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Correction to This Article
A previous version of this article incorrectly said the dropout rate at Reading High School is 67 percent. That is the graduation rate.

The Engine Of Change

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

READING, Pa.

This election is about "change," they say. Change? This great old railroad and factory town can teach us a little something about change. Except here, they call it "repurposing."

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The people are going to the polls today excited, scared, "bitter" -- yes, Reading is one of those hard-luck, high-pride places Barack Obama must have had in mind -- and most of all hopeful and skeptical at the same time.

Do you blame them? First they took a ride on the Reading Railroad, which was good while it lasted, until coal was no longer king: End of the line, do not pass Go. But everyone still had jobs in the factories, foundries, knitting mills. Then most of those closed, or took permanent vacations in Mexico.

Never fear! Plucky Reading repurposed the knitting mills as retail and became the Outlet Capital of the World through the 1980s and 1990s. Millions of visitors came each year to shop.

Then a bunch of the outlets closed. Reading officially dumped its Outlet Capital slogan two years ago.

Chin up! The new thing is arts, entertainment, sports, waterfront development, repurposing warehouses as condos, salvation by Imax theaters.

The Reading human identity is being repurposed as well. From white to brown; Pennsylvania Dutch, German, Polish, Italian -- to Hispanic. According to the latest Census estimate, the urban center of the area that gave us Daniel Boone, John Updike and essential Monopoly property has just tipped to majority (50.6 percent) Latino.

The demographic change has been as painful for some as the economic change. The last presidential election took place with federal monitors because the Justice Department alleged Latinos were being denied access to the polls. Some whites say the newcomers don't share their European immigrant values. Some Latinos say they aren't being given a chance.

How familiar all this is! America, are you paying attention to Reading? Reading is a core sample of the nation. Reading is who we were, who we are, who we are going to be.

Now as the people of Reading make their way to the polls, some to cast ballots for the first time in their lives, they are wondering: Will the result be change -- or just another repurposing?

Bird's-Eye View

Climb Duryea Drive up Mount Penn to the Japanese Pagoda to get the big picture of Reading.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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