Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Our Favorite Destination - Circa 1947

Too far, it took too long to go thirty four miles east to Philadelphia and still not be in center city. Reading Pa., just named as America's poorest city, was our destination of choice twenty miles west when I was a young teenager. Then, Reading was a prosperous city drawing like a magnet not only the young but adults of all ages. Whether action or entertainment was desired Reading had it all : two or more bars on every corner, seven or eight movie theaters, and the Fire Tower and the Pagoda looking down on center city drawing all visitors to take the winding drive up to get there. Restaurants were galore championed by the Crystal on The Square or, if wanting a lighter fare, the White Towers served hot dogs and burgers by the hundreds. 

A couple of times when I was about twelve or thirteen years of age, I was an unwitting passenger in timed races to Reading. Raymond, son of my family's pastor, drove his 1936 Buick four door sedan in these races against the clock. Those bragging rights were based on honor, verifiable honor, and it needed passengers to take the time back to the gang hanging out at O'Dell's gas station on west High Street in Stowe. 

I was the youngest passenger squeezed in the back seat between two older guys closer to Raymond's age of about eighteen. The clock started as we dug out going west from the light at Hanover and High about ten o'clock in the evening. This timing was planned so we avoided township cops who usually returned to their buildings at that time to write up their reports before eleven o'clock quitting time. There was also little traffic on 422 at that time of night. Raymond spared no horsepower on the double lane highway knowing he had to make up time there because who knew what traffic we'd hit in Reifton, Mount Penn, and Reading. 

The clock stopped when we crossed Fifth Street on Penn street. No, I don't remember the exact time but below a mile a minute has stuck in my mind these many years. Frequently over the intervening years I driven to Reading to take in a movie, eat a good meal, attend a show, or to work at my profession as a landscape nurseryman. No matter when I took the trip, I never forgot those harrowing races against the clock which had often left me with shaking knees and a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

Reading, Pa. once home of Joe's and Stanley's, the Reading Phillies, a brewery, Pomeroy's, the Peanut Bar, The Reading Eagle, and The Outlets is now of some prominence as the poorest city in America. What went wrong ? A bypass does wonders for an urban area, it keeps traffic out of the downtown. But it also concentrates social service agencies downtown bringing to them all the indigent needing help. These clients stay close even though they have little or no disposable income to support stores in the area. Sadly their presence deters former customers from shopping where they once did. The downward spiral builds upon itself setting a low point and only after a short time setting another low until now, the poorest city in the good old USA. Harrisburg, Scranton, Reading, so who's next ? Watch out Pottstown, a college town, beware !

Ronald C. Downie

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