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Sprawl foe's documentary advocates 'Saving PA'

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, June 17, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Tom Hylton and his wife bought their house at 222 Chestnut St. in Pottstown, Chester County, in 1973, it was right across the street from a brick Romanesque school built in 1923. Today, the Hylton house is across the street from a parking lot.

"It broke my heart when they tore it down" because of declining enrollment, Hylton said, "any my neighborhood's never been the same."

So begins "Saving Pennsylvania," Hylton's hour-long documentary about the devastating and often unintended consequences of sprawl on the state's cities, towns and farmland. It airs at 5 p.m. Sunday on WQED/WQEX.

"When they tore down my neighborhood school, they weren't just tearing down a building," Hylton tells us. "They were tearing down heritage, community, stability – everything that's precious about a traditional town like Pottstown," which is deep in the heart of southeastern Pennsylvania sprawl.

Hylton won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for editorials in Pottstown's paper advocating the preservation of farmland and open space, and he has spent much of the past decade instigating a multimedia assault on sprawl.

Produced and directed by independent filmmaker Dirk Eitzen, the film draws from Hylton's 1995 book, "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania." Hylton, who has presented his slide show to several Pittsburgh audiences in recent years, wrote the script and proves to be an engaging host, keeping his sense of humor while weaving his personal history into the saga of sprawl. "Saving Pennsylvania" is brightly written, tightly organized and cleverly illustrated, and if Hylton doesn't have suburbanites hanging For Sale signs on their McMansions at the end of the show, he may at least have them thinking about it.

Hylton traces sprawl's genesis to the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Federal Housing Authority, which meant that for the first time people could buy houses with FHA loans with just 10 percent down. The down side? The agency's policies favored new construction, and in new developments houses had to be set back from the street with ample space between them. No stores were permitted, and deeds could restrict sales to whites only.

Another milestone came in 1954, when President Eisenhower established a commission to study the need for new highways. Headed by Gen. Lucius D. Clay, who sat on the board of General Motors, the commission produced a report that said yes, indeed, America needs new highways.

Two years later, the Interstate Highway Act authorized 41,000 miles of new roads, funding 90 percent of the cost. Public transportation systems, on the other hand, got no support, Hylton reports, and many went bankrupt.

The federal government also funded new water and sewage systems but neglected urban infrastructure, at the same time it was building new low-income housing exclusively in cities, which helped drive the middle class to the suburbs.

Voila: sprawl.

This is a bit of oversimplification; there were other federal policies, like school desegregation and the resulting forced busing, that triggered white flight, but Hylton's condensed version is pretty much on target.

Hylton was born in Wyomissing, "a town of big trees and cozy streets," but when his father died young, the family moved to an apartment in nearby Reading. For "Saving Pennsylvania," he went back with a camera crew.

In Reading, "My old elementary school's now a minimart, the downtown stores are gone, the theaters I frequented on Saturday afternoons are parking lots," Hylton narrates over the bleak landscape, "and the crime rate is among the highest in Pennsylvania."

Reading, Scranton, Easton, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Johnstown, Altoona, York and Pittsburgh all have lost between a third and a half of their populations since the 1950s. Not coincidentally, the state was losing its farmland – a million acres in the past 10 years alone, an area nearly the size of Delaware.

Holding up a map of Allegheny County and its patchwork of 128 municipalities Hylton explains that state law requires each of them to allow for every type of land use, so that if Wal-Mart wants to put a store in a cornfield and the municipality is opposed, it has to find another place for the store even if there are six other Wal-Marts in neighboring municipalities.

But "Saving Pennsylvania," as the title implies, also looks at solutions, and travels to Washington; Florida, London; Portland, Ore.; and Pittsburgh to find them. Hylton visits Washington's Landing at Herr’s Island and the slag pile above Nine Mile Run in Squirrel Hill, site of the future Summerset housing development, as examples of reuse of former industrial sites.

In London, Hylton travels to Letchworth, the original garden suburb, where he learns that after World War II, when America began to sprawl, England continued the tradition of building self-contained towns connected to large cities by public transportation and surrounded by permanent, protected open space.

In the end, "Saving Pennsylvania" advocates growth boundaries and regional planning, zoning changes to allow construction of traditional neighborhoods with shops and schools, and incentives for reuse of abandoned industrial sites – all things Hylton is working hard to achieve.



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