I tried to revitalize my depressed hometown’s artistic community and all I got was this lousy house

Big plans, bigger mistakes.
Big plans, bigger mistakes.
Image: Reuters/Phelan Ebenhack
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Last year, I bought my first home the day after my 30th birthday as a single guy about to graduate from college. It was a three-story row home that overlooked a thriving community garden in my hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and it only cost $15,000, which I paid in cash. I had dreams of turning it into a destination art gallery in the middle of a down-on-its-luck industrial town. Less than a year later, I realized it was the biggest mistake of my life.

For a decade, millennials have headed to rust-belt cities with sketchy pasts and used the low cost of living to take risks and pursue creative careers. In the mid-1980s, a creative trust in Pittsburgh decided to revitalize the downtown by renovating historic theaters and performing arts centers and renting nearby apartments to young professionals and creatives. In nearby Detroit, young people are buying cheap land and starting urban farms, and the urban art scene is positively thriving. Even Cleveland and Buffalo have seen an increase in millennials taking advantage of the low cost of living to take calculated career risks.

So, I thought, why couldn’t Reading be the designation for young creatives? After all, it was also an inexpensive place to live that offered a historic urban infrastructure, affordable housing, and a central location less than three hours from Manhattan and two hours from Philadelphia. In theory, it sounded absolutely doable. But it had its downsides.

The house was so cheap because it was located in what is categorically one of the worst cities to live in America. Once a thriving industrial center with a railroad made famous by Monopoly, Reading is now more recognized for being one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. Beginning in the 1990s, Reading became known for its high crime and murder rates. After peaking in the early 2000s, levels of violence started to fall, but the city couldn’t escape its infamous reputation. In 2011, Reading was named the city with the highest poverty rate in the country, and it also started making lists for being one of the least educated American cities with the most poorly funded schools.

I left my sublet in the Upper West Side behind and decided to return to my tarnished hometown with the hopes of giving back to the culture that couldn’t originally give me what I needed decades ago. I was saddened to leave behind the motivated artists and writers I surrounded myself while attending The New School as an adult student, but I thought about all the ways I could help encourage that same thirst for creativity in Reading. I wanted to take what I had learned in New York, apply it to the town, and help it become a thriving city that would appeal to young entrepreneurs in search of the next affordable city to see out the American dream.

When I began contemplating a move back, I reached out to a small community of people trying to form a thriving arts community in the city of 100,000 people. After spending time with other like-minded people—most of whom were transplants from Brooklyn or Washington Heights instead of being former locals such as myself—I learned the biggest thing missing from this community was a place for people to gather and exchange ideas. There were a few cafes and galleries where creative-types could hang out, but they couldn’t afford the operating costs to host special events or keep late hours. Some bars hosted open-mic poetry nights, but the combination of alcohol and a culture of violence made the nightlife scene dangerous.

So I planned to create a small, multicultural center for both amateur and professional artists, musicians, and writers to come together and share ideas for new projects.  I didn’t care about increasing property values or building a destination artist hub: All I wanted to do was create an oasis to quench the thirst of creative people who felt that they had to move to a big city to fulfill their dreams.

I figured the best way to do it was to start a nonprofit. That way, I could utilize grant money allocated to artistic ventures by the city and local philanthropists. I spoke with local nonprofit leaders and read books on management and development to further understand what I was getting myself into. In my last semester at The New School, I enrolled in a course on startups and began drafting a business plan. Wanting to keep initial costs to a minimum, I planned to buy one of the many inexpensive three-story homes for sale in Reading and turn the first floor into a semi-public gallery space and live on the remaining floors. Due to an abundance of cheap real estate, finding an affordable fixer-upper I could pay for in cash was easy.

But finding the cash wasn’t as easy. I headed back to Reading during my final year of school, moved into my mother’s house, and took a job managing a chain optical store. I worked five days a week and traveled to school in New York City—a three-hour bus commute each way—on my days off in order to finish my degree. I assumed this would also buy me time to re-integrate back into the community while giving me access to the resources I had at my disposal at The New School. Less than a year later, I had saved enough for the payment.

I chose a $15,000 brick house next to a thriving community garden. An iconic mural of a child holding the world in her hands was painted on the side of the house. Titled in Spanish “Por Qué Vinimos” (“Why We Came”), it was painted to honor the sizable—and still growing—Dominican population that call the town home. A photo was even featured in a 2006 New York Times piece about Dominican immigrants leaving New York City for Reading. For the past 15 years, the building served as a daycare and community center. It needed obvious work, but I had the place inspected and was told the electricity was new, everything was up to code, and it was structurally sound. Three months later, I signed the closing papers and the house was mine.

The first step was to make the second and third floor livable by building a bathroom and kitchen. However, finding people to take the jobs proved to be difficult. Contractors, who generally lived in the suburbs or one of the many rural communities outside of Reading, found any excuse to turn down working on a home in the city and instead favored homes in the more affluent suburbs. Another insisted his van would get broken into and equipment stolen. Others didn’t even show up to offer a quote due to the bad reputation of the neighborhood. The ones willing to take on the task only wanted to talk about doing things as cheaply and quickly as possible. “You don’t actually want nice things in here, do you?” one of the contractors asked me towards the end. “Why don’t you just turn it into apartments, collect the money, and buy a nice place?” But I wasn’t looking to double my money and run: I was looking to create a reason for people to stay.

Getting the idea off the ground was another problem entirely. I had never run a nonprofit, and despite years spent in low-level management, I had only a vague clue where to begin. I started looking for career development courses at local colleges: Reading is home to one university, a small liberal arts college, a community college, and a number of for-profit technical schools. While in New York, I grew accustomed to seemingly limitless options for free or low-cost classes; it had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have those same opportunities in Reading. One nonprofit manager said she had to travel two hours to Philadelphia to attend a grant-writing seminar. Hoping to save myself the inconvenient drive, I signed up for an online course that provided me with the information I needed to get started, but going the digital route meant missing out on opportunities to network, which is an integral part to community integration.

Unfortunately, no amount of planning on my end could compensate for the lack of involvement on the other, despite the initial outpouring of support for the idea. When I began inviting people over to see the space, I was constantly met with excuses: Most people blamed their busy schedules, but some of the people I knew better told me they didn’t feel comfortable going into the downtown Reading neighborhood. One woman even mentioned that her father was shot and killed in the late ‘90s while visiting a friend in the playground on that block.

The final shoe fell at the end of July 2015 with a series of shootings within three blocks of the house that ended with a 15 year old murdering a 17 year old. After that, no one hid the fact that they had no desire to spend time in that neighborhood any longer. By the fall, I was ready to put my dream of creating a thriving oasis for artists to rest. I realized that the ultimate mistake I made was asking the wrong questions to the wrong people: Instead of talking to the average residents of the city, I spoke with the leaders and formed my plan on what they thought the city needed, not what the residents wanted.

But just because I failed doesn’t mean that others will. If you are considering trying to revitalize a small community, first find out what will get your residents engaged. Work with local business that are already established and successful, and put together a special event to judge the amount of interest. Spend time talking to the people you think would be interested and find out why they aren’t already involved in the local artistic community. And find out what struggles other businesses and non-profits are going through; if they are becoming jaded or giving up on their original goals, there may be a genuine reason for it.

I still have hope for Reading, because when things look so dim, hope is all you can really have. Despite now living a few hours away at my girlfriend’s house in New Jersey, I still pay attention to what’s going on back home. In an interview for her play Sweat, which was written and takes place in Reading, Brooklyn-based playwright Lynn Nottage said that she was looking for a “happy ending.” I can’t help but smile, because despite everything I went through, I still want to be part of that happy ending.