Symphony of the boroughs

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Sunday mornings this time of year in my neighborhood can be noisy. In our small town the houses are close together. The steady rhythm of power drills, the hum of buzz saws and the drumbeat of hammers is the music that starts the day. It’s the Sunday symphony of Pennsylvania’s finest small towns – the state’s 966 boroughs.

     Personally it’s not music I play well. Those who drive typewriters rather than nails should stay away from the heavier instruments of home repair. Even though I’ve read the books: “Hammers Made Easy” “Screwdrivers For Dummies” and “House Painting For The Challenged Left Handed” the family flees whenever my toolbox comes out. Having struck too many sour plumbing chords, the plumber is the grand maestro of all the trades, his astounding performances always welcome, his wrench a baton to relieve leaking misery. Like my neighbors in nearly 1,000 villages across the state we gratefully pay the pipers: the roofers, carpenters and other craftspeople who maintain our aging homes.

Historically Pennsylvania’s boroughs are the by-products of the industrial age. Where there was a railroad or river came the factories. Employee housing was down by the mills, while the executives lived in the big houses on the edge of town. In between one can see the rows of homes rise in style, like stepladders to success. From Honesdale, nestled in the Poconos, to Hanover, down near the Maryland border, this pattern rolls across the Commonwealth. Affordable housing close to businesses, downtowns you can walk to with neighborhood schools. Tree-lined streets near street corner parks, read just like the text that the Department of Environmental Protection’s land planners have just discovered. Its their formula for combating what they call sprawl in Pennsylvania.

     However the bureaucratic version of sprawl lacks cyclical definition. Do businesses move to farmland first, or does an affluent work force seeking bucolic views force business to move closer to where, and how, workers want to live? The answer is irrelevant now that the Pennsylvania 21st Century Environmental Commission has declared war on development. The Ridge Administration is backing the commission’s findings with $1.3 billion in its “Growing-Greener” program.

     The risk of “Growing-Greener” is that with each passing sound-byte its beginning to sound more like a give-a-way to the landed gentry of Southeastern and Central Pennsylvania while pushing zoning strategies that already exist by natural and historic precedent in virtually every borough in the state. Pumping taxpayer’s money into preserving sunset vistas in Chester, Lancaster and York Counties is unlikely to end the drive to develop in country settings. Its intent is at cross purposes calling for new towns with what the boroughs already have: cluster housing close to business centers and downtown districts within walking distance of neighborhoods.

     There are few boroughs in Pennsylvania that aren’t strapped for money. Sadly enough most of the factories and stores are gone. With unfair labels like aging, rusting and down in the heels attached, private investment isn’t pouring into these little towns. Governed by City Councils, debate is endless, yet they manage to stretch every buck, begging for the development of the commercial tax base that their suburban neighbors, backed by the government of the state are now eager to fight.

     Give a few rich suburban counties in this state $1.3 billion and you’ll get plenty of academic plans to preserve open space that won’t be off the drawing boards before the bulldozers roll. Give every budget pressed borough manager in the state just $1 million and these towns will get new streets, sidewalks and sewers. Federal Highways built suburbs, hard honed industrialists built boroughs. In the age of electronic commerce they are ripe for rebirth. With an aggressive chorus of state tax breaks and infrastructure improvements, business will naturally flow back into them. Accomplishing what “Growing-Greener” won’t: less suburban development. Some day if that symphony of saws, hammers and drills started to play in all the state’s boroughs, development pressure on the suburbs could subside and all of Pennsylvania could grow together.