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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 5 -- WINTER 2003
 

Main Street Diary: Coatesville, Pa.

August 26, 2003: I'm driving toward Coatesville, the poorest city in Pennsylvania; it is located, perversely, in the richest county in Pennsylvania. It's a small city of 13,000; I'd call it a small town but local officials bristle if you say that. Unlike some of the other industrial river towns in this part of the state, you can't see it from the highway but must first descend sinuously on Route 82 along the Brandywine Creek for a mile between thickly forested hillsides, until a spectacular stone railroad bridge -- they call it "the high bridge" -- looms ahead. Multiple soaring archways frame your first views of the massive black steel mill sheds that define this place in time and function. You may never see buildings as big as these built again in your lifetime, Super WalMart notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, dramatic local character gives way to botched civic entry, as the intersection of 82 and the main street, US 30 (the Lincoln Highway), cries out for better buildings and better signage and better signal timing. I sit idling with one car in front of me for about four minutes before I'm allowed to turn left, staring at a useless grassy patch and an unarticulated one-story storefront stuccoed in the blandest dun.

The huge mill property is to the right and the main commercial district runs off to the left. I pull the car over into one of many empty metered spaces at about 5:30 p.m. It's drizzling and gloomy; car traffic is steady through town. The people on the sidewalk don't seem to be going anywhere. They're hanging out in shop doorways, singly or in a bunch, waiting for something to happen -- waiting for a stranger to come to town, perhaps. There seems to be very little purposeful activity in downtown Coatesville. Yet the fact that they are outside looking for something is, to me, a good sign. They haven't given up on Coatesville yet.

I take a few dim pictures and leave. There are some good buildings, but fewer than I'd hoped, and the light is poor.

October 22: I return to Coatesville for six days to participate in a design charrette sponsored by the Knight Fellowship Program of the University of Miami School of Architecture. Now the light is spectacular, golden sunlight slanting through russet leaves. The goal of the charrette is a master plan for development and infill on 80 acres of downtown, including part of the steel mill site. I'm here to observe, learn, kibitz and take photographs. I bring my view camera but have no time to use it; instead I end up speed-shooting about 600 digital pictures for drawing reference and PowerPoint imagery.

This charrette involves several days of public meetings on topics including transit, mill redevelopment, parks and rivers, traffic and schools. As a Main Street maven, I am most interested in the meeting about the downtown business area. Old postcards show it was once called Main; the charrette report will recommend that it should be so again. Rick Chellman, the traffic engineer for the charrette team, asserts vehemently, "This section of Lincoln Highway should become Main Street, and PennDOT should be made aware of that, so it is designed to behave as a street again, and not as a highway."

The Lincoln Highway is, in fact, known as "America's Main Street," for it was the first coast-to-coast motor route. The roadway connected New York City and San Francisco starting in 1915, at least in a primitive, chassis-rattling form.

October 25: I spend an hour shooting some Main Street scenes for Carmen Rivera, one of the Miami graduate students on the charrette team. She said, "Get me pictures of encroachments on the public right-of-way; storefront setbacks of various depths; examples of signage perpendicular to the sidewalk for pedestrians or parallel to the street for vehicles; examples of good and bad paseos (passages between streets); examples of ugly parking lots."

Now that I see it in the sunshine, the street has some beautiful spots, including a pleasant paseo and several restored live/work buildings. There has already been a partial facelift coordinated by the firm of new urbanist planner Tom Comitta. The Knight charrette is building on the groundwork by Comitta and others. Comitta says, "The vision thing around here is getting more finely tuned every year."

October 26: A bunch of us are driving around in a van scouting Coatesville neighborhoods as Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, head of the design team, points out places she wants us to photograph. We loop around between the mostly black East side and the mostly-white West side, up and over the surrounding hills, along clean streets lined with twins and rowhouses. Near the end of the ride Lizz smiles and sighs, saying, "I fall in love with every town I work in."

October 28: The charrette is over; more than 200 people come through the rain to the final presentation at Gordon Elementary School. Afterwards we go to a tavern called Mr. E's, a mile north of Main Street. (We are already calling it by its true name.) We've learned that there is no grocery store whatsoever in downtown Coatesville. I'm talking with some locals at the bar, and I ask them when they last had a market and where it was. "Three years ago," a woman named Laurie tells me. "It's that boarded-up red building next to the Rite-Aid parking lot. It was an A&P or something. The shoplifting was killing them; even the employees were robbing them blind." Well, this is hearsay, but I've already photographed the building because it is a terrible eyesore in the heart of town, flanked by two more terrible eyesores, surface parking lots extending back from Main to the next street, Harmony.

Carmen may soon design charming paseos or infill rowhouses for places like that; investment in downtown may bring another, better-managed grocery store to Main Street; the commuter rail line may one day stop there at a spiffy new station, and I will return to Coatesville in a few years hoping to see them.


Coatesville, Pa., Charrette
Knight Program in Community Building, University of Miami

•  Dates: October 22-27, 2003
•  Team: 28-member charrette team consisted of Knight Program Fellows, graduate students in University of Miami School of Architecture's Suburb and Town Design Program, University of Miami faculty, and others
•  Site: Coatesville is a city of approximately 8,000 people located 40 minutes outside Philadelphia. It was a booming steel industry city in the 1950s and 1960s but has experienced three decades of economic decline and urban decay due to events including dislocation of steel industry jobs and construction of a regional mall in a neighboring town.
•  Scope: The goal of the charrette was to suggest ways to revitalize some 80 acres of the core city while maintaining and reinforcing Coatesville's unique character.
•  Quote: "Coatesville is a classic rust belt case of a small city almost wholly dependent on one heavy industry that has now contracted to less than one-tenth its former size, exerting a negative impact on virtually every dimension we speak of in creating and sustaining livable cities. There are many communities facing similar challengers, and Coatesville can be a prism for cities in the region and around the country to envision a range of possibilities for rebuilding."
•  Charles C. Bohl, director of the Knight Program
•  Sponsors: The Knight Program in Community Building, City of Coatesville, Redevelopment Authority of City of Coatesville
•  Public Involvement: Eleven stakeholder meetings plus the opening and closing presentations and a mid-charrette pinup and discussion.

Sandy Sorlien, 340 Gates Street Philadelphia, Pa. 19128, 215.487.2716
Online at http://sandysorlien.com/