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Reinvention in the Rust Belt

Reinvention in the Rust Belt

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Jose Rivera used to walk through the newly redeveloped blocks of central Allentown, Pennsylvania, feeling the weight of his college textbooks in his backpack, surrounded by soaring office towers and apartments with rooftop gardens where there had once been boarded-up storefronts.

He was a member of the Latin Kings who had spent more than half his life in and out of prison, until he was released last summer after a 13-year sentence for distribution and trafficking. In the months since he had traded his prison cell for a halfway house, Rivera had done a great deal of thinking about recovery, and its many forms. He’d signed up for college classes through the Second Chance Pell Grant program, an Obama-era initiative that’s been expanded under President Donald Trump. “I remember thinking, ‘What is it I am not doing? I keep coming to jail. I keep walking around the yard like cattle,’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘Forget the yard. I’ll pick up a book.’ ”

At 48, he knew he was an unlikely candidate for a fresh start but, like his adopted hometown, he was hoping to benefit from the wave of opportunity created by the strong economy and record low unemployment. While Rivera had no love lost for Trump’s politics, he was studying business and he could see how the money that had transformed Allentown in recent years might also create opportunities for people and places that had all too often had been left behind. The city was hit hard by the death of American steel manufacturing decades ago and has struggled to reinvent itself. That started to change after a special state tax break was passed 11 years ago to attract real estate investment and redevelopment, and until the pandemic, office workers and new residents strolled the downtown core, where not all that long ago people had mostly ventured looking to score.

When the pandemic hit, Jose Rivera channeled his uncertainty into volunteering to help his neighbors by distributing diapers and food.
When the pandemic hit, Jose Rivera channeled his uncertainty into volunteering to help his neighbors by distributing diapers and food.

Where others might register redevelopment in terms of buildings, Rivera saw people. When he passed by the headquarters of the City Center Investment Corp., he thought of a man named J.B. Reilly, its president, who was behind so many of the cranes foresting Allentown’s new skyline. Rivera met Reilly last summer during an unlikely parley between the developer and a group of men whose entrepreneurial skills Reilly hoped to redirect into aboveboard enterprises. Rivera had gone into the meeting skeptical but had come away with a sense of possibility — that maybe the story of redevelopment could include more people than it excluded. He also came away with two things he had not expected: a personal connection with Reilly and a laptop, which made it possible for him to stick with his business classes at a local community college.

Then the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Sequestered in his room in the earliest days of the outbreak, Rivera lived his life on the laptop Reilly had gifted him, attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings via Zoom, finishing his last quarter of college. He missed the path he had once walked through that new downtown, registering the way all that steel and glass abruptly transitioned, giving way to bodegas and nail salons, barbershops and two-story row houses, some carefully preserved, others with sheets for window dressings and weather-bubbled eviction tags on the doors.

“I have diabetes,” he said. “So I’m high risk. I have to be very careful.”

That caution didn’t last. Rivera grew restless, and started to feel trapped. “I don’t like where my head goes when I start to feel trapped,” he said. After two weeks in isolation, he decided to risk returning to a community organization called Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley to help volunteer. Before the virus, the group — which had its origins in an Obama-era anti-poverty initiative — had been focused on saving lives from violence, but it has recently pivoted to saving lives from Covid-19 and the economic ravages that came with it.

Rivera volunteered alongside members of gangs who had been his rivals, handing out diapers and formula to struggling families, his service a personal form of amends, as he put it, for the harm he had come to see his younger self had done to this neighborhood and the people who lived there.

Rivera and his colleagues packed the trunks of cars that pulled up to the curb outside Promise Neighborhoods’ headquarters with toiletries and bags of food and passed out flyers encouraging people to protect themselves and stay at home.

At the same time, other parts of Pennsylvania erupted in protest over continued lockdown orders. Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley stayed shut down longer than western areas of the state, and by mid-May, when Trump paid a visit to a protective-gear factory in a neighboring suburb, all anyone was talking about was recovery and what form it should take — which was really another way of asking who would move forward and who would be burdened with lasting pain. As Rivera knew, even just one city like Allentown could hold many possible answers — but not all of them translated equally.

Then came the national outcry following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The mass demonstrations around the country denouncing racism and police brutality triggered clashes with police and curfews in some cities, but Allentown didn’t see such escalations. Suddenly, all the thinking, all the work Rivera had been doing with Promise Neighborhoods over the past few months felt like preparation for exactly this moment.

The Allentown that Rivera had moved to from the Bronx almost 40 years ago, when he was still a kid, was reeling from the loss of manufacturing, which had once provided reliable union jobs across the Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem Steel, which had been one of the largest steel producers in the world — supplier of the steel that conjured the Manhattan skyline and built the Golden Gate Bridge, then fleets of battleships in World War II — began to show serious strain in the late 1970s as cheaper foreign steel flooded the market. Mack Trucks closed its Allentown plant in 1985. Bethlehem Steel finally shuttered its nearby production facilities a decade later.

A former Bethlehem Steel site has been transformed into an arts venue. Across the Lehigh Valley, cities have been looking for ways to reinvent their economies.
A former Bethlehem Steel site has been transformed into an arts venue. Across the Lehigh Valley, cities have been looking for ways to reinvent their economies.

Yet, even as it struggled, Allentown also emerged as an appealing place for many families seeking better opportunities to relocate from New York and Philadelphia, only 90 minutes away. Black people and those of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent were drawn to Allentown by affordable rents and its smaller scale; young people whose parents worried about them getting into trouble in their old neighborhoods in the Bronx or Brooklyn were dispatched to Allentown to make a fresh start — Rivera’s story.

Allentown jobs are now more likely to be in services than in manufacturing

Source: Categories represent the sum of occupations relating to each industry, such as managerial, sales, office, construction and production. Source: US Census Bureau

“Allentown has been a city of hope for a lot of people,” says Hasshan Batts, the director of Promise Neighborhoods, who was also drawn to Allentown from New York, in his case from Brooklyn. “So many of us came here from somewhere else, starting in the 1980s, specifically to create a better life.”

Instead, they met new frustrations. The same qualities that made the city a hub for manufacturing — an easy drive to major metropolises and immediate access to the interstate — also made it a perfect hub for the drug trade, bringing increased gang activity and violence.

“My mom wanted me to get away from that,” said Rivera, who as a child had dreamed of becoming an architect, fascinated by lines and numbers. “Instead, I ended up finding it all down here.”

Today, almost two-thirds of Allentown’s population identifies as people of color, according to the census, but few people of color are represented in the most prominent civic and government positions. A quarter of the city’s residents live in poverty, and send their kids to a public school district where 89% of the families are considered low income and 100% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to the Allentown school district.

In one of the city’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods, a pair of basketball courts sit beneath power lines, surrounded by abandoned, derelict buildings.

There are, of course, many ways to measure a neighborhood, the qualities not often captured in statistics: the grandmas stoop-sitting; the shift workers putting keys to the doors of their brick row houses; the children, playing for hours on these courts, until their parents call them home.

Last summer, a surge of shootings staggered the city. In June, three men opened fire outside a nightclub on Hamilton Street, one of the main arterials through the heart of downtown, and shot 10 people. By the end of the summer, 20 more people had been shot.

For Batts and his organization, the question of how to end violence seemed best answered by those most directly affected by it. “We believe that it’s the people closest to the pain who most often possess the greatest insight into how to heal it,” Batts said. That meant enlisting the perspectives of both survivors and perpetrators of gun violence, and then giving them roles in actively stopping it. The goal was to find ways to address underlying forces that contribute to violence — job loss, fear of eviction, grief.

All too often, Batts felt, “crime prevention” was delegated to police, when the real work was about unfilled needs that could best be handled by the community itself, and he hoped to make his organization into a model. “If you’ve shot somebody or been shot, or you know a loved one who has shot somebody or been shot, you know firsthand the power and the pain that it creates,” Batts said.

Before he took over Promise Neighborhoods in 2017, Batts had earned his doctorate in health sciences with a focus on public epidemiology and had worked on a long-term federal grant to help identify ways to help people who were disproportionately high users of medical programs reduce their reliance on services while improving their health and well-being. Over the course of that project, he had come to believe that letting people tell their own stories, listening carefully to their narratives, was the best way to develop effective strategies for change. Batts was also formerly incarcerated, having served four years of a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges.

“It was my mom, who believed very much in the principles of restorative justice, who said, ‘Allentown is the city you contributed to destroying; you need to stay there to help fix it,’” Batts said. He now gives TED Talks on the principle of “Radical Welcome,” a philosophy that guides his work at Promise Neighborhoods. At its core, it means no one is considered throwaway, no one beyond the need for compassion, care, respect and inclusion — and that, particularly when it comes to marginalized communities, everyone’s experience should be considered equally in crafting ways to ensure a community’s health and well-being.

Promise Neighborhoods director Hasshan Batts is a public epidemiologist who believes that the “people closest to the pain” are the best suited to develop solutions.
Promise Neighborhoods director Hasshan Batts is a public epidemiologist who believes that the “people closest to the pain” are the best suited to develop solutions.

His program does a lot of things, including literally picking people up off the street and connecting them with housing and jobs, and running intensive leadership development programs to help members of the community step into high-profile local positions — some of them formerly incarcerated, like Rivera— alongside top high school students and resettled refugees. As Covid took hold, Promise Neighborhoods quickly pivoted from its focus on ending violence to saving lives by blocking the virus.

“There is a history of mistrust that we’re trying to address,” Batts said.

As late as March, many of the black churches in Allentown had continued holding services. Batts knew of young people who had gone to Florida for spring break. For many, social distancing seemed like a luxury. “How do you socially distance when you have 12 family members living in a two-bedroom apartment? How can you be expected to do distance learning when you have no internet?” Batts asked.

Batts enlisted his volunteers to create a grassroots information campaign that would speak directly to people of color in their community. Representatives of rival gangs were working together — in a safe and socially distanced manner — to load cars with donations. They created videos about social distancing, attending to mental health during lockdown and handwashing.

QB, a Promise Neighborhoods volunteer, demonstrates handwashing techniques in a video posted to Facebook.

They also spread the word that they were available for house calls. People who could not get to the organization’s headquarters could call them with requests for grocery delivery or diaper service. They paired young people with elders alone in lockdown and had them text every day.

And, with everyone staying at home, the virus brought a measure of peace. The work that Promise Neighborhoods had been doing since the shootings in 2019 seemed to solidify over the common effort of protecting the community from Covid.

“No way in hell I could have gotten them to work together last year, when we were in the middle of a gang war,” Pas Simpson, who runs the Zero Youth Violence program for Promise Neighborhoods, said in mid-May, as he watched Rivera and others load cars with essential goods. “The same time this year, they’re here, singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

One of Batts’ goals with Promise Neighborhoods was to reveal to its formerly incarcerated participants how the skills they had cultivated on the streets could translate beyond that context, helping them to see how those same attributes qualified them to be leaders, entrepreneurs, managers, counselors. The opportunity to receive such intensive mentorship is what drew Rivera to the organization not long after his release last August.

“One of the things I learned the hard way is that I need to ask for help if I don’t know something,” he said. “I need to turn to people who are wiser than I am, and I need to absorb from them all I don’t know.”

In February, Rivera had just begun what he hoped was his final term before he graduated in the spring with an associate’s degree in business management.

“He basically has a 4.0,” Batts said then.

“A 3.97,” Rivera corrected him, his voice tinged with anxiety.

He was trying very hard, he said, to keep up with the work: While he had taken classes in prison, they had not been allowed to use any technology. “Give me a pen and paper,” he said. “But with my online classes, I feel constantly behind.” He was taking an environmental studies class that he was genuinely fretting he might fail or that at least would seriously harm his final GPA.

At that time, he was trying very hard to keep his world small, he said, so he wouldn’t get overwhelmed after so much time on the inside. It scared him too much to think beyond graduation. Instead, Rivera focused on the immediate: on homework, on his volunteer work at Promise Neighborhoods. He was also deeply involved in Allentown’s recovery community.

“At my sentencing here in Allentown, the judge had asked if I wanted to say anything to my victims, and I said no, mine was a victimless crime. And that judge was not having it.”

As part of his sentence, the judge ordered Rivera to serve his post-prison supervision in drug treatment facilities, to sit alongside people whose addictions had been fed by the drugs he had sold. “And that’s when it finally started to click for me, after all these years — that I was addicted to this life, that I had a drug-selling problem.”

He attended meetings every day and had recently been asked to lead a weekly NA meeting. There, he says what he was not capable of saying the first time the judge asked him, because he wasn’t capable of seeing it then— that he knows his actions hurt other people and he is sorry.

“I attend meetings to remind myself of the damage I have done,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of drug dealers say we do what we do for our kids, but we’re driving the cars, wearing the clothes and going to the club — nothing we do is for them. When I sit on the other side, I can see how I hurt other people’s children, how I was taking food from their mouths, their parents’ ability to pay rent.”

Or, as he put it during a meeting in early March, “I needed to be back in the penitentiary.”

At a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Rivera reflects on what he has learned from his past mistakes.

Occasionally, he allowed himself small distractions, like a world-building game on his phone – “the only empire I’m allowed to control anymore,” he deadpanned. He also considered himself a bit of a political junkie. When Joe Biden effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, Rivera immediately gave his assessment: “You know, Biden really needs to pick a progressive for his running mate if he’s going to be viable.”

Not far from where he sat talking, another Promise Neighborhoods regular named Shakeif McNear read from a book by Stephen M. R. Covey, “The Speed of Trust”:

Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust – distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record. It’s that simple.”

McNear — who’s known as Keify — is 25 years younger than Rivera, but his story follows the same contours. A second-generation gang member, he had risen in rank to lieutenant while he was still in his teens. He had 60 people beneath him and was as adamant about not leaving the gang as he was about redirecting his energy toward making himself into a legitimate businessman or politician. His perspective had shifted in large part after a four-month stint in county jail after violating his probation on a disorderly conduct charge and the birth of a baby girl, his first child.

“My vision is for us to run as an organization, to use our numbers to help the community, and to leave would mean I wouldn’t be able to have a say, to have that kind of influence,” he said.

Keify McNear was recruited to serve as a
Keify McNear was recruited to serve as a “credible messenger” for Promise Neighborhoods, someone who could act as a trusted figure to broker peace and calm.

His past jobs had always been in customer service, McNear said, and he’d done very well — he had a natural charm that drew people to him. He had just days earlier intervened and stopped a fight from escalating into a possible shooting, all from his phone. “It’s a lot of monitoring things via social media — that’s where it’s all happening,” he said.

Batts had made a point of including McNear in meetings with other nonprofit leaders and politicians. “Keify has within him the kind of power that can either build or destroy,” Batts said. “And that is his decision right now, to build or to destroy. It’s the same energy. If Keify moves, 60 people move behind him. When Keify goes in the right direction, it can be a beautiful thing.”

The day McNear was reading Covey, he was waiting to sit in on a meeting with the mayor, who was due at Promise Neighborhoods’ offices. But suddenly there was the sound of yelling, and McNear set his book aside.

“I’m going to lay hands on someone!” a man shouted.

It turned out to be another one of the program’s volunteers, known to everyone as QB. He had come to the offices, he would later say, because he could feel himself losing control and he knew the staff would talk him down from doing something he would regret.

McNear, a second-generation gang member, has focused on channeling his leadership skills into business and politics.

McNear, a second-generation gang member, has focused on channeling his leadership skills into business and politics.

Pas Simpson runs the Zero Youth Violence Program for Promise Neighborhoods and recruits young men to use their influence to heal the community.

Pas Simpson runs the Zero Youth Violence Program for Promise Neighborhoods and recruits young men to use their influence to heal the community.

As he raged, Batts and Simpson simply listened. Gradually the source of QB’s distress became clear: He had hoped to organize a youth basketball tournament — there are no free sports leagues for neighborhood youth in Allentown — but the gym he’d called had told him it was booked, even though the dates he wanted appeared to be available online. He saw this as a terrible act of disrespect when all he wanted was to do something positive for the community’s youth. Beneath the raised voice and the threats, another story was unspooling, one about his own childhood, much of it spent in foster care, where he had been neglected and abused. There had been no one looking out for him. But now here he was, with a chance to protect these children, to show them a different way. Batts quietly suggested they take a walk around the block. When they came back, QB was measured and calm.

“QB can be –” McNear searched for the right words. “Quite passionate.”

Simpson and Batts would later say that this was a perfect example of why they tried to approach disrupting violence within a larger context.

“I can do this work because I know what it’s like to be rejected,” Batts said. “I know what it’s like to be kicked out, expelled, pushed out and into prison.”

Batts, the director of Promise Neighborhoods, explains his philosophy of “no throw-away people.”

Talk turned to the larger world of politics. Batts pointed out that formerly incarcerated people have the right to vote in Pennsylvania — and said that if a single Democratic presidential candidate made extending that right central to their platform, along with prison and police reform, there would be thousands of formerly incarcerated people, plus their families and friends, from Allentown alone who would help get out the vote.

Most of the men assembled professed very little trust in or engagement with any of the Democratic candidates. One young man, who was working as an intern for Batts, announced he would have voted for the first time if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were the nominee. Simpson, who runs Promise Neighborhoods’ youth violence prevention program, confessed to voting for Trump.

“Why?!” shouted QB, who was now extremely agitated again, and had moved to step up on a chair like a soapbox to testify his disbelief. “Why would you ever do that? How could you do that? That man has hurt our community.”

Allentown presidential election results

Source: Lehigh County Office of Information Technology. The 2016 Democratic primary election took place in April 2016, when the race was still considered competitive. Allentown voted in the 2020 Democratic primary in June, after Biden was widely considered the presumptive nominee. 2016 Democratic primary results do not include votes for write-in candidates. 2020 Democratic primary results are unofficial.

Simpson was not at all apologetic. “I saw him as the Uber of candidates — a true disrupter,” he explained. “One vote only. Never again. But I truly felt he was the one who would finally expose all the ugly aspects of the system, the racism, all the things we never talk about. Once that was all out there, we’d never be able to look away again. We’d have to address it all. And that was worth it for real change.”

The neighborhood had learned over the years not to expect much from the traditional political process. They were used to things being decided for them, without much real input, they said. The downtown was a case in point. When Rivera was released from prison, he emerged to a city he barely recognized.

At the time he had gone inside, Allentown still lagged conspicuously behind its neighboring sister cities in the Lehigh Valley, where revitalization efforts designed to bridge the old and new economies had been more obvious, etched into their downtowns in the form of elaborate developments, entertainment complexes, arts venues built from old Bethlehem Steel plants, casino complexes, new manufacturing “incubation” parks. In contrast, Allentown’s central business district remained largely neglected and blighted, with empty storefronts and little reason for people to linger.

Unemployment is higher in Allentown than in the surrounding Lehigh Valley

Source: Historic annual unemployment rates via US Census Bureau, preliminary estimates for April 2020 unemployment via US Bureau of Labor Statistics

That started to change after the state designated 127 acres of Allentown’s core as a “Neighborhood Improvement Zone” in 2009, giving developers special tax incentives to build inside it. Locals summarily shortened the name to “the NIZ” — rhyming with “the Wiz.” One of the first developers to invest heavily in the new redevelopment zone was J.B. Reilly. And he didn’t go slowly or cautiously. He quickly launched multiple projects, including a 180-room hotel, multi-story office buildings, and apartments designed to lure empty nesters and millennials. He put in co-working spaces, an upscale food court filled with local vendors. He linked the existing city museum, arts college and symphony hall to create an arts district.

But it was hard for those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood not to harbor suspicions about whether the vision of recovery for Allentown promised by the NIZ was also meant to benefit their lives. It’s a story told across the country, in city after city — that among those who stand to lose the most, it can feel like the launch of an urban redevelopment campaign is simply code for replacing a neighborhood’s residents.

In Allentown, they watched as old buildings were demolished to make way for new apartments with rents they felt were beyond their incomes. People in the blocks closest to the boundaries of the redevelopment zone also began to feel the effects of an early wave of speculators, lured by proximity to the new development, buying up properties, pushing up rents.

Yes, there were jobs in the new restaurants that had begun to pop up downtown, but they were not places where most of the people from the nearby neighborhood could afford to eat.

A majority identify as Hispanic or Latino, but have lowest median income

Totals for African American and Asian residents include people of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity. Source: US Census Bureau

Then, following the shootings last summer, Reilly did something unexpected. He invited several of the gang members who worked with Promise Neighborhoods, including Rivera, to meet with him to help him see what he might be missing. Their first meeting was at Reilly’s downtown headquarters. Asked what it was like, Rivera said, “It’s not buildings that impress me but people’s actions. I figured he would want me to talk to him straight, without pretense.”

So Rivera says he did not hold back, telling Reilly: “Everything you’ve built, we can destroy in an instant. If you want to stop the violence, we have answers. But you need to listen.” He said it not as a threat, but as a statement of fact. He went on: “You have to get these people to respect you. They don’t know you. All they know is you’re building buildings for you — and you’re not building opportunities for them. We’re good enough to make your food, clean your buildings and secure your properties, but we’re not good enough to work in the offices in these buildings? You need to give people jobs. Right here. That’s an opportunity lost.”

He didn’t know it then, but Reilly made a mental note about Rivera, filed away the fact he was going back to school, that it was infinitely harder because he didn’t have a computer of his own. Not long after, Rivera received a package. Inside — the laptop, which made it possible for him to keep up with his community college classes and which eventually would become his lifeline during the coronavirus shutdown.

After a series of shootings last summer, developer J.B. Reilly (third from left) agreed to take a walking tour with Promise Neighborhoods to understand how communities of color weren't benefiting equally from Allentown’s revival.
After a series of shootings last summer, developer J.B. Reilly (third from left) agreed to take a walking tour with Promise Neighborhoods to understand how communities of color weren’t benefiting equally from Allentown’s revival. Courtesy of Shakeif McNear

It was Keify McNear who came up with the idea of giving Reilly a neighborhood tour. If the developer really wanted to understand what people needed and how he could help, he should walk with them, so that he might see at ground level the very personal cost of structural inequality, who was being left out of the conversation — and how much knowledge and energy and vitality they had to offer. Looking back, everyone agrees that felt like a turning point. Reilly came without an entourage, with no security, the guys noted. And he spent an afternoon being led by several gang members through their community. They took him to barbershops and into home day cares, had him speak to bodega owners and meet the abuelas who sit on their porches and know everything that happens on their blocks. At one point, Reilly paused. That, he said, pointing to a house, was the first property he ever bought, back when he was still in law school. That was the moment, everyone who participated would say later, when they felt that Reilly’s commitment to their neighborhood was real.

“I trusted him then,” McNear said. “It wasn’t just talk.”

New apartment complexes appeal to millennials and empty nesters drawn to the amenities of the new downtown core.
New apartment complexes appeal to millennials and empty nesters drawn to the amenities of the new downtown core.

After the walk, immediate and specific plans emerged, including letting McNear – with his professed interest in property development and politics — serve as the event promoter for a gallery opening at Reilly’s Renaissance Hotel in early March. The idea was to give him experience in event management and marketing, and to attract people who might not feel they were considered part of this new vision of Allentown. The hope was for it to become a regular event, a “date night,” like the live music that was featured every Friday night across the street at the boutique food hall or the regular symphony or art museum events organized for those who lived in the surrounding apartments.

Within a week the whole city would be shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic — the hotel and surrounding offices emptied, people sick, people unemployed. But that night felt full of possibility for McNear. And yet, as the start time of his first major event neared, wine and crustless sandwiches waiting, and only a handful of the people he had invited had arrived, he was rattled.

“I’m not gonna lie. I am nervous,” he said, before disappearing off into a corner with his phone, pacing and making last-minute social media blasts.

His fears proved unfounded. People were just slow to trickle in, and soon the space was packed. McNear stepped up to address the group.

McNear, who works with Promise Neighborhoods, speaks at an art show he hosted at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Allentown.

Among the crowd that night: young men and women who had attended high school with McNear; babies that McNear picked up and walked around the room, giving them a tour of the canvases; elders and longtime activists from the black community; local business owners and entrepreneurs of color.

One of McNear’s friends, a young man who had just been released from prison on drug charges, kept remarking on the hushed beauty of the space, the paintings.

Pas Simpson noted that there were several rival gang members present, all milling together, joking, sipping chardonnay and holding plates of canapés. “Be honest, have you ever been in a room with this many gang members?” he asked. “Would you even know?”

Afterward, everyone proclaimed the evening a success and talked about doing it again. At the same time, plans were already underway for another outgrowth of Reilly’s engagement with the community: a program called the Real Estate Laboratory that would provide mentorship and financial connections to help local residents buy and rehab distressed apartment properties. The goal was for them to become property owners and landlords in their own community. Through a partnership with Reilly’s alma mater, Lafayette College, participants would attend classes and receive intensive coaching on investing and entrepreneurship, as well as hands-on training in how to maintain and fix their properties themselves to keep costs low.

Reilly pledged $1 million to get it off the ground. He also offered his influence with the banks to help make the case that those who completed the program — many of them with unconventional credit records — would be loan-ready. The goal was to begin to create a consistent pipeline of local developers who could have a hand in redeveloping and strengthening their community from within. The program would be housed in a glass-fronted street-facing corner unit of one of Reilly’s office towers. And for a brief time, it was possible for Rivera to walk by and look through the windows, imagining himself on the other side.

The Real Estate Laboratory is intended to offer local residents investment classes and mentorship so that they can become landlords and entrepreneurs involved in their city’s redevelopment.
The Real Estate Laboratory is intended to offer local residents investment classes and mentorship so that they can become landlords and entrepreneurs involved in their city’s redevelopment.

Suddenly, with Reilly’s interest in what they were doing, the folks from Promise Neighborhoods were finding themselves included in larger conversations that they’d felt they had struggled to be in before, Batts said. And he was using that leverage to include more people from the community in those conversations, too. In the scheme of things, the conversations with Reilly were a very small start toward addressing all the inequalities in Allentown, but it seemed at least like real movement, with concrete steps being taken and people following up on their word.

“I am so tired of all the talking, but then nothing changes,” Rivera said. “We can only do so much going the political route. Let’s work with the business sector if they’re the ones who are ready to do something.”

Reilly says reaching out to the community is
Reilly says reaching out to the community is “just the right thing to do.”

Reilly said there wasn’t any question about reaching out to these young men for their advice or investing in projects like the Real Estate Lab. “It’s not that big of a deal, frankly; it’s just the right thing to do,” he said at his office in March. “In pure numbers it really doesn’t cost all that much, but the benefits are far-reaching.”

He had just given me a tour of the Head Start learning center he had helped to develop in the heart of the NIZ, where students were learning to program robots and to use 3D printers to create models of the surrounding architecture. Afterward, he stopped by the future home of the Real Estate Lab, where some of the prospective members of its first class — young men in their early 20s — were meeting to see the facilities and talk through next steps.

One of the applicants, Ibrahim Abbakar, was a refugee whose family had fled the genocide in Sudan and had spent several years in Egypt before coming to Allentown. He had met Batts and Reilly working as a barista in the Starbucks in Reilly’s headquarters. Everyone was happy and excited.

“I can’t wait to make my community a better place,” said Abbakar.

“You can also say you want to make money,” Reilly replied.

That same day, police were investigating the shooting death of an 18-year-old that had occurred just a few blocks away. The group from Promise Neighborhoods had mobilized, sending the credible messengers to knock on doors to calm and reassure and to gather information that could help them intervene and keep things from possibly escalating.

Later, back at the offices of Promise Neighborhoods, everyone was drawn, exhausted and angry. Angry at the fact that this was a reminder that nothing had truly changed. Frustrated that the city council had not acted on a proposal to give 1% of the overall budget to fund community-led violence prevention strategies — because, opponents argued, it was already covered in the public safety budget. While they hadn’t used the phrase “defund the police,” this was essentially what they were asking, just as others around the country would, months later, in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

Simpson vents about how he thinks the city has invested too much in police budgets and not enough in funding programs that would stop violence.

After Simpson had locked up and headed to the pool to swim his customary 40 laps — his nightly stress relief — I made it a point to drive by the corner where the shooting had taken place.

Balloons and candles marked the spot, the candle flames struggling in the wind. The youth’s name, we would learn, was Elijaah Rodriguez.

In a matter of days, Covid-19 would bring the distance underlying the two very different lived experiences of Allentown into even starker relief.

Construction on Reilly’s new projects was temporarily halted, with the exception of an apartment project where the roof was still to be placed. He and his staff were able to tend to his business largely remotely. Even Reilly’s Real Estate Lab, whose first class included Abbakar, went virtual. The rooftop terraces and on-site gyms in the apartment complexes closed. Many — though not all — workers from the businesses in the office towers were now working remotely. Security guards and cleaning staff still came each day. With no one traveling, the hotel stood empty; all events at the arena had been canceled indefinitely.

It suddenly seemed that the idea of urban redevelopment as economic engine, with everything centering on going out and enjoying food and culture, might be incompatible with visions of the future that whispered of extended quarantines, no more large gatherings. And yet, City Center reported that it had recorded an all-time high in apartment rentals in mid-March. Reilly is moving ahead with two more developments, including an apartment complex that will include 78 units of affordable housing.

Winston’s, a West Indian restaurant on North 7th Street, was a popular lunchtime hangout before the virus.
Winston’s, a West Indian restaurant on North 7th Street, was a popular lunchtime hangout before the virus.

Just beyond the borders of the NIZ, if anything, the virus served to further expose the precarity that had been there all along. Because while many of the residents in the NIZ could work from home, many in the surrounding neighborhood had jobs that were considered essential services — grocery store workers, health care aides, bus drivers, most of them people of color. And everyone knew that around the country, most of the people dying looked like them.

As the push to restart the economy gained steam, Promise Neighborhoods shifted to helping people develop “post-Covid survival and recovery plans,” as Batts put it. He began enlisting the services of people who could serve as free professional coaches, helping people develop strategies for job searches and personal finances. The organization also launched a web series on health equity so clinicians seeking to address racial disparities in health care could hear directly from people of color.

But for every success, there was evidence of growing pain. There were reports of increases in child abuse, cracking mental health and children caught between foster homes being sent to locked psychiatric facilities — not because they needed those services but because there were no other safe beds. Covid had already exposed the racist structures that made people of color more at risk for the disease, Batts said. The outpouring of Black Lives Matter protests after Floyd’s death amplified the resulting frustration and anger and made clear that it is past time for “actionable” structural changes.

“This isn’t about blaming and shaming,” Batts said. “Dr. Joy DeGruy said America’s pathology is her denial of race and racism. We’re talking about acknowledgment and atonement. The reason we can do the work we’re doing is we say, ‘We harmed this community and we’re here to repair it.’”

The laptop that Reilly gifted Rivera sits on his desk. Rivera graduated from community college in May and now hopes to get his undergraduate degree in business.
The laptop that Reilly gifted Rivera sits on his desk. Rivera graduated from community college in May and now hopes to get his undergraduate degree in business.

During the initial lockdown period, Rivera lost the optimism and newfound confidence of early March. While in isolation, he found out he didn’t get into Reilly’s real estate program after all, and it was clear the rejection stung.

“I was upfront about all my years in prison, which meant I didn’t have much job history or credit, but they said I didn’t get in because I wasn’t bankable,” he said. “It feels like one of those situations where they can feel good and say they gave you a chance, but there never was one to begin with.”

Yet as the weather improved and restrictions began to lift, so did Rivera’s spirits. He learned he had aced his final test in his environmental science class, the course he had been worried about — and maintained his near-perfect GPA.

He also heard that faculty from his community college were working to have him admitted, on scholarship, to one of the nearby liberal arts colleges so he could pursue his business degree. He laughed as he said that the irony was not lost on him that he had found navigating classes on his computer one of the hardest challenges of these last several months — and now that he had a chance at his dream to pursue his bachelor’s in an expansive campus setting, he might still be online.

At the same time, he wondered aloud whether Covid had been a kind of “blessing in disguise.” As he saw it, “the world needed a timeout, but how do we recover from here? Do we recover the same or come back closer-knit and more together?”

The weeks assisting with the street-level Covid relief efforts at Promise Neighborhoods — and then the sudden outpouring of public calls to deal with the myriad effects of racism and inequality, in part through the kind of recovery work he’d already been engaged in — had gotten him thinking, he said, and had him drawing unexpected parallels between the chances he had taken in the past versus the chances he was willing to take now.

“I can see our community coming together, and that’s what it’s about — community members helping each other. It’s not about black or white or brown. It’s about being there for everyone,” he said. “It’s clear we can’t fix things federally; we can’t do it at the state level. We can only fix it locally. The question is do you really want to put in the work, and from what I’ve seen most of the people putting in the work, on the ground, are those who came from the Island of Misfit Toys. Everyone else who talks about solutions is hiding behind Zoom.”


Editors: Allison Hoffman and Janie Boschma

Supervising video producer: Jacque Smith

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers

Digital design and development: Christopher Hickey, Allie Schmitz and Ivory Sherman

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