Main Body

Chapter 9: Community

Community Traditions and Practices

Formal traditions and practices in the Northwest Reading community primarily take place around religion. Fr. Garcia noted that a significant portion of the Northwest Reading population attends church regularly, and in turn, churches often become a center for community gathering rather than secularly organized events. (A. Garcia, personal communication, March 13, 2017).

Churches such as St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, St. Margaret’s Roman Catholic Church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Hope Lutheran Church organize many community events.

Community Attitudes

The community outlook, we have found, changes drastically in relation to both positions of power and, in part, socioeconomic status. Many of the individuals interviewed who have a positive optimistic outlook of the community hold positions of power within the neighborhood, while other residents hold more skeptical views of the community as a whole.

One aspect of this disconnect is cross-cultural. For example, Peggy Harter finds that sometimes it is very difficult to communicate with Latinos, partly because of the language barrier, but more so in terms of what she termed cultural outlook (P. Harter, personal communication, March 17, 2017).

Some of those we interviewed note that many individuals in the Northwest Reading neighborhood are pessimistic in their outlook of the community. This can be tied directly to the rise of poverty, the departure of industry, and the national trend of middle class shrinkage. It may also explain the transitory nature of the neighborhood: with people feeling their economic situation and quality of life changing very little, and with having to often times take jobs outside of the neighborhood and the city, it would seem natural that the people living in the area would look to move elsewhere. Pete Cammarano also notes that how people feel about their community is tied directly to the availability of gainful employment close-by, especially as more of the community turns to public transportation (Personal communication, March 8, 2017)

This negativity extends to the community’s outlook on the local government. The city’s high Latino population is not reflected in City Council or local government. Reading in general has had a long history of representatives who have not come from the community, in terms of being born and raised in Reading, and in terms of community involvement (B. Waples, personal communication, February 15, 2017). For example, many of the residents and local community leaders have stated that the current Mayor Wally Scott lacks presence in the local neighborhood and has not pushed for development here (R. Rodriguez, personal communication, April 3, 2017). Compounding this lack of development and the seemingly slow progression of the city out of poverty, there has also been a number of scandals in the local government. Just two years ago, then City Council President Francis Acosta resigned from his position in light of a guilty plea to conspiracy and bribery (Hughes, 2015). Four years earlier, in 2011, Auditor General Jack Wagner recommended state charges against Reading School District officials after a special investigation revealed that over the course of three and a half years, they had improperly used the food service and outside caterers for $76,000 in lavish meals for school board meetings and administrative meetings (Wagner, 2011).

These scandals shattered the trust many residents had in their elected officials, leaving them distrustful of the political system at the local level, and pessimistic on their outlook on life in general. As Coates describes, people began to adapt more, and in turn, started becoming more complacent with the way things were. Residents began to think more individualistically rather than collectively, and from this came a sense of complacency. (K. Coates, personal communication, March 17, 2017).

These attitudes also led to the decline or outright demise of some community organizations in the neighborhood, such as the Baer Park Association, which historically organized and fundraised many community events in the neighborhood. Coates attributes the decline of community organizations to an overall individualistic and negative view of the city, combined with the economic need to work more hours. She noted that the community wants change, but having been burned in the past at the national, state, and local levels by people in power and feeling as though they are deemed as an afterthought in all three, they are weary of taking part in such change when other priorities require attention (K. Coates, personal communication, March 17, 2017).

Other individuals, however, view Northwest Reading as a work in progress that will take determination and effort to improve, as they do much of Reading and Berks County in general. Rich Rodriguez, for example, notices that there are plenty of people in the neighborhood who are more focused on themselves than their community, but he continues to organize community events around the city, as he has done for many years before becoming Vice President of the Classic Bike Club (R. Rodriguez, personal communication, April 3, 2017). Father Angel Garcia states that while he believes many adults in the city have all but given up, many of the children still see hope and prosperity, and notes that while many people come and go through the St. Margaret’s parish, many choose to stay (A. Garcia, personal communication, March 13, 2017).

For these people, the city stands as a testament of survival and overcoming struggle, and they find inspiration to keep going and devote plenty of energy into shaping the community into one that flourishes. Perhaps the beauty and historical nature of the city, with its 18th and 19th century architecture, plays a part in inspiring these individuals’ desire to preserve it. (J. Slifko, personal communication, March 18, 2017).

Community Values

With all of our interviews, the consensus is that what the Northwest Reading community values more than anything is family. (J. Slifko, personal communication, March 18, 2017).  In addition, quality of life, both for one’s self and for family, is another aspect that is valued highly in the community. This ties into the individualistic attitudes many share, as it is comprised of the two most basic elements of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological needs and safety. (J. Slifko, personal communication, March 18, 2017). It also ties into the middle class flight phenomenon: if one has achieved on some level a routine of meeting physiological needs (e.g. food, clothing, shelter), then safety needs follow. With Reading’s reputation for poverty and crime, it is logical for many to leave if available resources allow, whether for job security, housing security, or simply personal security (B. Waples, personal communication, February 15, 2017).

This desire for a better quality of life has given rise to the value of work. As employment is the most basic and direct method of sustaining life, and as it is dwindling within the city, the ability to work and maintain it for years to come is extremely valuable and necessary. (P. Cammarano, personal communication, March 8, 2017).

We have found that the community also values education for the children and the future generations. As Joel Brigel, principal of Northwest Middle School states, because much of the city is in poverty and many adults do not hold high school diplomas, parents are more likely to push their children to pursue education as a means of escaping it and obtaining gainful employment in adulthood, perhaps even a way out of the city through college (personal communication, February 24, 2017).

In addition, many of our subjects note that there is currently a pseudo-renaissance among the younger generation to become more active in the local community, attend community events, and choosing to stay rather than look to major cities for a better quality of life.

We have found in the overwhelming majority of our interviews, from politicians Donna Reed and John Slifko, to local business owners like Brad Waples and Pete Cammarano, that by far, the aspect of life the community values least is political involvement. This is not to say that the community is unaware of the political landscape, but rather that many feel jaded and unhappy with it as they feel their lives are not significantly impacted by their involvement, and in turn, choose not to. Many residents have had to accept and adapt to whatever life throws at them. For the residents of Northwest Reading, it can be draining, and has directly caused to some degree or another the shift to individualistic and materialistic thinking. The residents do so, not so much as a means of looking to a brighter day, but more as a way of carrying on (K. Coates, personal communication, March 17, 2017).

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A Portrait of Life in Northwest Reading by Penn State Berks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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