Lancaster’s resurgence marks a vast departure from the city of just decades ago
The sounds of stringed instruments float gently down North Queen Street’s 300 block on a sultry summer evening in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Three blocks away, a rock band entertains a growing crowd in the heart of town. And down the sidewalk, the doors swing open at Tellus360, a popular Irish pub and live music venue featuring locally sourced food and diverse artwork.
It’s Music Friday, a monthly tradition in which the Red Rose City’s shops, restaurants, and attractions host musicians and extend their hours for live music. The event is similar to the city’s First Friday series, a popular arts extravaganza that draws thousands of locals and visitors to the galleries, artisan studios, museums and theaters that comprise Lancaster’s active arts community.
The vibrancy of today’s downtown Lancaster is a stark contrast to the city of just decades ago, one that seemed distant from life on the Franklin & Marshall College campus. Then, Lancaster was a city in decline economically, with empty storefronts, a declining tax base, and little star power—not unlike many American cities in the late 20th century.
“This is not the Lancaster of the early 1970s!” says F&M Trustee Sue Washburn ‘73, who in 2011 moved with her partner from upstate New York to the heart of Lancaster. They enjoy a loft in a former tobacco warehouse—one of the many old brick factory buildings city developers continue to convert into residential or commercial space. “I think if someone who hadn’t been back to F&M or Lancaster in 25 years returned now, they would be gobsmacked.”
Just as some might be gobsmacked to learn that Lancaster recently ranked No. 4 on Movoto Real Estate Blog’s Top 10 Most Exciting Small Cities in America, behind only Hoboken, N.J., La Crosse, Wisc., and Chapel Hill, N.C. Movoto used a combination of criteria to rank the cities, including nightlife, young residents per capita, parks and outdoor activities, and the percentage of fast-food restaurants per capita (the fewer the better).
F&M students see the city’s resurgence on a regular basis as they flock to cultural events such as First Friday and Music Friday, to see the Lancaster Barnstormers play professional baseball at Clipper Magazine Stadium, or to the dozens of cafés, shops and ethnic restaurants in town. And like generations of Fummers before them, today’s students continue to visit Central Market—the oldest continuously operated farmers’ market in the country and the heartbeat of the city’s core—and the historic Fulton Theatre.
And they see a city rich in ethnic diversity, with refugees from around the world welcomed by organizations such as Church World Services, Lutheran Church Services, and F&M’s Ware Institute for Civic Engagement. The diversity has contributed to the city’s vast spectrum of dining options, which include Ethiopian, Peruvian, Indian, Thai and Greek offerings, among many others.
“Lancaster is super welcoming,” says Emily Durocher ‘16, who like many F&M students counts among her favorite eateries Rachel’s Café & Creperie, near the corner of Walnut and Prince streets, and On Orange, a café one block from Central Market. “I think the more you get out of your high-school mode and get more adventurous, that’s when you see what Lancaster has to offer. It’s very quaint. It’s something I didn’t expect.”
City leaders such as Mayor Rick Gray find encouragement in Franklin & Marshall students getting involved in so many aspects of Lancaster, including civic-engagement programs organized by the College.
“I’d like to see even more students downtown,” Gray says. “I think we’re starting to realize why colleges and universities were created in and around cities. That’s where things happen and where ideas are created.
Decline and Rise: A City Renewed
Lancaster is a hive of activity on a sunny weekday afternoon, the sidewalks busy with people shopping, visiting the county courthouse, sightseeing or strolling back to the office from lunch. At Penn Square stands the historic facade of the former Watt & Shand department store. It closed in 1992 after 113 years in business and is now part of a $177 million hotel and convention center complex, one of several projects undertaken to revitalize and re-shape downtown Lancaster.
Nearby in City Hall, Mayor Gray wears his signature bowtie while seated at a wooden roll-top desk. Born in Pottsville, Pa., and raised in Harrisburg, he moved to Lancaster and set up practice as a defense attorney in 1976. That was near the end of a three-decade decline in the city’s population that by 1980 would fall to 54,725—approximately a 14 percent drop from the 1950 peak of 63,774.
By 1990, as large businesses that were standard bearers in the last century closed and smaller contemporary ones opened, the population and the economy started to grow, albeit slowly, and then accelerated as shops, restaurants and galleries injected new life into the city. By 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Lancaster had regained almost all the population it had lost in the last half of the 20th century. At 59,360, the city today is about 1,700 residents shy of its 1960 population total, and the median age of its residents is 30.
“The change has been dramatic,” says Gray, who was elected mayor in 2005. “When I moved to Lancaster there were four department stores downtown. Now, there aren’t any.”
Yet, Gray says, “Lancaster is in excellent shape. We think we have things stabilized and we’re now charting the future.”
Gray’s vision for that future includes increased funding for the city’s bike program to make Lancaster “as bike-friendly as possible,” and a walkability study, for which he’s seeking funding, to make the city even more walker-friendly.
“People don’t want to be car-dependent,” asserts Gray, who lives on the city’s Gallery Row, a renaissance epicenter along Prince Street downtown that is one of the big attractions for the Franklin & Marshall community. “You can walk to 30 restaurants from my house.”
Tearing Down the Fence
The mayor is enthusiastic about the strong bonds that have developed in the long-standing relationship between Franklin & Marshall and Lancaster. He and F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield meet for dinner, sometimes with their spouses, to discuss ideas that are mutually beneficial. “It’s a good, positive relationship,” the mayor says.
Things were not always so congenial between Lancaster and the College. Until the late 1980s, “F&M didn’t have a lot to do with the city,” Gray says.
Alumni and faculty remember the years from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when a 10-foot high hedge along Race Avenue and Harrisburg Pike—and a fence with a locked gate around Sponaugle-Williamson Field—separated the College and city.
“It seemed like the campus was walled-off from Lancaster,” recalls Patrick Hopkins ‘89, director of administrative services for the City of Lancaster, whose father, Professor Thomas Hopkins, taught religion at the College for 35 years. “You, visibly, didn’t see the campus. It (the hedge) acted as a barrier.”
David Schuyler, F&M’s Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies, has been at the College teaching and writing about urban landscapes since 1979. He says a low point occurred when the sidewalk that ran from College Avenue to Stager Hall was replaced in the mid 1980s with lawn and shrubbery that hid the building’s former entrance, and a stairway and elevator tower were erected on the west side of Stager.
“In a way, it marked a symbolic turning away from the city,” says Schuyler, who documented Lancaster’s urban changes in his 2002 book, “A City Transformed: Redevelopment, Race, and Suburbanization in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1940-1980.” “I think a lot of people in the 1970s and ’80s feared the city.”
Schuyler often uses Lancaster in his seminar on the urban experience, taking students on a walking tour of the city. He says F&M President Richard Kneedler ‘65, who served from 1988 to 2002, reversed course by taking down the fence around Williamson Field, opening the campus and starting the integration with the city.
Hopkins, who lives in the home he grew up in near Buchanan Park, says during the last three decades Franklin & Marshall has done much to enhance its relationship with Lancaster, and the tangible evidence is the number of students he sees around the city. “There are a lot more F&M students downtown than when I was growing up, or when I was a student at the College,” he says.
Gray and Schuyler credit former F&M President John Fry (2002 to 2010) with making significant strides to meld the campus with the city and the surrounding neighborhoods. Fry built a partnership with Lancaster General Hospital and local businesses that, among other ventures, established the James Street Improvement District—now called the Lancaster City Alliance—which has made the area around the College safer and spurred economic development.
‘Every Friday Night’
Washburn recalls the city not being a destination for students during her time on campus in the early 1970s—unless they were visiting Watt & Shand. “Most students didn’t have a sense of the city, but now there seems to be so much more interaction between the College and the community and the community and the College,” she says.
F&M’s footprint along Harrisburg Pike helped enhance that interaction, with College Row and its restaurants, shops and student apartments, and College Square, which houses F&M administrative offices and restaurants. F&M also plans to develop land once occupied by a portion of the Armstrong factory and Norfolk Southern rail yard into a new football stadium and other sports facilities north of campus.
Still more interaction is evident in a number of F&M programs, including the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, through which specially trained student volunteers assist working families with their taxes. Last year the students helped file 411 free tax returns, yielding more than $572,000 in refunds. F&M’s Urban Wildlife Research Program, meanwhile, allows student and faculty researchers to collect and interpret data on wildlife in urban and suburban environments in the Lancaster community. A host of faculty members, from social scientists to geologists to artists, use the city as an academic resource.
But it’s the city’s cultural offerings, especially its restaurants, that draw students downtown most often. “It’s all about the food,” says Emily Hawk ‘16, who says one of her determining considerations in choosing F&M was its integration with the city. “A friend and I have a system: every Friday night we try a new restaurant.”
Hawk thanks her advisor and mentor, Lynn Brooks, F&M’s Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and Dance and the Brooks College House don, for introducing her to aspects of Lancaster. Brooks recommended the downtown dance studio where Hawk took lessons, and, while working on a research project together, took the junior to restaurants and Central Market, which has become a must-stop for Hawk.
Brooks, who moved to Lancaster in 1984 to start her career at F&M, often visits Mean Cup, enjoying a coffee in a student- and faculty-favored café occupying part of the former Champion Foundry along Harrisburg Pike. She marvels at how much Lancaster has changed since her arrival 30 years ago.
“It’s become more cosmopolitan,” Brooks says. “Its café culture has blossomed, it has art festivals, city festivals, its streets are much more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and people are out walking downtown.”
But Lancaster faces the same challenges many urban environments face, including the need for improvements to infrastructure and safety. Crime prevention is always a priority, and Mayor Gray says the city has 145 police officers effectively protecting its four square miles.
Gray points to the public music program—pianos set up around the city at which anyone can sit down and play if they feel so inclined—and says that in the five years since the program began only two pianos have been vandalized. That, he says, reflects a general respect for the city, and when residents and visitors respect the place they live and visit, the streets are safer.
“Does that create a different environment? Darn right it does,” Gray says. “I think people are proud to live in Lancaster, and it shows.”
Did you know?
- Lancaster is home to refugees of Burma, Cuba, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, and many other nations.
- Lancaster Central Market recently ranked No. 8 on CNN Travel’s list of the world's Top 10 Fresh Markets. The list also included markets in Singapore, Japan, Thailand, France, London and Hong Kong.
- The city has a thriving fleet of food trucks, with regulars such as Urban Olive (a tasty falafel, anyone?), Souvlaki Boys (Greek street food), and Lancaster Cupcake setting up frequently near the F&M campus.
- U.S. News & World Report ranks Lancaster General Hospital among the nation's Top 50 hospitals in endocrinology (18th), gastroenterology and gastrointestinal surgery (33rd), orthopedics (37th), and pulmonology (45th). LGH also has been highly ranked in cardiology and heart surgery on a regular basis.
- The Lancaster area is home to a variety of institutions of higher education, including Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Millersville University, and Lancaster Bible College
- Lancaster was capital of the nation for one day—Sept. 27, 1777—when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia and met in the Lancaster County Courthouse.