Monday, December 29, 2008

A Yuletide Walk

Yesterday, Sunday, I had supper with my parents. With my father, I watched the Eagles trounce the Cowboys. Then, rather than go home, I took a walk around the borough where they live, West Chester, Pennsylvania.

If you're looking for lively Christmas lights, don't go to West Chester. Only around a quarter of the houses sport any sort of decoration at all. There are two reasons for this:

  1. West Chester is a university town. The only town in Pennsylvania with more rentals is State College (home to Penn State). Most of the college students are home for the holidays, their rental properties dark for two weeks.
  2. West Chester is also the county seat, so we have a plethora of lawyers. These are people who don't usually lift anything heavier than a brief. They don't tend to decorate their offices or residences.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself as I wandered up and down West Miner Street. It's a good street to walk on: many row houses, but upscale ones, with architecture worth looking at. Most of them are well over a hundred years old. And it was a good night to walk: unseasonably warm.

Some things I noticed on my walk:

The first place I lived in West Chester was the Old Everhart Mansion on West Miner Street. Too large for a modern family (without live-in servants), it had been divided into six rental units. My parents rented half the second floor, and I have good memories of that home. I was glad to see that the current residents of that unit had put Christmas lights up. A few years back it was damaged in a fire; it has been renovated, but the serpentine stone columns have been covered with stucco.

The First Presbyterian Church was designed in 1832 by noted architect Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), who became famous for designing the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. Despite this, the church building is fairly uninteresting, except for two massive Ionic columns out front. Some have praised its elegant simplicity; I think it's a giant white stucco box. Behind the columns is painted, in gilt letters, the word "PRESBYTERIAN." With a period. No one remembers why there's a period there. I suspect the sign painter was making an editorial comment of some sort.

Even the residences of Portico Row had few decorations. These are upscale row houses, so named because of their impressive porticoes. (I once dated a woman with an impressive portico, but that's a story for a different post.) For the first time, I noticed that many of the porches had dentil moulding. usually see dentiling under the cornice, at the top of a building. I can't recall seeing it before on a porch. But you notice different things at night.

Major General Smedley Darlington Butler (1881-1940), once the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, lived on West Miner. After his retirement, some plutocrats tried to intice Butler to lead a coup against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Instead, Butler went public with what became known as The Business Plot. You can see a newsreel clip of Butler's statement to the nation on the documentary "The Corporation." Butler's home has been nicely restored, but there are piles of loose bricks stacked on the sidewalk. It's not a good idea to leave bricks about, where any drunk and pick one up and throw it. West Chester has many bars which produce many drunk college students.

Even though it was only around 7 pm, I saw few people. The houses on Miner Street are close enough to the curb that you can look in the windows. I saw many Christmas trees. Quite a few of the houses had floor-to-ceiling, built-in bookcases, all of them painted an unprepossessing white. Often, I saw the diseased blue glow of televisions. But I only saw one resident, an old man sitting in a lounge chair, reading. I was glad he wasn't watching television.

Tired of walking, I got back in my car and drove downhill. As in most towns, the poor people live in the areas with poor drainage. East Market Street is the heart of the African-American community in West Chester. I was hoping to see more Christmas lights here, but I was disappointed. The decorations were gaudier, but still few and far between.

Is the economy so bad that people aren't putting out Christmas decorations?

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