Penn Street for many years was a vibrant thoroughfare where people enjoyed shopping. Theaters, various types of commercial establishments, and public events attracted thousands to the occasionally crowded Penn Square. In addition to experiencing foot pain, consumers endured the nearly imperceptible ascent from Third Street to Eleventh Street in order to examine the deals at their preferred retailers.

Below: 700 block of Penn Street looking East, circa 1950s.

Embassy Theatre, Reading, PA

Below: South side of the 500 block of Penn Street, early 1960s.

500 block of Penn Street Reading, PA

In the mid-1950s, Penn Street was still a major shopping district, but it was swiftly becoming seedy. Beginning with Sears Roebuck and Co.’s decision to relocate to the Shillington Shopping Center in 1956, the downtown area was deteriorating and starting to disintegrate, although few shoppers noticed.

Below: Deteriorating south side of the 800 block on Penn Street, early 1960s.

800 block of Penn Street

As concerns arose among city leaders, planning and urban renewal initiatives were initiated in response to issues including parking, traffic congestion, population decline, vacant retail spaces, physical deterioration, and increasing suburban competition.

An early instance of these endeavors was a downtown study tour led by members of the redevelopment authority. Rather than Penn Street, the tour included the congested half streets that run parallel to it, as well as residential areas located within a few blocks radius of the square.

As the members peered more closely at the ordinarily unseen deterioration, they were overcome with a nauseating sensation that contrasted with the gleaming first-floor storefront windows on Penn Street.

The upper floors of the Berks County Courthouse offered an untidy, cluttered views eastward, encompassing structures whose upper stories were frequently vacant, unadorned, and inhabited by pigeons.

Absentee landlords had milked many store buildings for all they were worth, putting nothing back but false first-floor ceilings that frustrated firemen and, in at least one case, simply dropped. Absentee landlords had milked many store buildings for all they were worth, putting nothing back but false first-floor ceilings that frustrated firemen and, in at least one case, simply dropped.

Side streets were filled with second-floor wash lines that swayed in the wind, while junk collectors accumulated newspaper, and cardboard to a depth of four to five feet in vacant or occupied structures.

Later, Reading residents who had previously appreciated Penn Street would lament over a few drinks the “bombed-out” appearance of the seemingly interminable clearance phase of urban renewal and the demise of Penn Street’s exuberance following its glory and opulence.

Urban renewal commenced during the middle 1950s with the widening of Cherry Street from Fourth to Sixth during the administration of Mayor James B. Bamford. That was an entirely city-funded endeavor, as opposed to the subsequent federally-state-aided renewal, which opened a narrow, severely congested street and introduced the city’s first off-street public parking lots.

Below: Sketch from 1954 of Cherry Street widening to include the city’s first off-street public parking lots.

Cherry Street widening, Reading, PA

The history of urban renewal in Reading, however, goes back to 1909 and travels a halting, sporadic road to 1949 when the Reading Redevelopment Authority was created.

The story intensified during the 1960s when the municipality undertook the audacious endeavor of demolishing at least fifty percent of its downtown in order to make way for development. The demolishment of half of the main area of a city begged for difficulties, but a significant portion of the populace appeared oblivious to this fact until the voids grew quite expansive.

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation, one must revisit 1909, the year when John Nolen, a professional planner initially dissected the town.

The mission was delegated to Nolen, a landscape architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Civic Association of Reading at the time was paradoxically preoccupied with issues of expansion rather than decline. The city’s population was approaching 100,000 at that time, and it peaked at 111,171 in 1930. The population as of the 1970 census was 87,643.

The recommendations put forth by John Nolen regarding long-term enhancements are meticulously organized and illustrated in a book titled “Replanning Reading: an Industrial City of a Hundred Thousand,” which is accessible at the Reading Public Library.

A reader of that volume is unable to turn away from the applications listed on the title page. On the opposite page is an image of Tulpehocken Creek accompanied by the following caption: “One of the few pristine natural features that can be readily acquired and incorporated into the parkway design of the forthcoming metropolis.” Finally, a portion of the parkway exists today.

Nolen anticipated, among other things, a tree-lined Penn Square in the heart of the city proper, which represents an additional accomplishment of recent times.

Twelve Points

He condensed his primary recommendations into twelve principles. Contrast them with actions that have been, are being, could have been, ought to have been, or ought not to have been taken.

His points were:

1. Adopt a more thoughtful and up-to-date method of locating and improving streets; 2. Remove from the main streets all wires, poles and other obstructions; 3. Take prompt and vigorous steps for the abatement of the smoke nuisance.
4. Extend the city limits by annexation, to include all the territory within the proposed Belt Boulevard (See Point 7); 5. Add to the convenience, comfort and beauty of Penn Square by the construction of a central mall or narrow park strip; 6. Proceed at once to make the best possible grouping of public and semi-public buildings.
7. Lay out a comprehensive system of thoroughfares and, boulevards, including diagonal avenues and a belt boulevard to encircle the city; 8. Provide for the gradual abolition of all grade crossings within the city limits; 9. Build across the Schuylkill River a series of bridges of a more appropriate type.
10. Secure at once for playground purposes as many open spaces as possible, especially in the settled sections of the city; 11. Get possession of the finest natural features around Reading — its mountaintops, valleys, river banks and creeks — and set them aside as public parks.
12. Investigate and report upon the improvement of housing conditions in Reading. (Nolen was suggesting, for instance, replacement of the tightly built row housing that continues to exist today with attractive, landscaped single or semi-detached houses.)

Below: Penn Street, looking east from Fourth, seemed a “bare, unfurnished, unattractive open space, blazing hot in summer, bleak and cold in winter,” wrote John Nolen about this 1910 photo.

Penn Square looking East from 4th, Reading, PA

Below: In his book, “Replanning Reading,” Nolen proposed the idea, below, or beautification of the square, looking in the same direction as above.

Penn Square looking east from 4th, Reading, PA

Nolen’s recommendations were promptly met with opposition from Reading residents.

For instance, immediate opposition emerged to the proposed Penn Street mall from men with businesses in the vicinity. Six days after a $1,275,000 bond issue was proposed, on June 8, 1910, the “Committee of Five” of the city eliminated $75,000 for the mall.

Fear of higher taxes in an election year swelled an adverse political tide led by the Democrats and Socialists. Nolen’s idea was defeated because of the average workingman’s fears of debt, increased taxes, distrust of Republicans, annual resorting to distortion of fact and name calling, bossism, general ignorance of the purpose of civic improvements, apathy, beer-hall politics and class consciousness.

The four items that were vanquished in 1910 were paradoxically and predominantly enacted into law over the subsequent two decades by the Socialists, led by Mayor J. Henry Stump. At Eighth and Washington streets, the former Old Boys’ High School was renovated to accommodate the new City Hall. Playgrounds were also constructed during this period. To designate landscaping for the Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery, as well as to conduct a survey of the Reading area, Nolen was retained.

The Republican mayor of Reading, Ira W. Stratton, established the City Planning Commission on April 2, 1914.

Nolen returned to the scene in 1930 in a prominent manner. Nolen, who was formerly acknowledged for delineating Wyomissing, was appointed on March 18 by the Community Council of Berks County to conduct an assessment of the city and its environs and develop a regional strategy.

Albert W. Gotch, an employee recruited by Nolen, was a native of Cleveland and a graduate of Harvard University’s city planning program. Gotch rose to become a regional and city planning engineer, primarily serving as the director of federal WPA and PWA programs initiated during the Great Depression to facilitate the recreational development of Mount Penn, City Park, Baer Park, and other locales.

Presently, the City Park band-shell and remnants of Mount Penn recreational development from that era are components of municipal enhancements totaling approximately $5 million, which were implemented during a time when currency was significantly more valuable than it is today.

Upon its establishment in 1936, the city planning bureau, which was subsequently disbanded and reestablished in the early 1960s, was led by Gotch. The construction of the original Reading Airport was his greatest accomplishment. During World War II, the facility that is now Reading Regional Airport was acquired by the Army Air Force.

Gotch also oversaw the city’s construction plan for the initial $1.5 million Reading Housing Authority project in Glenside, for which he served as technical adviser. Under his guidance, the initial aerial map of the metropolis was constructed.

The City Council eliminated his position as planning engineer in February 1940, when the bureau was transferred to the supervision of the city engineer. After joining the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941 and serving with the Air Transport Command during World War II, Gotch assisted in the formation of the Washington, D.C. area air transport consulting firm Gotch and Crawford. Later, he developed an interest in luring aviation carriers to Reading in that capacity.

Gotch evaluated the changes that occurred in Reading in the 1960s and 1970s and advised Reading to “keep the old character for as long as possible.” Noting that “Reading has a history” is something he emphasized ought to be preserved.

As reported in news clips from 1936, Gotch perceived Reading’s central area as giving way to miles of suburbs that followed “the major arteries of travel like star points.” “I believe businesses and industries will remain concentrated in the city center, while people will continue to migrate to the suburbs,” he continued.

He noted in 1938 that Reading was among the “few major cities in the nation that do not have zoning regulations.” Twenty years passed before that circumstance was rectified.

Gotch envisioned tiny shopping centers and recreational areas in the suburbs during the Great Depression, and he predicted that additional parking spaces would be required in the city center. Once more, he was several decades ahead of his time, and it is possible that few individuals paid attention as they toured the county in black sedans and coupes.

In 1931, at the outset of his tenure here, he lauded Thomas and Richard Penn’s foresight regarding the design of a broad central thoroughfare and grid of streets, describing it as “honorable in conception and forward-thinking in execution.” He claimed to have witnessed “a gradual yet consistent reawakening of civic awareness” in literature published after World War I.

Efforts to remove the railroad tracks from Seventh and Penn streets, open Oley Street between Eighth and Ninth (achieved during the Bamford administration), and construct or reconstruct bridges across the Schuylkill River were underway concurrently with and preceding the planning of the 1930s.

The concept of a railroad track achieved its pinnacle in 1923 when the City Council temporarily engaged General George W. Goethals, an Army engineer renowned for his work on the Panama Canal, to devise a resolution. Goethals did devise a strategy, but it was only successful in igniting additional controversy. The tracks remain in place.

In 1970, it was determined that a South Seventh Street span connecting to the Reading bypass was crucial for the proposed covered Penn Mall, which marked a significant resurgence of interest in improving the Schuylkill’s bridge. Penn Mall’s aspiration to construct a revolutionary response to suburban retail centers was ultimately dashed by the recession of 1974. The endeavor to construct the bridge was unsuccessful due to the state’s depletion of transportation funds in conjunction with escalating labor and material costs.

The planning that characterized the 1930s was supplanted by the collective focus of municipalities and counties, as well as the entire nation, on the war effort during World War II. The tempo of progress did not resume until the latter part of the 1940s.


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