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.

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.



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


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?

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Many Pennsylvania municipalities are already taking steps towards reforming their pension plans. Because municipalities cannot legally break pension obligations already promised, reform usually means changing the pension plans for new employees while older employees' pensions remain intact. So what does that mean? Is the younger generation bearing the brunt of pension reform?

"Set for life"

Courtney and Alex Hayden live in a house just outside the Borough of State College with their two cats.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

As we were reporting on the problem of unfunded pensions in Pennsylvania, it occurred to us to ask: How did pensions come about, anyway? Who ever thought to let people retire and keep paying them after they’ve stopped working? And is the problem of underfunded pensions a recent phenomenon?

Our attempts to answer these questions pointed us to North Carolina State University professor of economics Robert Clark, who wrote "A History of Public Sector Pensions in the United States."

Joe Rosipal, 70, a retired Monroeville police officer, with a photograph of himself in his 40s, when he was part of the motorcycle division.
Irina Zhorov/WESA

Standing in a sun-drenched room, Jim Rosipal pointed to a framed assemblage on the wall. In it, a police officer’s uniform shirt, a medal for valor, a gas cap cover from the Harley Davidson he rode, and valve stem covers in the shape of little pigs. “Back in those days we were called pigs every now and then,” Rosipal said. “Didn’t bother us at all.” 

Rosipal worked for the Monroeville Police Department for 28 years. After serving in the Vietnam War and a brief stint as a security guard, it was his first and last full time job. 

Commuter traffic in Philadelphia
AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek

Compared to commuters in other states, a larger portion of Pennsylvanians commute alone and have relatively shorter trips to work.

Researchers expected that, according to Penn State Data Center analyst Jennifer Shultz.

What they did not anticipate: Pennsylvania workers seem to have an earlier afternoon commute, compared to other states such as New York, Schultz says.

group shot of 2015 Blueprint Communities graduates
Kate Lao Shaffner

What does it take to turn a community around?  Revitalization work is certainly more than just ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Every new bike path, main street project, or historic rehab likely represents stacks of paperwork and years of planning. 

A knockoff of Walker Evans' 1935 photograph from St. Michael’s Cemetery in south Bethlehem looking at the blast furnaces in the distance taken March 11, 2015.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

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

Happy Friday! Here's this week's roundup of recommended reading.

Capitol recap

Capitol Recap is our weekly look at how state government affects cities. This week: Pa.'s billion-dollar pension problem. (Did you know Pennsylvania's two statewide retirement systems for teachers and state workers are the second-worst funded in the country?)

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Meghan Ashlin Rich is a professor of sociology/social justice and women's studies at University of Scranton. Her research involves issues like race, class, and social change in urban neighborhoods. Rich has studied revitalization efforts in Scranton and Baltimore, Maryland. Keystone Crossroads' Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with Rich about Scranton's revival, the advantages of small cities, and whether big city revitalization ideas can work in smaller communities.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

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

It's Friday! Here's a roundup of recommended reading from this week.

Budget unveiled

Let's start off with the governor's budget address.