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Local Spotlight: Reading, PA, US

by Brian Kelly on 19th March 2014

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This is part of an ongoing series featuring ways in which Post Growth is already in action. The purpose of this series is to inspire ideas about how to engage intentionally in our communities. Please visit our Post Growth in Action web page for more. 

Reading, Pennsylvania

I am constantly on the lookout for initiatives around the globe that exemplify post growth futures already emerging.  Sometimes I find myself drawn to utopian visions:  where is the magical place where people are living in harmony with nature, rebuking consumerism, and cultivating communities with strong interpersonal relationships and a higher purpose?  Lost in this searching, I sometimes forget that post-growth futures surround me, as long as I look a little under the surface.  Four months ago I moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, a city of 88,000 people in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

Reading, PA has a reputation as a poor, dangerous urban center in post-industrial decline.  With its current population at 80% of its historical peak, Reading’s story is similar to other cities struggling to find a niche after many decades of globalizing macroeconomic conditions.  Historically the City has embraced pro-growth economic development models that have failed to deliver (like becoming a factory outlet destination center).

In this struggle to find a post-industrial identity, Reading citizens are embracing the new economy.

At first glance, Reading does not come across as a beacon of innovation or a center for progressive politics or alternative economics.  Many people define Reading by its statistics.

By the numbers:

  • Reading has the highest poverty rate in the nation based on the 2010 census, with 45% of those under 18 years of age living below the poverty line.
  • Reading has a median family income of $31,000
  • Reading Public School District has a graduation rate of 61%
  • Reading has an official unemployment rate of 11%
  • Reading is a financially-distressed municipality in Act 47.

Permacultivate's Urban Greenhouse

Permacultivate’s Reading Roots Urban Farm and Learning Center at City Greenhouse

But Reading is much more than its surface-level statistics.  Reading is an ecosystem of many initiatives that are bubbling up:

  • Reading is Wood-To-Wonderful, a local, non-profit organization that started with wooden toy production for children, and expanded to include a bike re-purpose training program.  The founders are now investigating an option to turn their wood shop into a shared maker space.
  • Reading is Permacultivate, a group of urban pioneers who took over the underutilized City Greenhouse to build a 2,500 square foot permaculture education center and growing lab, complete with customized aquaponic systems.
  • Reading is the T.E.A. Factory, a repurposed, abandoned industrial building turned co-working and community space, where left- and right-brained people work independently together.
  • Reading is Men Evolving Now, a social club of men working to support each other to be men with a purpose in the 21st Century.
  • Reading is the I-LEAD Charter School who is experimenting with transformational justice for conflict resolution, combating the societal trend of criminalization of our young people.
  • Reading is the Worker Cooperative Resource Center, currently being set up by a dedicated taskforce looking to re-conceptualize the role of organized labor in the new economy.
  • Reading is the committed group of concerned citizens who are resisting speculative proposals to privatize its public water system, one that received national recognition for its Source Water Protection Plan.
  • Reading is Mi Casa Su Casa, the locally-owned and community-rooted restaurant, that serves as a meeting place for artists and social entrepreneurs committed to making a difference in Reading.
  • Reading is RIZE, an anti-violence, creative arts, peer-to-peer youth program.

Wood-to-Wonderful Re-Bike-Cycle

Wood-to-Wonderful Re-Bike-Cycle

Taken individually, each initiative may not seem game-changing.  But in aggregate, this is an impressive collection of fascinating initiatives all taking root here, in what was once dubbed the poorest city in the United States.

Reading is what you choose to see!  Based on an old set of traditional indicators, Reading earned the reputation as, “a $#!tHole,” which was the most common adjective I heard as people questioned why I wanted to move here.  Since moving here, however, I have consistently encountered the elements of a new economy already emerging, driven by the dedication of individuals who are actualizing the different tomorrow of their dreams by pulling communities together.

I have been brought on-board as the Director of ReDesign Reading, a newly formed community development corporation focused specifically on launching and supporting new economy initiatives.  I am so inspired by all of the amazing initiatives and individuals here in Reading, and am excited to be setting up roots here and joining in.

Reading, PA represents, in many ways, the essence of the post-growth economy: innovative models driven by people dedicated to improving their community’s well-being emerging from the vestiges of an anachronistic economic model.

What’s going on in your community?   What types of interconnected webs of post-growth futures have you found?  We’d love to be inspired by you, and look forward to hearing about what is going on in your part of the world.

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avatar Brian works on structuring enabling environments that support human connection and create synergies, and believes that group systems and processes heavily influence effective teamwork and individual success. His graduate research focuses on property rights, governance, and the development of the commons sector.

Brian has written 4 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Brian

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