Keystone Crossroads

Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. WPSU and three other public media newsrooms in Pennsylvania are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state's urban crisis -- and on possible solutions. Keystone Crossroads offers reports on radio, Web, social media, television and newspapers, and through public events.

Diana Robinson / WITF

A judge has ruled the corruption case against former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed will go to trial.

Reed faces corruption, bribery, theft and other charges for allegedly hoarding city-owned artifacts and bribing people to approve public borrowings that, ultimately, nearly bankrupted the municipality.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

  Michael Catania walks on a rocky beach at Petty's Island. He picks up a flat stone and flings it out into the Delaware River. The stone skips a few times toward a shipping terminal and the church steeples of Philadelphia's Port Richmond neighborhood.

"I feel like a little boy when I come here," said Catania, chairman of the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust.

Wooden stakes protrude from the ground. The remains of an old pier line the perimeter of the beach. Plastic bottles, old tires, a TV, and bricks sliced in half — one side "key," the other "stone," litter the shoreline.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

In case you hadn't heard, the Pope is coming to Philadelphia and the whole city is a bit on edge.

Mayor Michael Nutter has said that "this will be the largest event in the city of Philadelphia in modern history."

Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

 

Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, is hundreds of miles from the boardwalk and the beach, but mere steps from the Susquehanna River. And while no one has made a reality show about this sleepy town yet, they do share one similarity with their namesake: flooding.

So when Michael and Lurie Portanova bought a strip of buildings downtown in 2012, they weren't surprised to learn that they'd have to buy flood insurance, for about $3,000 a year.

But no one told them about a recently-passed law called the Biggert-Waters Act.

Jared Brey / PlanPhilly

There are some neighborhoods in Pennsylvania cities where half of the properties are blighted or tax-delinquent or both. Between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, there are about 60,000 such properties. But getting them into the hands of new owners who can make them useful for the neighborhood again has been difficult.

Irina Zhorov / WESA

 Rob Walters, a riverkeeper, launched his boat across from a staging area for barges on the Monongahela River, about 20 miles upriver from Pittsburgh’s downtown. His first mate, a Portuguese water dog named Rio — meaning river in Portuguese — whimpered in excitement. He counted about 30 barges before he turned on his boat’s engine and headed towards the city.

“Usually the general rule of thumb is biggest boat wins. So the barges really are the rulers of the river,” he said as he navigated between the moving barges.

Jessica Kourkounis

 Welcome to Labor Day weekend. In case you have an extra day to catch up on your urban reads, we have lots to share.

Distressed cities

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The court has spoken, and the Chester Upland School District needs a roadmap toward financial stability.

In a 10-page order released Thursday, Judge Chad Kenney of the Delaware Court of Common Pleas asked Chester Upland receiver Francis Barnes and the Pennsylvania Department of Education to share information about an updated financial recovery plan.

Marielle Segarra / WHYY

The German city of Bottrop is known for its coal mine, Prosper-Haniel, which employs 5,300 people and will shut down by 2018.

Bottrop's unemployment rate was eight percent at the end of May 2015, compared to a national average of 4.7 percent. Many of the city's 116,500 residents live in poverty, according to the city. 

Laura Benshoff / WHYY

 In the Chester Upland School District, local leaders kicked off the new school year with pomp and circumstance. The mayor of Chester gave a speech. Balloons hung in front of Toby Farms Elementary School, where officials greeted families and a DJ played music out back.

The cheery touches provided a backdrop for local officials to put a positive spin on what has been a slew of bad financial news for the district.

Pennsylvania's property valuation system is, arguably, the least regulated in the country.

Nearly all state governments either handle valuations themselves or require cities or counties to do them at regular intervals between one and 12 years, according to a survey by the International Association of Assessing Officers.

New York requires municipalities to maintain assessments within a certain range market value.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

We have updates on some of the issues covered in our first year of reporting including the first city to emerge from Act 47 and new protections for the homeless.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

  It's been a good couple of years for Lancaster. The city was featured in The New York Times this summer, ranked as the 'sexiest small city in America'and deemed an e-city by our Internet overlords at Google.

Mark Duncan / AP

 

Cleveland, Ohio, working with the nonprofit OneCommunity, is installing a super fast broadband network. It will initially connect downtown, the high tech corridor, and University Circle. Internet speeds will reach 100 gigabits; that’s not only really fast, but unnecessary for most users. The city says that’s precisely the point — novel Internet speeds could lead to innovative uses, new companies, and ultimately economic development for the city.

 

Nanticoke is the first city and 10th municipality in Pennsylvania to complete the Commonwealth's Act 47 program for distressed municipalities.

Matt Rourke / AP

 

At least 50 Pennsylvania municipalities legislate against sleeping or camping in public places.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

 

It's Friday and we bring you water, transportation, notable city quotes and the impact of the budget impasse on school districts.

Shutterstock

 

The school year is soon to begin, and districts across the state of Pennsylvania are faced with a troubling proposition: How do you stay afloat when a very large chunk of your budget is nonexistent?

School leaders face this question as first-year Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and leaders of the Republican-held state House and Senate continue to disagree about how to frame the state's spending plan.

As the first day of classes draws near, districts have not received any of the state aid that would typically begin flowing in August.

biker in traffic
Emma Lee / Newsworks

 

At Keystone Crossroads, we write a lot of practical stories on urban design, policy and politics. But today we're indulging our literary side.

We've compiled quotes that remind us of cities in Pennsylvania, and make us think about the big picture.

Ashley Hahn / PlanPhilly

 A few years ago, when Philadelphia was on the homestretch of rewriting its zoning code, there was a brief kerfuffle over one of the rules that was under debate.

The rule was related to stream buffers, or riparian buffers, which require a certain amount of space to be set aside between new development and the banks of the city's rivers and streams. Specifically, how big should they be? Environmental advocates favored a bigger buffer, and developers, of course, favored a smaller one. The city eventually settled on 50 feet. (Then briefly disagreed, then agreed again.)

Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

 

It's Sunday night in Lock Haven, Pa., which means it's time for another free outdoor concert in the J. Doyle Corman Amphitheater. This week, it's a country band, and there are close to a hundred people in the audience. But city planner Leonora Hannagan says this is nothing compared to some weekends.

"When we had the Eagles [tribute band], people called me at the beginning of the summer, asking for hotel and restaurant information," she says. "They come and make a whole weekend out of it."

Man in hammock
Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

For a long time, Philadelphia's Delaware Riverfront was...underwhelming.

Each winter, the city operated a harbor-side ice skating rink. There were also summer concerts and festivals on the waterfront, bursts of life that would fizzle out as soon as the events ended.

But most of the time, people didn't venture down to the river. For one thing, getting to the waterfront requires finding a place to cross I-95, the 10-lane highway that cuts through the city. 

On a recent weekend stroll at Point State Park, in Pittsburgh, visitors sunned themselves in the grass and along the low walls of the park. The park is a triangle of green at the very place where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. At the tip of the Point kids splashed in a fountain, and a rainbow shimmered through the spray. Looking east along the rivers bridges stitched the city together with yellow seams. 

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Across the state, students are wrapping up internships and summer jobs, signing up for fall classes and preparing for another school year at one of Pennsylvania's 200+ colleges and universities.

But once they graduate, how many of those students will stay in the area where they were educated?

Map of city road conditions.
Christoph Mertz

Christoph Mertz spends his days looking at cracks in the street.

“Once you’re involved in something like this, you see every crack in the road, every pothole, you say, ‘ohhh, this is interesting,’” he said as he wove around sizeable potholes on the narrow streets behind Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. A small camera mounted on his windshield much like a GPS device shot video of the pavement unspooling in front of him as he drove. He said he relished finding really deteriorated streets because “it’s a really good example for my data.”   

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

The idea of volunteer fire departments originated in Pennsylvania and it's certainly a hallmark of the state: around 90 percent of Pa.'s fire departments are volunteer. But these departments are facing big challenges. Volunteer numbers are down and for many municipalities, funding is an ongoing headache.

Irina Zhorov/WESA

Homer City Police Chief, Louis Sacco, is one of just three people – two active and one retired – in his pension plan. He drives around the tiny borough, about 50 miles East of Pittsburgh, with views of looming power plant stacks in the distance and a partly shuttered Main Street.

He’s constantly waving at passersby, many of them people he grew up with, people whose tax payments help fund his pension. What’s it feel like to be the guy in such a small plan? I ask.

Kelly Tunney/WPSU

Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

It's Friday, which means it's time for our roundup of recommended reading from this week.

Don't miss our TV program: Keystone Crossroads: Bridging our Communities

Education

Emily Previti/WITF

 Some Pennsylvania lawmakers say the rules governing public pensions need to change, but not everyone follows the guidelines already in place.

And it looks like they might not have to.

For example: The state audited 325 public safety retirement funds in the past year. More than one quarter of them were cited for awarding pensions in excess of what the law allows, according to an analysis by Keystone Crossroads.

That’s a problem.  But not much effort seems to go into fixing it.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

At the end of 2011, the city of Allentown had a problem. There was a gaping hole in its fire department.

No, not a literal hole. Forty-three of its firefighters retired at once. Not only did the city lose wisdom and experience. But suddenly, it owed millions of dollars more every year in retirement benefits it couldn't afford.

What drove these city firefighters out of their jobs?

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