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Delaware County Historical Society aims to boost Chester‘s future with downtown move

A rapper, a state lawmaker, and now, 200 years of Delaware County history. All are converging on the Avenue of the States, the road that literally leads to Chester City Hall.

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The downtown artery that starts at Ninth Street and ends at the doorstep of the center of government has seen a surge of interest from developers and investors in recent months — most recently the Delaware County Historical Society, which moved its office to the block late last month.

“Our goal is to try and instill some pride in Chester’s residents about where they live, and stress the importance of where they live, to help them develop ownership and a sense of being in the community,” said Laurie J. Grant, the society’s executive director. “We can’t do it alone — I’m not unrealistic. But I think everybody can do their part, and there are numerous leaders throughout the area.”

Chester is better known for its violence – 29 homicides were recorded in 2017, a per capita rate that tops those of Philadelphia and Camden – than its history, but longtime dwellers on and near its downtown streets say there’s more to the city than crime statistics portray.

“People never cared before, but now they see things are changing,” said Linda Braceland, a developer who bought her first property on the avenue 13 years ago. “Slowly, people are saying, maybe this isn’t such a bad place.”

David Swanson / Staff Photographer The Delaware County Historical Society in June received a $30,000 grant from the Delaware County Council to help with deferred maintenance and capital improvements.

 

 

When Braceland first came to the avenue, most of the storefronts were empty, the others were outdated. Mom-and-pop shops had been abandoned by immigrant families whose children – put through college by hard-won small-business profits – had no interest in succeeding their parents. Slowly, they were replaced by art and music venues, including Braceland’s gallery, Arts on Avenue of the States, and the MJ Freed Performing Arts Theater, run by Chester native Devon Walls.

Now, the neighborhood, known as Overtown to city dwellers, is filled with construction. An 89-room hotel is rising at Fourth and Welsh Streets, bankrolled almost entirely by businessman Sam Patel. The rapper Jahlil Beats, born Orlando Tucker, has bought three properties on the block through his company, Tandem Enterprises.

One of them, a DTLR Villa sports apparel store, opened with a block party the last week of June. Beats and his partners have plans to open a recording studio for their hip-hop clients above the store, with floor-to-ceiling windows to catch the attention of passersby. Another of their properties sits next to the historical society, and will soon serve as an office for the Global Neurosciences Institute, which forged a partnership with Crozier-Keystone Health System this year.

“We’ve seen our neighborhoods transform before us, and having a sense of that, coming to Chester showed us a real opportunity for things to change for the better,” said Ra-Tah Johnson, a South Philly native and partner in Tandem.

Johnson watched as Point Breeze, Newbold, and the other Philadelphia neighborhoods of his youth changed into destinations for people from outside the city. When Beats brought the idea of adding real estate to the recording company’s portfolio, Johnson saw the potential it bore.

“When you bring these businesses downtown, you’re giving people who aren’t from Chester a reason to come to Chester,” he said. “And eventually, if they keep getting drawn to the area, they’ll look to stay.”

David Swanson / Staff Photographer Laurie J. Grant, executive director of the Delaware County Historical Society, said she hopes the move to downtown Chester will help instill residents with pride in their community.

Grant, who took over the leadership role at the historical society in April, said the move to the avenue was a long time coming, and is one that hopes to tap into this attitude of progress. The society’s museum has been on the downtown block sine 2008, but its leadership stayed in a separate office in Media.

A $30,000 grant from the County Council is helping transform the building, a former bank across the street from the office of State Rep. Brian Kirkland, by tackling decades’ worth of “deferred maintenance,” as Grant put it. Grant, a marketing and community relations veteran most recently employed by Widener University, is also trying to rehabilitate the center’s image, clearing nearly five tons of clutter from the building and developing new exhibits to appeal to a wider audience in the city and beyond.

Everything from the 100th anniversary of Marcus Hook baseball legend Mickey Vernon’s birth to the 300th anniversary of William Penn’s death will be covered when the society has its official “relaunch” in September, among cannon balls, muskets and other artifacts from the wars that shaped America.

Beyond those initial efforts, Grant plans to partner with local schools and corporations to develop educational programs. Activities, she says, that will keep the lights on in the building and draw activity to the street.

“Nobody knows about us down here, and for good reason: We didn’t offer anything that interested people,” Grant said. “But if we can educate residents in Chester and beyond, maybe we can instill some pride in them. And the residents of today need to get that back, that sense of ownership and pride.”

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