Penn Street in York starts with a curve around Farquhar Park and then runs south in a straight line for about a mile.
Some of York’s finest neighborhoods border that curving road starting at Madison Avenue. And at its southern terminus on King’s Mill Road, there’s extensive investment going on.
York College is converting the old Schmidt & Ault paper mill into a Knowledge Park. The rail trail runs through there with investment in old buildings and public art along its way. Even the old spooky city incinerator has been restored into a crematorium with its tall smokestack and all.
But in between, there are visible patches of blight — and lots of promise for those who squint.
Indeed, a team that involves community engagement specialist Montez Parker II, the YMCA of York, Murphy & Dittenhafer architects, York College Urban Collaborative and others are seeking to harness that promise and blot out that blight.
In the summer of 2022, the Y Community Development Corp. received a $20,000 York County Community Grant to draft a South Penn Street Physical Vision Plan. Work has been underway since: A draft plan should be completed in a couple of weeks and a final plan by the end of March.
The plan will put forth ideas about transforming existing properties for community use, commercial development and residential improvement projects. It will study green spaces and streetscapes. To put a finer point on it, the plan will seek improvements to sidewalks, streets, landscaping and lighting.
Penn Street’s features
Parker grew up in a neighborhood near South Penn Street, and upon returning from the Air Force, he sought to invest in his old neighborhoods. For example, he has worked for improvements in the Salem Square neighborhood that is partly defined by Penn Street.
When you talk with Parker, he’ll tell you that he’s interested in the full length of Penn Street, the northern part, too, north of the Penn Street Art Wall.
Indeed, this public art space on a pedestrian bridge is one of the street’s most interesting features. It’s a 1990s replacement for a span that carried Penn Street vehicle traffic over the Western Maryland Railroad tracks, a draw bridge of sorts that could be raised to allow large loads to pass underneath.
There are many other assets to build on. The Penn Street Farmers Market will receive a multimillion-dollar upgrade. The Knowledge Park project is key because it’s the closest part of York College’s campus to York’s downtown and west end, a district marketed as WeCo, for west of the Codorus.
A Murphy & Dittenhafer website story summarized Parker’s vision, which lists other assets on or near Penn Street: “He envisioned linking the Historic Newton Square neighborhood to the new Homes at Thackston Park, and York College of Pennsylvania’s new Knowledge Park to the residents on Penn Street and the Market & Penn Farmers Market, to create an inclusive, accessible area that ‘lifts up’ residents and businesses.”
Investment goes elsewhere
The vision is there for all of Penn Street, but there’s little doubt the four-block area, with connecting neighborhoods, between the Penn Street Bridge and Penn Market will receive most early attention.
This is the stretch of South Penn Street that Jeff Kirkland and other community leaders have underscored as not receiving investment since the York race riots of the late 1960s.
“My pet peeve,” Kirkland said at a 2019 public meeting, “is that over that time hundreds of millions of dollars … have been spent in this community for community development and all. But you probably couldn’t measure the percentage that has been spent in this area … .”
That stretch and adjoining neighborhoods served as a big part of the riots’ battleground, in part, because it was among the most poverty stricken.
Actually, investment in this area stopped decades before the riots.
After World War I, the widespread city and county trolley system made it possible for workers to live in new housing going up on the fringes of York and in neighboring townships. So The Avenues in Northwest York were built out and Old East York went in. Edgar Fahs Smith and Phineas Davis schools, serving those new developments and nearby neighborhoods, were constructed in 1931.
So there was old, well-worn housing in place that soon was occupied by Black families arriving in York to work in factories, part of the Great Migration of Black people from the South in pursuit of factory jobs.
Two segregated schools for these newcomers were built as part of the York City schools construction boom in 1931: Smallwood, serving the west side including the Penn Street area, and Aquilla Howard on the east side.
In the 1930s, federal appraisers walked Penn Street and its neighborhoods and then decided to soak this area with red ink, a practice known as redlining. They rated neighborhoods on both sides of Penn Street from West King Street to just before the bridgehead.
The red ink meant the district received the lowest grade: “hazardous.” The appraisers wrote that this district was populated with “laborers, negroes, WPA (Works Progress Administration) workers, foreigners.”
“This section has a high concentration of alley houses which are in the worst possible condition. Low class whites and negroes live in poor moral conditions. The area is exceptionally bad,” a federal Home Owners Loan Corp. document said.
The federal government recommended that lenders “refuse to make loans in these areas (or) only on a conservative basis.”
Meanwhile, investment continued in growing suburbs. Fayfield spread beyond Old East York. And the Wyndham Hills development went in south of York. In both cases as in other developments, individual deeds, community associations and subdivision plans prohibited the selling of property to Blacks and Asians.
So those living along Penn Street could not refinance because of redlining and could not follow the dream of homeownership in certain new developments because of race-based deed restrictions.
35 more years of decline
Thirty-five years later, this deteriorating southern part of the Penn Street corridor had seen little change and had drawn scant investment.
In a 1968 Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission report, the Newberry-Penn area was listed as one of five neighborhoods that were home to Black people in York City.
“Condition of housing in these five neighborhoods is described as the ‘worst and oldest housing in the city,’” the report stated.
All this brings us back to those 1931 schools and the failure of city school officials to draw school boundaries to mitigate segregation.
The two segregated Black schools — Smallwood and Aquilla Howard — were demolished in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era. But the 1968 report said “de facto segregation” was still “very evident” in the city school district. Such segregation occurs even though it is not required or allowed by law.
For example, McKinley, a 1924 elementary school close to that four-block section of South Penn Street, reported 54% of its census was nonwhite. Compare that with no reported nonwhite residents in Madison, a feeder school for Edgar Fahs Smith, and Roosevelt, which sent students to Phineas Davis.
“It must also be noted that the McKinley School has no gym, no library, a higher than average pupil to teacher ratio,” the report stated. School officials finally acted on that one, demolishing and rebuilding McKinley in 1975.
As for the junior highs, Smith reported 7% nonwhite students and Davis, 14%. More than one-third of Hannah Penn junior high students — the school receiving students from the Penn Street area — were nonwhite.
The report went on to make recommendations about improving conditions, recommendations that the city administration did not enact. The next summer, in July 1969, the deadly and bloody riots erupted for a second summer.
Neighborhoods gain attention
Since then, Tropical Storm Agnes, three years after the riots, prompted improvements to the Newberry Street area: Newton Square.
In the past decade, the Penn Street neighborhoods have received increased attention. Logos Academy has converted a former metal recycling complex into a school and is restoring a former car dealership for school expansion.
On the other side of Penn Street, the city has targeted the Salem Square neighborhood with at least two key development initiatives.
Among other projects, the Salem Square Community Association is active in renewal work, and Four Squares Development is engaged in affordable housing work in the neighborhood.
Ideas to reclaim neighborhoods
Now Parker and his partners are developing a plan to join in these efforts and others to reclaim neighborhoods that have lacked investment for a century and whose poverty has been reinforced, at times, by government. They are using the Penn Street corridor as a way to organize the project.
What do those backing the Penn Street project have in mind?
Parker gives insight, in response to five questions:
Q. You grew up near Penn Street. Has that sparked your interest in revitalizing that street and neighborhoods?
Yes. I grew up on the 500 block of King Street around the corner from Penn Street. I have close friends in the Penn Street neighborhood to this day.
All passions are personal, right? In many ways, all politics are personal. Sometimes public-private partnerships are personal, too! I have equity here! A lot of folks have equity and receipts here! And we all know this neighborhood is worthy of visioning, strategic planning, smart resource allocation, and tender loving care.
In my 20s, transitioning out of the Air Force and learning about community development, I fell in love with the thought of bringing diverse individuals in my community together to rebuild our neighborhood.
I’ve learned much from this project and the good folks who deeply care about this neighborhood.
I’m grateful to have the opportunities to actively listen to and learn from residents, businesses, dreamers, planners and doers. All are important to the visioning. And there are more conversations to engage in for sure.
Q. In broad terms, please describe this project. How does this initiative dovetail or complement the city’s local sourcing and neighborhood ecosystem plans?
Mayor Michael Helfrich is adamant about not conducting just a facade project. He is encouraging us (Murphy & Dittenhafer, myself and stakeholders) to dig deeper and create solutions and strategies that will sustainably change the neighborhood. There will be an economic development part of this plan.
The way (Logos Academy’s) Aaron Anderson, (contractor) Stewart & Tate and (state Department of General Services’) Kerry Kirkland worked together to maintain a 30% diverse business spend on Logos Academy’s current upper school project can be replicated.
In addition, I could see a local sourcing model helping Penn Market. Working with major institutions to leverage their purchasing power into the Penn Market could ignite small-business growth. Penn Market, being 78% filled with minority businesses, would be a major win!
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Q. Some have pointed out that little has changed on South Penn Street since the race riots 50 years ago. Do you agree? What stretches of Penn Street or landmarks along the way will you address first?
I agree wholeheartedly — these sentiments are echoed daily. Speaking of stretches on Penn Street: The 300 block of South Penn to York College’s Knowledge Park will serve as a nexus for community impact on this project. We’re looking at the rich history of the Thackston Homes and Martin Luther King Jr. Park, the Codorus Creek and the intellectual energy of Knowledge Park.
The Princess Street Center is a community anchor and historical landmark as well. The center was once a segregated school — even years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
When you look at the history of Penn Street — the social uprisings, Princess Street Center, the Codorus Homes and more — you can understand the anxiety that comes with creating a new vision to inclusively develop the neighborhood.
Q. How and where do you seek funding to underwrite these revitalization efforts?
A. The York County Community Foundation provided the seed funding to get the vision plan off the ground.
I’ve also spoke with individuals from the business and philanthropic community who are very interested in pushing this plan forward. I think this plan will take a diverse funding portfolio utilizing state, federal, and local resources in addition to philanthropic and business investments.
And, of course, we will lean heavily on the ideas, desires and sweat equity of the community as well. It would be amazing if this vision plan ignited a capital campaign for the Penn Street Project!
Q. What would you like others to know about the Penn Street project? What will surprise folks?
A. Penn Street is home to over a dozen minority and small businesses. From Mr. Breeland’s bakery, Jocelyns Spa, to Godfrey’s butcher shop (where I faithfully buy my oxtails), Penn Street is rich in small and minority-owned businesses.
Something I would like others to know: This is not only a grassroots project, but a plan to spur wealth generation.
Increasing community, safety and commerce in a neighborhood is good for everyone. I’d like to stay intentional about small and minority business participation with development projects.
Sources: Presentations by York College Policy and History students, December 2022; murphydittenhafer.com; YDR files; James McClure’s “Almost Forgotten.”
Jim McClure is a retired editor of the York Daily Record and has authored or co-authored nine books on York County history. Reach him at email@example.com.
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