Pennsylvania City Hopes It's Bouncing Back From the Bottom
 

    This small city of 42,000 people, surrounded by the thriving middle-class suburbs west of Philadelphia, has one of the highest concentrations of urban problems in America.

    Its schools and public housing rank among the worst, as do the city's rates for crime, joblessness, truancy, teen-age pregnancy and infant mortality. Homelessness, drug abuse and AIDS are major problems.

    But a series of startling changes in Chester is raising hopes among residents that the city is bouncing back after hitting bottom.

    The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying that the city's housing authority was in "total and complete breakdo'wn," took over management of that agency last month. This month, the state increased its supervision of the school system, forcing its officials to address the truancy rate and what has regularly been the highest teacher absentee rate and lowest standardized test scores in the state.

    Attacking corruption, the county district attorney recently won convictions of a member of the City Council and three members of the city's redevelopment authority on charges that included ethics violations and accepting bribes from contractors.

    And in a stunning upset, a grass-roots voter-registration drive helped Democrats win control of city government in the November elections. Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 in this predominantly black city, have controlled the government since 1866.

Intriguing to the Experts

    Urban experts say Chester is an intriguing case study because it has all the virulent social problems of an inner city, but the number of people affected is relatively small and the city's isolation amid suburbs protects it from the sprawling blight common in big cities.

    These experts also say/the five-mile-square city has great development potential because of its abundance of inexpensive land and its convenient location: Chester is on the Delaware River three miles west of Philadelphia
International Airport and has easy access to regional rail lines and interstate highways.

    "Chester would be a good laboratory for trying to deal with hard social problems," said Richard P. Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany. "The new leadership should have success with that argument in reaching out for foundation grants and trying to obtain more county, state and Federal support."

    Indeed, the city's newly elected leaders, who take office Monday, say they are aware of the potential benefits that come with the city's plight and they plan to take advantage of offers of help they have already received from political, academic and community leaders.

    Chester's decline is of relatively recent vintage. William Penn, having bought Pennsylvania from King Charles II, sailed up the Delaware River in 1682, stepped ashore here and named the settlement Chester, after the English city of his birth. The community thrived for 175 years, building the first iron-clad ships and becoming one of the world's busiest shipyards.

A Feeling of History

    That sense of history is more alive on the west side of Chester, where most of the whites live in old stone houses on Nob Hill, near the well-groomed campus of Widener University. Interstate 95 separates this suburban scene from the east side, with its blighted business district and waterfront littered with abandoned industrial buildings.

    The east side still evokes the feeling of a Colonial village with narrow winding streets and small brick buildings, but each intersection has a knot of homeless beggars and all the movie theaters, the bowling alleys and a skating rink have closed.

    "No one wants to live the way we do in Chester," said Barbara Bohannan-Sheppard, a 41-year-old nurse who operated a day care center in her home before she became the first Democrat to win a mayoral election here since 1905. "We have good qualified people in Chester, but the example we've set for our children has been that if you want to be a success you better stand on the corner or push drugs or do something illegal."

    The election of Ms. Bohannan-Sheppard, who as Mayor is on the five-member City Council, and two other Democratic council members, will give Democrats their first majority on the council in 125 years.

    "We're going to have town meetings, we're going to work as a team and we're going to step on a lot of toes to make changes around here," Ms. Bohannan-Sheppard said in a recent interview.

    On a wintry day, several residents shared the feelings of guarded optimism about the future. But some were wary of counting on the new administration. "Taxes are too high here, and a lot of businesses are pulling out of Chester," said William F. Severs, the manager of a downtown shoe store. Last month, the city raised real estate taxes, already among the highest in the county, by 26 percent to $144 for $1,000 of assessed value from $114.

    The newly elected officials have no government experience, but are brimming with optimism. "A lot of people are lined up to help us: lawyers, judges, the Governor's office, even the Mayor of Wilmington," said Annette Burton, a 51-year-old community college administrator, mother of 10 children and one of two Democratic council members. Charles McLaughlin, a 54-year-old aircraft inspector and union official, was the other.

    Chester's Republican Party machine, one of the nation's oldest, has also been called one of the most corrupt in recent decades by state officials. The Pennsylvania Crime Commission, an investigative agency of the State Legislature, said in a report last year that Chester's government had been dominated by "a triad of criminals corrupt politicians and rogue law-enforcement officers" since the 1960's.

    During Chester's long prosperity as an industrial center, unskilled workers found high-paying jobs in steel mills, shipyards, aircraft engine factories, slaughterhouses and a Ford Motor Company plant. But at an increasing pace over the last 40 years, because of high labor costs and increased competition, all but two major companies closed or moved to the South; at the same time, more Southern blacks moved into Chester and many white residents moved to the suburbs.

    As the population fell, from 63,000 as recently as 1970 to 42,000 last year, it became two-thirds black and increasingly poor and elderly. About one of every six residents lives in public housing, one family in three receives public assistance and about one adult in three is unemployed, the city estimates.

Powerful Republican Boss

    But the Republicans stayed in power, with the help of patronage jobs and favors. Last year's crime commission report concluded: "Government in Chester is Jack Nacrelli," referring to John H. Nacrelli, the 61-year-old Republican Party boss, who holds no official position.

    Mr. Nacrelli was Mayor from 1968 until 1979, when he was convicted of racketeering and income tax evasion for taking $22,000 in bribes from an illegal gambling operation with ties to organized crime. The report says Mr. Nacrelli continued to run a "shadow government" during and after his two-yearimprisonment and made most political appointments in city agencies and the school system.

    Mr. Nacrelli, who has apparently moved, could not be located for comment on the report.

Facing a Big Deficit

    The outgoing City Council, facing a projected deficit of 17 percent in its $22 million budget for the fiscal year 1992, convened Dec. 27 and, amid a raucous demonstration by city employees, voted unanimously to lay off nearly a quarter of the municipal work force. In all, 15 of 105 police officers and 56 other workers were laid off immediately.

    Members of the new administration said they would reconsider the layoffs and would submit a new budget by the end of February. Ms. Bohannan-Sheppard, the newly elected Mayor, said, "We can't even get a copy of the budget, and they say they have zero money in the bank."

    But the city's backers are optimistic. "Chester is the kind of place where you walk down the street and men still tip their hats to you, and the churches are filled on Sundays," said Ann G. Torregrossa, executive director of the Delaware County Legal Assistance Association in Chester and the lead lawyer on several successful lawsuits on behalf of citizens, housing and school groups.

    "If there is a place where we should be able to turn things around, it's Chester," she said.
 
 
Copyright 1992 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
January 5, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Part 1; Page 14; Column 1; National Desk
BYLINE: By MICHAEL deCOURCY HINDS, Special to The New York Times
DATELINE: CHESTER, Pa., Jan. 4
LOAD-DATE: January 5, 1992