Submitted by unenlightenedgoblin t3_10ds4lh in Pennsylvania

Of all the decaying cities in PA, something about Chester particularly stands out to me. It’s just outside Philly on the I-95/Northeast corridor, has lots of relatively high-paying industrial jobs nearby and port access to the Atlantic, and from some of the old buildings it’s clear that there was once a pretty vibrant city there. It surprises me that it’s decayed as dramatically as it has (the statistics from Chester are…not good), as it seems to be a really obvious site for urban development.

I’m familiar with some of the general trends at play (suburban flight, disinvestment, corruption, failure of public services), but can anyone shed some particular light on Chester’s past and present? What would it take to bring Chester back (particularly in a way that includes existing residents) and who’s working to help make it happen?



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PregnantSuperman t1_j4n5a2e wrote

Chester is in horrendous financial shape and recently declared bankruptcy, which I believe only happened with one other municipality in PA history. It has tons of debt and not nearly enough revenue coming in. It actually has a special Governor-appointed "receiver" who is solely there to work with the city get its finances in shape. In addition to all the factors you mentioned, Chester also suffered from corruption and ballooning police pension obligations that ran rampant for decades. I believe the receiver and the state govt has been working to sell the city's assets for a while, which is where the giant controversy about selling its water system to Aqua came from.

The only thing that Chester has going for it is the soccer stadium. Money has been dumped into that place like crazy and it's great, but there's only so far a single asset like that can take a place.


RevHenryMagoo t1_j4ndght wrote

Great analysis. I would just add that Chester also has Widener University, which used to be Chester’s only asset before The Union came along. Widener has always made efforts to be a part of the community and not just exist within it.


CerealJello t1_j4nxt01 wrote

Also transit. Multiple train and bus lines that give you a one seat ride to many destinations in Philadelphia, including the airport.


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4n5xax wrote

Thanks for the detailed response


PsychicSarahSays t1_j4o2ktq wrote

Just to piggy back off this response, as I graduated from Widener University’s MSW program and part or our grad school education was going into the city to provide social services. The corruption you mentioned definitely plays a big part, and goes back almost 100 years.

Did you know Penn’s Landing is not in Philadelphia, but in Chester? Yes there is “a” Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia but in name only. The actual Penn’s Landing from which Philly takes its name, the actual location with an official PA history marker, where Penn first stepped ashore, was Chester.

And that is just one example of how Chester’s proud heritage and history was systematically erased.

The final blow from which the city could not overcome was the financial hit it took after WW2. The city was highly prosperous and successful during wartime. Many manufactures and industries left Chester at the end of the war (if they didn’t completely go out of business). Those who could afford it moved out to the suburbs. Employment continued to decline and businesses continued to leave. By the time I was in grad school there, there weren’t even any grocery stores left in the city.

Despite the continuous effort of public nurses and social services over the past 50 years, as well as Widener University actively buying property and restoring public schools, housing, and businesses—the lack of the city’s improvement makes it appear nobody is doing anything to help at all.

It certainly brings a spotlight to the ongoing criminal issues and corruption. I sometimes wonder if Widener’s aggressive investment in the city wasn’t present, how much worse it would have declined?


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4o3mw4 wrote

Thanks for your response. I had never heard of Widener before today but it sounds like they’re a real anchor in an otherwise suffering community. The potential is so clear to me, but the challenges are really intense.


TomsterTruck t1_j4om6al wrote

I’m currently a senior at widener, but have lived in the area for my whole life. Not everyone in Chester is super happy about Widener either. Tbh I’m not very involved in goings-on, but I do know we got a Starbucks on campus which took place of a small art/history museum, in which pieces donated by people of chester are now presumably sitting in storage instead of display.

At least they sprinkle cocoa powder on the trash before they burn it so it smells like the Hershey Factory


TomsterTruck t1_j4oms8g wrote

And for what it’s worth, Chester used to be a massive export town, huge in Oil and ship building. Check out “Sun Oil” or “Sun Shipbuilding”. You may also see things about Baldwin trains that were big in the area (same as the train from Polar Express). Combine that with used-to-be golf courses and resorts, Chester has some of the nicest houses I’ve ever seen, which used to be full of lawyers, doctors, you name it. The companies left, and the rich left. Big houses turned into split apartments. Now the most notable factory in Chester is a toilet paper factory, Kimberly Clark I believe. There is also a Boeing facility nearby, but not technically in Chester


Jumpy-Natural4868 t1_j4tg87f wrote

Sun oil is Sunoco and started in Pittsburgh. Did they have an east coast operation in Chester?


TomsterTruck t1_j4ys87o wrote

It was technically Sun shipbuilding but same company as Sun oil, I think they shipped a lot of their product from Chester, since it’s right on the Delaware and not too far from the ocean


GIDAMIEN t1_j4p9y1i wrote

That's not true, Chester has one other thing going for it. Right next to the stadium is a massive marijuana grow facility. 😆


OneHumanPeOple t1_j4noz2v wrote

You’re forgetting about the citizens. Some of the best people around.


Wonderwombat t1_j4p5h88 wrote

So just curious, if everyone in the city just up and left, would the debt vanish? Like who's gonna pay it?


PregnantSuperman t1_j4plizm wrote

Well, a huge reason why the bankruptcy was declared was to remove as much debt as possible. That sounds like a good thing, but like a regular person declaring bankruptcy, it destroys their credit - so their ability to get things like bond financing for economic or community development is essentially impossible now. They're likely going to be reliant on state government for all of their money going forward. Hopefully some of the federal infrastructure money can be used for expensive road, water, electric, etc infrastructure repairs and maintenance, but that isn't going to be enough to keep their head above water.

Anyway, the fact that there's basically nothing positive about Chester's future outlook means that even the speculators don't care to invest any money there. So it seems to be spiraling downward with no real hope for things improving without an extremely long and painful period of despondency.


defusted t1_j4n5rxr wrote

Chester is a text book example of the consequences of red lining. It was always an awful place by design with no chance of getting better. We got rid of all the laws that say "black people can't..." But we kept all the laws that say "you're school funding is based on taxes, and since everyone in your neighborhood is poor you ain't getting shit". Data shows that areas with poor education causes crime to be high, so if you purposely keep people uneducated then you take away their ability to get better jobs and move to better places.


mdpaoli t1_j4n7vpq wrote

Chester-Upland spends about $21,445 per pupil per year. That’s a higher per pupil spending amount than Haverford School District, Springfield School District, and several other school districts in Delaware County.

Here’s the data:


defusted t1_j4ngc39 wrote

Are you looking at Chester upland academy, Chester upland School of the arts, or Chester high School, because one of those isn't a private school where you got that number from. Maybe instead of trying to cherry pick one thing to point at and go "see, it's really not that bad" you should actually do some reading.

Chester was a red line area, I'm not going to get into what red lining is, you can look that up yourself. Companies loved to build industrial areas in red lining areas because they didn't care if the predominantly black population got stuck from industrial run off and fumes. When all the factories started to shut down in Chester it left the area even more impoverished. Low tax bracket areas don't get good public spending for public schools, hence lower education. Low income mixed with low educational opportunities creates high crime areas.


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4njv5u wrote

The thing that stands out about Chester compared with comparable small declining cities in the state is the fact that most of the factories in and around Chester are still operating. It doesn’t seem that Chester desperately lacks employment opportunities, but rather that those jobs aren’t going to Chester residents nor meaningfully lifting the tax base.


mdpaoli t1_j4nlj7i wrote

Yes there are still some factories operating in Chester, but they are a fraction of what once was there. The shipyard once employed 35,000+ people. The shipyard and many other large employers left following the Industrial Revolution. When those employers left, a lot of Chester’s population left too.


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4nohsh wrote

Whoa, I had no idea. 35,000 is A LOT of people. Did they tear everything down or are there at least cool industrial ruins to check out?


mdpaoli t1_j4nom0c wrote

The number I quoted was the average expenditure per pupil by the Chester Upland School District. The numbers came directly from the state Department of Education.

Yes, Chester Upland schools are CHRONICALLY underfunded at the local level, but the gap in funding is made-up by the state. So much so that the spending per pupil in Chester-Upland is on par with other school districts in Delaware County.

I have family from Chester and it’s tragic what has happened to the city since so much of the industrial base and jobs left.


RotateTombUnduly t1_j4no9dy wrote

Chester is home to one of the country's largest waste incinerators. This makes health outcomes in Cheter far worse than other places. It actually affects a large portion of the county but it's far worse in Chester where asthma and lung cancer rates are higher.

Chester also has a high number of low income housing in it. Because of this, Chester has been engineered to be poor. You can only live in the housing if you are poor. Once you get a better job you have to move someplace else and often that place isn't Chester.

Much of this was done by the county at the expense of Chester. Chester was the power base of DelCo. The wealthier people moved out of Chester and saddled the city with all of the county liabilities - the poor people and literally all its garbage.

In spite of all this Chester is home to many people who are making Chester better.


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4np3tg wrote

Yeah I knew about the enormous refinery complex next door in Marcus Hook, but wasn’t aware of the incinerator. Definitely isn’t helping matters. Does Chester at least get some money out of it? Are any civically-minded folks at the county level doing much to help Chester out or is it kind of an unspoken continuation of the status quo?


rednib t1_j4o4j13 wrote

Chester is never coming back, its more profitable for it to remain a dump as it's where people who can't afford to live in Philly/Delco/DE end up. That's its purpose. It's also polluted as F, as in you're getting a chronic health condition or cancer (or both) if you live anywhere near the incinerator, the river, or Marcus Hook, which is all of Chester. I used to own a rental property there and sold it after the real-estate investors started building student housing and the university changed their off campus policies for undergrads. The poor have to live somewhere, and that somewhere is Chester.


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4o4v1n wrote

The thing is that Chester once housed the poor, the rich and everything in between. I live in Pittsburgh, I know it takes years off my life but I do it anyway. We are all stakeholders in this here commonwealth. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Especially when you consider that like 10 Mn Pakistanis would give their left nut to have a home in Chester.


Matt-33-205 t1_j4mxxwj wrote

I was just there right before Christmas, that place is really bad


RotateTombUnduly t1_j4nnif1 wrote

Christopher Mele's Race and the Politics of Deception is a good history of Chester in the 20th and 21st century.


Wuz314159 t1_j4od8v6 wrote

>it seems to be a really obvious site for urban development.

Surely a casino will fix everything! o_Ó


nomuggle t1_j4oi46f wrote

In theory, the casino was supposed to bring jobs, but that didn’t work out like they thought it was going to.


Cereal-Bowl5 t1_j4nzyud wrote

Redlining, covanta incinerator, so much


phixer00 t1_j4oq4eb wrote

You should head up the river a couple of miles and check out Camden NJ


unenlightenedgoblin OP t1_j4os91r wrote

I’ve heard that Camden, as rough as it’s gotten, is making genuine progress. Declining crime, job growth, etc. granted it’s a long uphill climb, but you at least hear about things starting to happen in Camden. I never hear anything positive about Chester


Brunt-FCA-285 t1_j4pi5i8 wrote

Camden has the advantage of being just across the river from Center City Philadelphia, which undoubtedly helped attract the USS New Jersey, Adventure Aquarium, and the Waterfront Music Pavilion (née Tweeter Center/Susquehanna Bank Center/BB&T Pavilion) concert venue to Camden, and it’s also a ten minute ride away on the High Speed Line via PATCO. It has also been the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and tax breaks, which is how Subaru moved its North American headquarters to Camden. Chester has had no such advantages, as it is a thirty minute train ride away from Center City Philadelphia, and it is also separated from the city by the airport, not to mention the working class boroughs of Delaware County that have their own challenges. New Jersey also seems to have made a more concerted effort in fixing Camden than Pennsylvania has made in fixing Chester.


ChuckFromPhilly t1_j4qtm7b wrote

What will happen to the folks who are receiving a pension and health insurance as chester retirees if this bankruptcy goes through? Do they just lose all of that?


billstrash t1_j4nat1m wrote

I did a drive-through one time for work - we were considering buying a whole real estate portfolio of Section 8 housing in one contiguous neighborhood. At 11am on a Tuesday there were hundreds of people outside on lawn chairs drinking beer. Also, the brains of the operation was a Widener graduate (college in Chester) who wanted to do right for the city. I forget why we didn't go for it, but it was at the time when the soccer team was approved but not yet building. One friend we dealt with has an office in Chester but he was right on the water and nobody ever crossed over 95 to the side where people lived. There was one grocery store (now zero I think) in the city. It's just sad what happens when people have no no incentive to work. I can't see it coming back any time soon.


ell0bo t1_j4onmr7 wrote

>It's just sad what happens when people have no no incentive to work.

You're blaming Chester's current condition, on that?