Main Body

Chapter 2: Patterns of Settlement

According to the Berks History Center, foreign settlement into the area began during the late 1700s with an influx of Germans emigrating directly from Germany, either due to family already here or because of the rise in industry into the city. This was a trend that began slowly at the turn of the 19th century and continued well into the Industrial Age. The Reading Railroad and the establishment of many manufacturing companies such as Thomas A. Willson & Co., better known as Willson Goggles, and Carpenter Steel Co., now formally known as Carpenter Technology, were among the factors leading to this migration (Albright, 1948).

The Rehr family was among the first German families that settled in Reading. Coming from Germany in the 1850s, William Rehr, I and his son Lambert (who became much more well known in the city as President of Penn National Bank, which later became National Penn Bank) were housing contractors who became known for building most of the homes in what is now Northeast Reading, and subsequently, many homes in the Northwest section as well (Reading Eagle, 1925; W. Rehr III, personal communication, March 8, 2017). Much of the land on both the Northeast and Northwest areas of Reading had gone undeveloped until the 1800s, mainly because there were many hills with steep inclines that made it difficult to build homes at the time (W. Rehr III, personal communication, March 8, 2017).

Retired fire chief William Rehr III noted that before the influx of Latinos beginning in the 1950s and continuing to this day, most of the residents in Northwest Reading remained German, while Northeast Reading was being populated more by Polish and Irish immigrants by the turn of the 19th century. The early Latino settlers were coming directly from Puerto Rico and Mexico (W. Rehr III, personal communication, March 8, 2017).

Since the 1980s, the Latino migration into the city and the neighborhood appeared to come from New York. As Reading Classic Bike Club Vice President and frequent community organizer Rich Rodriguez states, he moved to Reading from the Bronx in 1986 upon word from relatives already residing in the city that there was more gainful employment and affordable housing (R. Rodriguez, personal communication, April 3, 2017). The downfall of the Dana Corp. (Miller, 2010) and Hershey sites (Levy, 2007), in addition to the decline of historic small brick-and-mortar businesses, would partly explain how Northwest Reading started to become a more transient community. This resulted in employment shifting outside the neighborhood and ultimately outside of Reading. As William Rehr III states, much of the neighborhood was primarily populated by older individuals above the age of 60 who were retired when the housing market in Reading was primarily homeownership. It began to change when the trend shifted towards tenancy, which has shaped the neighborhood into a working class community (W. Rehr III, personal communication, March 8, 2017).

Tom McMahon notes that many homeowners and landlords do not live in the city, and many not even in the state. In his research conducted with Our City Reading, a local nonprofit organization focused on renovating homes in Reading, McMahon found that some homeowners and landlords live as close as Wyomissing or Leesport, while others live as far away as Florida. This presents an economic disconnect that has led to many problems, including homes that are poorly maintained being sold above market value. McMahon recalled a trend in the 2000s where “slumlords” would skirt around legal housing requirements and rent a single house to multiple families, taking advantage of the Hispanic community as many of these houses were rented to undocumented immigrants who were left with little choice. While parents worked and children went to school in the daytime, few (if any) were present in the household during the day when housing inspectors would come around, and in the night, these families would sleep on temporary bedding. This process was violating the ordinance that was put in place to minimize casualties and deaths in the event of a disaster, such as a fire. During this period, there were a number of fires in the neighborhood where multiple families died in the same house because of the overcrowding (T. McMahon, personal communication, March 13, 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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