Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival?

Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. Four public media newsrooms 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.

Our partner stations are WHYY in Philadelphia, WPSU in State College and witf in Harrisburg. Read all of the partner stories here.

Pittsburgh’s WQED joins the collaboration as an associate partner. 

Support for this project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

David Goldman / AP

Markets have been volatile at the start of 2016, and that could be bad news for municipal pension funds in Pennsylvania.

As it was, about half of the municipalities that maintain pension funds have distressed plans, with a total liability of $7.7 billion.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

 

Johnstown’s public pension plans are in bad shape and, according to the latest Pennsylvania Auditor General’s report, continue to get worse.

Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

 

Loan payments and credit downgrades mean that the state's community colleges won't recover right away.

Some of the upsides of a community college — lower tuition, shorter programs, local funding contributions — have quickly become challenges during the budget impasse. Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges have been hurt by the six month delay, and may continue to feel the pinch even though state funds have been released.

Harrisburg Pulls Police From NRA Show Security Detail

Jan 10, 2016
Emily Previti / Keystone Crossroads

 

The Great American Outdoor Show's brought tens of millions of tourism dollars to the Capitol region for 25 years.

It's also sponsored by the NRA.

This February, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse says police won't provide security inside the Farm Show Complex, as is customary.

Papenfuse says his decision is tied to the NRA's support of the state law that made it easier to sue Pennsylvania cities over their firearms ordinances. 

Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

 

From the back of Barry Grossman's house, you get a panoramic view of Lake Erie: miles and miles of uninterrupted lake, anchored on one side by the popular Presque Isle State Park. And in the distance, a large ship making its way slowly across the lake. 

"Last two days, I've seen four major lake liners go by," said Grossman, the former Erie County executive. "Usually you don't see them this time of year."

Grossman hopes that means industry is starting to pick up around the lake again. But he worries Erie's workforce won't be ready for a big turnaround.

Saving Midcentury Modernist Buildings In PA Cities

Jan 4, 2016
Steve Bootay

 

At this time of year, everyone's thinking, "Out with the old, in with the new." Yet there's a growing appreciation for the not-so-old, and even a taste for what came before — specifically, the Cold War cool fashions and interior furnishings of the "Mad Men" era.

Esteem for the style of Midcentury Modern — the period between the 1930s and 1970s — is spreading to its architecture, an expression of postwar optimism and Space Age imagination, and its leading designers, many of whom were trained or practiced their art in Pennsylvania.

Newsworks

 

Reuben Sumpter has lived in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh for decades. At first he lived in an apartment tower that served low-income people. That high-rise, the East Mall, was demolished. Even in the early 2000s, when the neighborhood’s revival was just starting to show, there were concerns that fewer affordable units would replace the dense high rise.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

At Kutztown University, a lot of students live near campus.

But not Shannon Peitzer.

She's a senior. And every morning she spends at least half an hour driving to school from her apartment.

Lehigh Valley Ponders Welcoming More Syrian Refugees

Dec 17, 2015
Laura Benshoff / WHYY

Farouk leans forward at the interview table, hands clasped. The question, what do you miss in Syria, gets a one word answer.

"Everything," he said.

Farouk -- not his real name -- doesn't want to be identified for fear of retribution back in Syria.

What's Changed In The Refugee Resettlement Hub Of Lancaster

Dec 16, 2015
Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Farhan Al Qadri was doing well for himself, running a warehousing business that took him three decades to build. It kept him on the road and away from his wife and children at times. But it also afforded them a 20-room house with a courtyard in the middle, and plenty of land  — including a small farm — just outside the Syrian village of Daraa.

Did he consider himself wealthy?

"It was very excellent," he says, nodding. "But now, I have zero."

Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

 

It's the first thing in the morning, which means Ramona DiMassimo has already claimed her spot at one of the desks in the computer room of her apartment building. She says having Internet access down the hall from her apartment has been "habit forming."

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

 

Around Pennsylvania, you'll see lots of historic homes: romantic 18th century red brick houses, stately Victorian-era mansions and dense rowhomes built for industrial workers. 

The state's old houses, half of which were built before 1959, can give a neighborhood character. But they can also cause a lot of problems.

Some of the homes are filled with health hazards like lead paint and ancient wiring. Others are simply falling apart with age.

And many residents can't afford the repairs.

In Erie's Big Plan, It's A Matter Of Rightsizing

Dec 4, 2015
Rachel McDevitt / For Keystone Crossroads

Cities have generally had to plan for growth, but many Pennsylvania cities now face shrinking populations. That doesn't mean they get to stop planning.

Erie is the 4th largest city in Pennsylvania, but it is among the last of the top 15 to catch up to the comprehensive plan bandwagon. Under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code only counties need to come up with a comprehensive plan, but city planners highly recommend them for municipalities as well.

Capitol Recap: Proposed Municipal Pensions Fix Would Allow Skipping Public Bids

Nov 25, 2015
Emily Previti / Keystone Crossroads

The exemption would apply to 98 percent of Pennsylvania's municipal retirement systems.

Susquehanna Township's figured out a way to save $40,000 a year, every year.

That's three percent of their budget, freed up. Without compromising anything for residents, or firing anyone.

But to public officials in the 25,000 person community, getting there was almost not worth the trouble.

Ryan Loew / For Keystone Crossroads

 

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development is removing Clairton’s distressed city status.

Manayunk Bridge Reopens As A Trail And A Symbol Of A Changing Economy

Nov 12, 2015
The Manayunk Bridge reopened Oct. 30 to pedestrians and cyclists connecting Philadelphia's Manayunk neighborhood to Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, Pa.
Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Iconic. Ever since it opened in 1918, the Manayunk Bridge has been iconic, a symbol for its namesake section of Philadelphia.

"It's one of those things that's always been the symbol of Manayunk," says Kay Sykora, project director of the Destination Schuylkill River project at the Manayunk Development Corporation. 

What Does The Changing PA Supreme Court Mean For Education Funding, Charter Schools?

Nov 9, 2015
Matt Rourke / AP Photo

  The results of last week's Pennsylvania Supreme Court election could have wide-ranging implications for a number of high-profile cases related to education issues in Pennsylvania.

Three Democrats swept the open seats on the state's highest court – shifting the balance of power 5-to-2 in their favor when they assume the bench in January.

Ryan Loew / For Keystone Crossroads

In a two-chair barbershop in Clairton, Roger Mount shapes clients’ beards and hairlines. He does what he calls old school barbering, using a straight razor. “When you’re cutting hair like this it’s like an art, you try to make the bad look good,” he said while working on a client last week. 

What Your City Can Learn From The Cost Of Water In Coatesville

Oct 22, 2015
Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

Rising administration costs and dwindling coffers mean cities across Pennsylvania are looking for quick cash.

Selling off a big asset, say an energy or water utility, can seem like just the save they need. In 2013, Allentown leased its water authority for 50 years to stave off a pension crisis. The following year, Middletown Borough in Dauphin County signed it own five-decade deal for $43 million, an arrangement the mayor called "the lesser of two evils."

PA's College Towns Capitalize On The Knowledge Economy

Oct 20, 2015
Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

Walk around Videon's headquarters, and it's easy to forget that you're in a short, squat building in the back of an office park. Dogs run around the open workspace, filled with standing desks, funky stone tables and huge computer monitors.

They're an audiovisual technology company, so it make sense that they would want to show off their equipment.

"We've got a really nice little theater area here, which is a fun place to show off the high tech stuff that we do," says marketing director Rebecca Lundin. "And also, bring our kids in and have birthday parties." 

Pennsylvania Environmental Council

As the industries along urban waterfronts have faded, big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have come up with robust master plans — and significant funding — to connect people with their rivers.

But what can smaller municipalities with fewer resources do to revitalize their waterfronts?

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennslvania

The Marcellus Shale runs under 60 percent of Pennsylvania. But the areas where drilling takes place feel the economic effects more than most. On Thursday, those counties received $8.1 million in state funding to support 44 local projects that address housing availability, community development and rental assistance.

Exploring Urban Islands: From Natural To Developed

Sep 28, 2015
Lindsay Lazarski / Keystone Crossroads

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.

Irina Zhorov / 90.5 WESA

On Oct. 3, Pittsburghers will walk up and down the formidable stairways of the hilly South Side Slopes neighborhood with maps in hand. The StepTrek, which started more than a decade ago, raises awareness and funds for the Slopes’ aging stairs.

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. Enter a 2012 state law that allows cities to quickly acquire properties, eliminate back taxes and get them to new owners. But in reality, there has been little progress.

Irina Zhorov / 90.5 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.

PA School Districts Brace For Prolonged State Budget Battle

Aug 26, 2015
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

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?

Lots Of Red Tape For Building Waterfront Projects In PA, But It Could Be Worse

Aug 19, 2015
Diana Robinson / WITF

Antonia Hinnencamp and a few friends are about to start a bike ride on the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail. The 6.5-mile paved stretch opened last spring, and Hinnencamp says she’s done it twice since then. She says it’s well worth the 20-minute trip from her hometown in Lancaster for such an ideal setting: flat, shaded, closed to pedestrians.

Philadelphia Starts Small (And Cheap) With Delaware River Waterfront Revitalization

Aug 18, 2015
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.

The Historic Waterfront Development That Helped Transform Pittsburgh: Point State Park

Aug 17, 2015
Irina Zhorov / 90.5 WESA

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.

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