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Sprawling out of control

Documentary develops an argument – winningly

Philadelphia Daily News
Thursday, April 20, 2000

By Rose DeWolf, Daily News Staff Writer

"Imagine what would happen if a foreign power seized our cities, tore down the best neighborhoods, and forced us to be nomads in our own country…

"We would be imprisoned in our cars, separated from our loved ones by great distances and made to watch helplessly as our farms and forest lands were laid waste by bulldozers and backhoes…

"Why, there'd be a revolution."

And with that description of exactly what has come to pass in Pennsylvania, without any help from invading forces, and with barely a peep, much less a revolution, Tom Hylton launches his narration of a surprisingly captivating documentary that airs on Channel 12 tonight.

"Saving Pennsylvania" is about development and zoning and other such issues that normally make the eyes glaze over and the brain cut out. But in this film, the subject becomes downright fascinating. You'll never look at a city or suburb the same way again.

Hylton co-wrote the script with Franklin & Marshall University film professor Dirk Eitzen, who directed it. It's loosely based on a book by Hylton called "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns."

Hylton lives in Pottstown, Montgomery County, where he and his wife moved 27 years ago when he got a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Pottstown Mercury. The young couple bought a house within walking distance of both his job at the paper and her job as a schoolteacher.

Back then, the house was across the street from a beautiful old high school that had been converted to a middle school. The Hyltons enjoyed hearing the kids milling around outside in the morning.

However, as time went on, he relates, the school building was demolished – declining enrollments, officials said. It was replaced by a parking lot.

Well, these things happen and Hylton might have taken it in stride, except for the fact that the neighboring suburban township, which had burgeoning enrollments, was, at the same time, spending millions of dollars to build a new middle school in what had been open farmland.

There was something wrong with that picture.

It's not news to say Philadelphia has lost population as middle-class residents fled to the suburbs, often taking their jobs with them. But what has happened here has also happened in just about every other city – and also small towns in Pennsylvania. Towns all over the state have been left to decay while more and more of what used to be the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside becomes strip malls and parking lots – and unified school district complexes.

The film shows how federal government policy – arguably well intentioned, and developed in both Democratic and Republican administrations – has brought about living situations that today please almost no one. Suburbanites complain about traffic congestion and sprawl. City dwellers complain about abandoned properties and high taxes.

Then Hylton takes us to places that have done and are doing something about all of the above. They are creating better, more enjoyable places to live.

You might ask: Can you explore this kind of topic and still make a TV program that is entertaining to watch?

No doubt about it.



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