BY JEFF DEENEY The economic development plan to save Chester hinges on building a major league soccer stadium at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge. The $500 million dollar revitalization effort would include transforming Chester’s heavily industrial waterfront into a verdant river walk and building hundreds of thousands of square feet of new office space and condominiums. The coalition pushing for the development plan, KickStart Chester, have a website where you can watch the radical transformation of the vast, neglected vacant lots the stadium will sit on into an artists rendering of what the project will look like upon completion.
What they don’t show you on the KickStart Chester website are photos of the mammoth waste plant that butts up against the space intended for future condos and office parks, nor the blighted, drug infested and extremely violent stretch 3rd Street sitting just beyond the CSX train tracks that separate the waterfront from the rest of the city.
I drove past the waste plant yesterday; even on a clear afternoon with a cool breeze blowing a powerful chemical smell reminiscent of chlorine filled the air. Trucks hauling solid waste were queued in the plant’s parking lot, waiting to offload. There’s been a lot of ruckus made by residents over this waste plant and Delaware County’s intention to build more industrial waste facilities on the waterfront. Chester residents charge that their city has been used as a dumping ground, often for toxic waste hauled in illegally from out of state. The Delco Alliance for Environmental Justice’s website compiles some disturbing health statistics and alleges “environmental racism” on the part of the County. The short film “Laid to Waste” documents Chester residents’ various efforts to stop the solid waste disposal industry.
Kickstart Chester’s website doesn’t address any of this, nor do developers advance the obvious question of who wants to buy a luxury condo overlooking a waste facility that belches noxious stench and has been implicated by the EPA as a source of elevated disease levels in longtime city residents.
Chester’s drug and prostitution infested 3rd Street is a stone’s throw from the proposed revitalization zone. Currently the focal point of 3rd Street is a sprawling street memorial dedicated to the memories of Charles Swain-Lane, Shanae Bailey, and Shanae’s 3 year old daughter I’nayjah Bailey who died in a house fire earlier this summer. Shanae and I’nayjah were trapped inside while the building rapidly burned and Charles died after entering the burning house, trying to save his girlfriend and her daughter.
The rest of 3rd Street is startlingly bleak, even for Chester. There are whole blocks here that are uninhabited, every building boarded, abandoned and crumbling. At 9am on a weekday I got propositioned by a middle aged prostitute who was working the corner I was photographing. There was a recent citywide vice sting that netted a number of mostly middle aged street walkers, some of whom worked here. The hot drug corners span from Ward Street down to Highland Avenue and the area is known for gun battles; a man was shot in the neck and died on 3rd and Wilson Street at the geographical center of this stretch last month. You can tell how brazen the drug traffic on 3rd Street is by the fact that local addicts propped a mattress up next to the crack spot so they could smoke outside in the warm summer months.
These drug corners are run by an independent crew called the 303rd; their tag is spray painted all over the many abandoned buildings in the area. On Myspace 303rd members flash a three fingered gang sign (“Treys up ‘til my days up”) and wear gray bandannas. There’s some indication that the group has a friendly if not cooperative relationship with the Crips in nearby Lamokin Village, much the way the independent DPG gang in the William Penn Homes seems to be friendly with the local Blood sets.
Given this larger neighborhood context surrounding the Chester revitalization plan, it seems almost absurd that a gleaming new professional sports stadium, high end office space and luxury condos are going to be built basically across the street from one of the city’s most violent, gang controlled neighborhoods and directly next to a major waste facility. I suppose the bottom line is that some economic development in Chester, even as bizarrely conceived as this plan, is better than none.
[Photos by JEFF DEENEY]