CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Nearly six decades later, Mike Rideout remembers the good times growing up in the Water Street neighborhood. Even the challenges were charming: He had gotten so at playing football on a hill, one leg higher than the other, that later playing on a flat field took some getting used to.
And he remembers when it all ended in 1962.
“And at the time, I didn’t know what was going on,” Rideout said, a lifelong Chambersburg resident — he’s never lived outside the borough’s third ward. “So I’m going to school, and about fifth, sixth grade, I find out they’re going to tear down the neighborhood.”
By force of eminent domain. The residents — mostly African-American, many of them homeowners — had to go elsewhere, many to post-World War II housing, which was supposed to be temporary, dubbed “Cardboard City.”
Get daily news, weather, and breaking news alerts straight to your inbox! Sign up for abc27 newsletters here!
In place of the old neighborhood rose the Southgate Shopping Center, which had its day.
“Then, this was a thriving strip mall. But as many strip malls are today, it is not thriving anymore,” Alice Elia, Chambersburg’s council president, told abc27 News, standing in the mostly empty parking lot.
The council voted 8-2 to try to turn the 14-acre site back into a neighborhood where people could live, work, eat, shop, and play.
“The vision is for a lot of green space — a lot of open space,” Elia said. “And then just opportunities for people to be able to live and work within the community.”
The idea isn’t new but became more feasible than before thanks to $7.7 million in American Rescue Plan stimulus money allocated to the borough.
The Southgate project will use $4.1 million of the total. It still needs a developer willing to carry out the council’s vision — which, in turn, could take two decades to complete.
A large part of the rationale: The existing strip mall is suburban blight just two blocks from a rejuvenated downtown.
“And there is a rail trail, and it is literally about 25 yards from us,” Elia said, pointing to it. And history all around.
“John Brown and Frederick Douglass actually met here to talk about Harper’s Ferry,” Elia said. “And they met literally right there. There’s a historic marker. But it’s kind of hidden because it’s behind a Rent-a-Center.”
Part of the idea? Embrace and highlight that history.
The other $3.6 million in rescue plan funds would go toward a variety of projects, from subsidies for residents struggling to pay their heat bills to water and sewer improvements.
Rideout said what senior citizens want — himself now among them — is some of the walkability they lost when the old neighborhood disappeared.
“When they tore it down, a lot of doctor’s offices and things moved out far away,” he said.
A supermarket tops neighbors’ wish lists, he said. “So they can get fresh fruit. Milk. ‘I want a pound of meat,’ this and that. ‘And I want some kind of healthcare.'”
“So we saw this as an opportunity to impact this neighborhood and to maybe right some of the wrongs that had happened in the past — and to build another community that would thrive,” Elia said.