I do not live in a small town. Or a big town, mid-sized city, urban center, monotonous suburb, or booming metropolis. I live on a farm and pass judgment on the rest of the world because that’s what I’m good at.
This post is not really about changes in small towns anyway. It’s about changes in Reading, PA, a place inhabited by 80,000 or so. You can categorize it however you see fit. Reading, like most towns, cities, urban centers, suburbs, and metropolii has been changing rapidly since the day it opened for business way back when. I don’t know the history of Reading, but I do know it was a railroad town at one time because it’s on the Monopoly board as one of the lucrative RRs to own. There’s no train to Philly now or anywhere else that’s slightly close, let alone a connect to the B&O or Short Line. That egregious shame is a subject for another post.
Today we’re going to talk about one of Reading’s neighborhoods known as West Reading. West Reading may in fact be a city in its own right, but I think of it as the part of Reading on the other side of 222, or 422, whatever that highway is. I can’t remember which is which or which one of them is known as the “road to nowhere.” Anyhoo, West Reading is on the other side.
From what I understand, not long ago (twenty years maybe?), West Reading was well on its way to rack and ruin because the prime generator of neighborhood income—the outlets—were on their way out. As the outlets permuted to seedy, so did the neighborhood. And as we often see when an area’s rents go south, interesting people move in. The interesting people hang around a bit, create colorful collages on the walls, sleep in during the week, work at part time jobs in the afternoon, and party at night, all the while chasing after fame of some kind or another. Eventually shops move in to cater to these low-rent folks. Like the people, the shops are interesting. In addition the food is great and used clothing stores abound. Eventually the gentry from other, nicer parts of town, discover the food and the clothes and things start to pick up. Boutique jewelry stores, pricey art object houses, and wine bars move in next to the tattoo parlors and head shops. Pretty soon the street becomes a destination, a place you talk about visiting when you’re standing around the water cooler impressing coworkers with your fabulousness.
The sad part of the story is that eventually once the small businesses of the interesting kind are making money, the entrepreneurs discover it. They envision better parking, security, franchises. The next stop for the neighborhood is Americanization. Apparently entrepreneurs are tasked with the shepherding of all interesting neighborhoods into the mass culture fold. Their job is to make sure every square inch of retail space is optimized to the optimumest. They cannot let opportunity pass.
This is where West Reading is at now. It’s been discovered by the entrepreneurs. The first domino is poised to fall. The Hard Bean Café has been in West Reading for 16 years. It is not a one of a kind establishment. There are 5 or 6 of them around the county. The thing that makes the Bean part of the scene is that one-half of its space is used for poetry readings, evenings of music by small combos, and other artsy fartsy type gatherings.
How shocking is the thought of half a shop left empty for most of the money-making day. And even when it is being used for an event, how much cash is actually coming in from these gatherings of inhabitants of the low-rent district? That space should be raking the money in. These artsy fartsies are nothing but pansies and drug addicts with no money. On top of that, that store’s an eye sore. An affront to the collective entrepreneurial spirit that is America.
Fear not, a Subway is soon to move in there. You know Subway: bologna on a big bun with chopped up lettuce, mayo, and last year’s tomatoes probably preserved with red dye #2. Subway has what every American needs: lots of food at rock-bottom prices. Apparently what America needs, especially the parts of it where interesting people gather, is a Subway.
Meanwhile, half a country away, in a for real little town, South Haven, Michigan, they’re installing an ice skating rink. It’ll take up a full one quarter of a city block and it probably won’t make a red cent. Hardly worthy of comment until you realize that this little town earns its keep by entertaining Chicago tourists during the summer months. S. Haven is situated on the Big Lake just far enough away from Chicago to make it a destination, but not too far away to make it a tedious drive or boat ride. It’s a lovely town with its own political ups and downs, which I know nothing about and so won’t comment on here. Suffice it to say that this little town is constructing something that will earn no money and not be usable by their patrons, the Chicago summer folks. The skating rink is for the residents and a complete waste of tax payers money. But it’s the right thing to do because a Michigan winter lasts ten months long. These town folk need a skating rink.
Point is, we can have our culture if we want it bad enough. We can have a space for not yet-ready-for-prime-time artists to try out their stuff even if it cuts into easy money real estate. Keep in mind that these fumbling unknown artists of today are going to be the purveyors of tomorrow’s overpriced music and literature. Every Amazon best seller came out of a low-rent district somewhere. Edgy art cannot be supported in a shi shi ‘burb. You need the ambiance, the vibe, the low rent.
We can have our culture if we want it. We can be an interesting race of people, supportive of the weird and wacky and inscrutable. We’re interesting, sure, but are we interesting enough to forego some of our more lucrative endeavor, our fast feed? We don’t always have to be making money off every square inch of the planet. We don’t have to allow yesterday’s leftover tomatoes be the avatar of our time and taste.
So the question is: are the residents of West Reading as interesting as those of South Haven?
We’ll find out I guess. There is still time to keep the Hard Bean in West Reading.