearly $780,000 in outstanding bills. Council members Marty Eggleston and Kareem Johnson called for Walker’s resignation. Regardless, city council approved $200,000 in emergency funds. What choice did they have?

“I believe that anything the newspapers write is ammunition we’ve given them. We’re allowing the bad press to happen,” says Eggleston. “The mill is gone because the steel industry is poor. We have to find another means of survival, another identity. But we have no clear plan in place, no visible direction.”

That same month, two men were apprehended for allegedly setting Fleetwood Street ablaze. Then, in March, Robert Tracey Jr., a captain with the Coatesville Fire Department, was arrested in connection with two other arsons. He would be the sixth person accused of setting fires in the Coatesville area.

All the while, persistent crime continues to hinder renewal efforts in Coatesville, where developers are backing off on their plans one after the other. The Chetty Towers residential and retail development in the heart of town is one of eight stalled projects for which Walker seems hell-bent on seeing through.

Meanwhile, others around Walker are focusing on more immediate concerns—like making sure people feel safe in their homes. Since the arsons, police presence has increased in Coatesville, but Carroll wants to see even more cops out there.

“You can’t expect to sell a two-bedroom condo for $225,000 when it’s two blocks away from where 60-65 percent of the city’s murders occur,” he says.

For his part, Carroll has declared his own war against crime in Coatesville, calling out Walker and the police department for failing to get the job done. “I share a different philosophy with Walker,” says Carroll. “We have different views of law enforcement needs in the city. We need [better] leadership and strategies than we have now—and we need help from outside agencies.”

Most people assume that race is the primary factor in Coatesville’s crime wave. Its former police chief doesn’t agree.

“Coatesville is a city divided, but it’s not divided by race in a way that’s dysfunctional,” says Matthews. “Generally speaking, relationships between our ethnic and racial groups are pretty good.”

One of the messages Matthews wants to convey is that crime in Coatesville isn’t random, and that it’s not dangerous to live and work there—that is, “unless you’re engaged in crime.”

As city manager, Walker knows better than to deny the harsh realities of Coatesville’s streets. But he sees things a little differently than Matthews.

“We can’t solve this problem just by arresting more people from Coatesville,” he says. “We’ve got the greatest amount of Section 8 housing in the county, and the lowest housing prices. Retail has gone away because no one has any disposable income, and the middle class has fled. Up until the last election, we may not have had anyone on city council with a college degree. We’re a designated hitter for undesirables.”

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Moving Forward

“People who aren’t from Coatesville only get the bad news,” says Rickie Hicks, Coatesville’s Community, Arts and Recreation director. “No one hears about the good people or organizations that are trying to improve the community.”

At the top of Hicks’ agenda is engaging the city’s youth in hopes of keeping them off the streets. He and dozens of volunteers keep Coatesville’s parks alive with swimming, summer camps and other programs. The Youth Summer League Basketball program starts this month; between Coatesville Community and Rip City (founded by Rip Hamilton, who grew up in Coatesville and now plays for the Detroit Pistons), 400-plus kids will hit the courts up to three times a week—and it costs families just a dollar per child to participate. There’s an adult league, too.

Among the projects initiated by the Stewart Huston Charitable Trust is a museum honoring Lukens Steel’s accomplishments in the industry. Mill tours are also in the works, so out-of-towners and residents alike can learn about steel making and gain a better understanding of Coatesville’s place in history and the industrialized world.

Right now, though, Lukens Steel and Coatesville’s historic landmarks are largely irrelevant to most inhabitants. Still, the Huston trust’s executive director hopes this will change as the city works to improve not only its image but also the quality of life for its residents.

“If people saw that Coatesville once had a very prominent place in the country’s manufacturing sector, they might gain a sense of pride,” says Scott Huston. “It’s a down-on-its-luck city right now, but it’s a survivor. Hopefully it will turn itself around.”

For Coatesville’s city manager, the key is redefining its future through economic development and getting finances back in order.

“We’ve got $7 million due this year, and the hole just keeps getting bigger,” Walker says. “The arsons not only had a negative impact on our self-esteem, they undermined our attempts to create some type of solvency. We need to get these projects started now.”

And there’s another missing piece. “We’re a city, yet we have no community college,” says Walker. “This doesn’t send a message that education is important. It adds to the diminishing values, low hopes and overall poor self-image that are so pervasive. When I first came here, people said, ‘Why are you trying to create jobs? No one wants to work.’”

City council member Kareem Johnson believes there’s hope for Coatesville—but not until the government gets its house in order. Perhaps November’s elections will help. Two at-large city council seats are up for grabs—one of them Johnson’s.

“The former administration was practically giving land away without contracts in hand,” Johnson says.

Johnson cites a real low point in 2005, when the city failed to invoke eminent domain in a controversial effort to seize private land for a golf course. Six years of litigation cost both Coatesville and the owners of the land in question hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public dissention over the incident led to a mad dash for available city council seats, and subsequent upheaval and acrimony among its ranks.

“Now, even land that’s already been purchased is still standing there,” says Johnson. “There are no clear-cut answers, but we have to move forward; cheap land costs are in our favor.”

But time is running out.

“We need to host some type of industry to create jobs, and we need our neighbors to cooperate,” Johnson says. “The community has to come together and agree not to rip each other’s heads off. The only way we can do this is through better communication and more respectable dialogue. What we need is character-based leadership—and we need to get drugs off the street and guns out of our teens’ hands.”

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