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Five years ago, Lynn Nottage read a story profiling Reading, Pennsylvania as the poorest city in America. Moved by its people’s plight for survival after industry and infrastructure failed them, Lynn traveled to this city in the middle of the Keystone state and began listening to their stories. Famously, the result was her now Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Sweat,” which recently debuted on Broadway.
“Sweat” closes this week, but Lynn and her husband Tony Gerber still have stories to tell. Or, rather, they want to share stories told by Reading residents. Lynn and Tony’s Market Road Films will occupy Franklin Street Railroad Station in Downtown Reading with This Is Reading, a dynamic, site-specific multimedia installation blending live performance and visual media, re-animating the long-vacant building. Using as its foundation the challenges, and triumphs of people living in and around Reading, PA., This is Reading will weave their individual stories into one cohesive and celebratory compelling tale of the city.
As part of the lead-up to the event’s opening on July 14, we are happy to host a series of transcribed interviews from Lynn’s years of research, along with some other special online video dialogues over the next three weeks. In this first installment, Lynn interviewed Frank McCracken, who grew up in Reading amongst the steel workers and unions.
LYNN: So your family came here in what year?
FRANK: My family moved out of Newbury in the early 1900s.
LYNN: And they came north.
FRANK: They came to North Carolina. To Thomasville in Winston-Salem—that area, where they had the furniture—then my father, who was born in 1909, he was the youngest of about twelve. He was born in 1909. He left there somewhere around nineteen…um, twenty nine, twenty eight… In the late 20s. He left, he went to Detroit and he came to Reading, Pennsylvania following his brother who had been here since about 1919.
LYNN: And why Reading?
FRANK: There was the steel industry, there was textile, you know, there was the railroad. And so they came here for opportunity.
LYNN: And so your family all worked in the factories.
FRANK: Yeah, my uh…they worked in the steel mill. It didn’t work for my father. He told me that, when he first came, times were really hard. They used to work construction for five cents an hour. And the way they worked those men back then. They would stand in line and the guys would fall over, fall out from, you know, exhaustion. They would take them out in a wheelbarrow and the next guy would go in his spot.
LYNN: And that was before unions or anything, so they could work them to the bone.
FRANK: Oh, they could work them ’till they dropped. And so he told me that he worked and, he worked doing the Skyline drive there on that wall and he worked digging sewer systems. They did that work by hand back then. And then he was fortunate enough to get…to know somebody and get hired by the railroad, as a red cap. A porter. And so he stayed on that job for about forty years, I guess it was. At least. And that was a wonderful opportunity for him. And he rode the train and cleaned the sleepers. You know. Clean the train and walk around with the popcorn and peanuts…My father took me to Denver, Colorado by train, which was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. We rode a train from Reading, Pennsylvania to Denver, Colorado.
LYNN: How old were you?
FRANK: About fourteen years old or so. And we left from the old Pennsylvania Station, which was down in downtown. Near the river. We got on the train. We stopped in Pittsburgh briefly but then we had a layover in Chicago because my uncle, one of my dad’s brothers lived in Chicago so we spent a day there…and I remember, I recall, getting off the train it was very scenic. You know, you got to see everything. I remember getting off the train and when we got to the house, I sat down on the sofa and the chair was still moving because, you know… I didn’t realize but the train rocked from side to side as I rode it. And so I thought I was still feeling motion. And then we rode the train out…to Denver Colorado. And the opportunity to spend quality time with just my dad, that…I think that was the most exciting aspect of it…Just a tremendous experience. One that I’ll always remember and never forget…I had a wonderful time out there. Growing up in Reading, I had not seen that many, in total, Blacks…together.
LYNN: And so how many Black folks were in Reading?
FRANK: Reading has a small population…Black population is very small. And it always has been. Has never been a large… Reading at one time had a population of about one hundred and twenty-five thousand. And if there were ten thousand, that was a great, great big number. I don’t think there’s ever been that many in Reading. And it’s been very German. You know. This Pennsylvania Dutch country.
LYNN: What was it like growing up in the city?
FRANK: Growing up, well, we experienced racism, prejudice. We were taught that the slaves were lazy and shiftless and we learned about the big three: Ralph Bunche, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver. Those were the three Blacks. That was it. They were the only three Black people that ever did anything in the world. So we learned about them. Very little. Then I can recall being in junior high school and I was probably in seventh grade and I wanted to learn. And I knew that we learned about the fathers of our nation. Washington and Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and others but, you know…and it came to the realization, well gee whiz, that nobody looks like me. Went to the library and asked the librarian where the books were on, you know, where could I find some books on Blacks and she said she didn’t know. The librarian not knowing. So what I did, I accepted the challenge and I went from one end of the library through every row, every shelf looking for blacks. And lo and behold, I got to the end of the back of the library and on the bottom shelf, the last row… There I found Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I found W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes; “What happens to a dream deferred? Is it dropped like a raisin in the sun? Does it stink like rotten meat?”
LYNN: So that library…
FRANK: It became a sanctuary.