Walker Jackson and Makeda Baker remember East Chester back in "the day."
Both recall going to Finley Park on Cemetery Street. Jackson played catcher on the baseball diamond. Jackson and Baker frolicked at the pool - the only place blacks could swim in Chester during the days of segregation.
The pool was usually packed with children. The blockhouse with a fading blue sign that reads "Swimming" is still there - a reminder of the days of long-gone summers.
Both are passionate about the East Chester neighborhood that was once sandwiched between thriving textile mills. The mills are gone, and these last vestiges of what was Chester's primary employer are being torn down.
Like many, Jackson and Baker left Chester and have returned to call it home. They see potential.
They disagree, though, on how to reach that potential.
Walker wants to continue the demolition that started with the mill buildings. He wants to knock down the houses that were once built to house mill workers. He says they are too small, too old, and too downtrodden to be saved.
His vision is a new neighborhood that will give people a reason to move to Chester.
Baker wants to uplift residents, not tear down buildings. Her vision is finding new ways to reverse a variety of social factors to give residents a chance to be self sufficient.
Their passions have sparked some in the community to wonder just what East Chester could be.
'No need to rehab'
Jackson is the son of a preacher. On Sundays, the Rev. Paul Jackson would holler and save souls. During the week, he turned his attention to the congregation's physical needs, often building them new places to worship. His construction business fed his family of four.
Walker Jackson was about 10 when he went to work for his father, pushing a wheelbarrow. He soon progressed beyond laborer.
He studied drafting and carpentry in high school and at York Technical College. He earned a degree in architecture from Hampton University, and now owns his dad's company, Upstate Construction LLC. Paul Jackson died Jan. 21, 2001.
Spurred, in part, by his father's legacy, Walker Jackson's vision is bold. Tear down almost everything.
"There's no need to rehab nothing," he said.
The bones of these houses remind him of the prophet Ezekiel.
In the Bible, the Lord brought Ezekiel to a plain filled with dry bones. The Lord said to the bones, "See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life."
Walker Jackson wants to bring east Chester back to life.
New life, he said, means new construction, which means jobs for the ailing building industry.
New life means new residents with more money to spend at local stores, which means more tax revenues.
It also means lessening the crime problems associated with derelict housing, he said.
Jackson's plan is a mega-million dollar project that is, so far, unfunded. The lack of money does not deter Jackson. To get big results you have to dream big and to have faith, he said. He hopes to create a non-profit group that could receive grants from corporations and federal and state governments."
Jackson said he is uniquely positioned to make this happen. He knows about construction. He knows about architecture. And he is black.
A white developer could not make this project work, he said. A white developer would face racial prejudice, Jackson said, a barrier he would not have to face.
More than 93 percent of the residents in the area bounded by Cemetery, Lancaster and McClure streets and the railroad track are black, according to the U.S. Census.
The per capita income is about $19,000 year. About 10 percent of the houses were vacant at the time of the 2000 census. The median value of the housing is $88,000.
The tract is home to two of the most significant black history sites in Chester County. S.L. Finley, the former black high school, is boarded up, awaiting efforts to revitalize it.
Nearby is Kumler Hall, the last remaining structure of the Brainerd Institute, once the only place blacks in Chester could receive an education. It operated from 1866 to 1940.
The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Actress Debbie Allen Nixon owns the property. Her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen was one of the last graduates of the institute.
Jackson wants to convert part of the high school to housing for seniors and build a new performing arts center at the institute site. He has briefly discussed the housing idea with Finley alumni, but has not contacted Nixon or Allen.
He has talked with some neighborhood residents. Some are supportive, he said.
Walker's goal is to have the city create an enterprise zone for the area, and use - if needed - eminent domain to acquire the properties.
The plan then calls for tearing down most of the houses and building 235 three-bedroom, two-bath houses with two-car garages. The selling price would be about $144,000.
Building a new sports complex at Finley Park, the renovations at Finley High School and additions at Brainerd would, in part, be funded by a $5 surcharge on residents' water bills. These projects would need to be sustainable and a constant source of revenue to pay for their operations, he said.
Jackson said he does not want to displace any current residents. The value of their current home could be placed in escrow and applied to a new house. Jackson hopes to find grants to pay the rest of the cost of a new home for current residents.
Baker, however, believes Jackson's plan is misdirected. When she hears Walker talk of obsolescence, she takes it personally.
"He is calling the people disposable," she said.
Baker's vision focuses on urban renewal, not urban removal.
"Urban renewal is building up," she said.
East Chester has great needs, she said, needs that have been long ignored by the city.
She wants to return East Chester to what she remembers as a self-sufficient community. Growing up on Caldwell Street, her neighbors were the teachers who taught at Finley High School and professionals. They cared for their property, she said, and "there was a sense of community."
Most of those "elders" are now gone, Baker said. Residents are struggling and need help and affordable housing. Jackson's proposed price of $144,000 is not affordable housing, she said.
A host of social factors need to be reversed, she said, to help not only East Chester, but the entire town.
Baker's list includes the high-school dropout rate, the number of young, single parents with children, those who struggle with drug and alcohol addition, and a double-digit unemployment rate.
"So much struggling is going on, regardless of age," she said.
'A lot of potential,' but...
Baker and Jackson acknowledge that much conversation and cooperation needs to happen for either of their visions to change Chester.
Foremost, Baker said, the community needs to stand up for itself.
As Walker said, "You can leave and call it a day, or you can be part of the solution."
The talks, spurred by Baker and Walker, are an important start, said Alex Oliphant, a member of the Chester County Council.
"There is a lot of potential," Oliphant said. "How this happens, I don't know for sure."