Anchor of the South
By Rubi Mora and Barrio staff
In the South of Penn, if we want to alert neighbors about a program, we summon a superhero. Every morning, she pulls out a chair, fixes a cup of coffee, and sits to survey the frontiers of her neighborhood. Jeanette Buchanon was busy earning the title of the mayor of Seventh street from her neighbors years before we crossed paths with her in the Summer of 2018. Jeanette was born in 1959 and has lived in Reading for 63 years. Around South 7th street, this matriarch holds the power of convening people.
One of her earliest memories is of her grandmother, who, along with a group of women, held activities for all children from the neighborhood. “I was raised in the Reading Iron Playground and played down there every day. We had a lot of good people to look up to when we were children,” she says. “We had Ms. Spencer and all of them that we looked up to, that put us on the right path and showed us the right things. and that’s what I’m just trying to do, to give back to where I’ve lived all my life.”
At its height, Reading boasted a population of over 110,000 people. However, like many cities across the country, Reading’s luck followed that of the rest of the rust belt of the United States. With the loss of heavy industry starting in the 1940s, the passing of the last commuter train in 1981, and the erosion of the world-famous outlets of the “Outlet Capital” of the world, Reading bled residents up until around the 2000s, when its a population hovered around 80,000.
Since then, its population has grown to 95,000 residents. In the middle of the ever-changing storm, some people resisted the temptation to up and leave. One of those people is Jeanette.
At a recent planning meeting, Jeanette told a community organizer about how she recently faced a man who was selling drugs outside her house. “I am not afraid,” she says. “I was born here, and I am going to die here!” Jeanette remembers a more stable neighborhood where people did not constantly move in and out. “When the drugs came, everything just went downhill. So we gotta make the best of it”.
Now, Jeanette is seeing a glimmer of hope, and the rest of the neighbors are rallying around her for leadership. Including those that have moved to the suburbs.
“Everybody else moves out of the community. I’m still one of them that’s still left, and everybody tells me I can’t go anywhere because they won’t have anywhere to come back to if I end up going somewhere.”
You don't have to work hard to run into Jeanette in the neighborhood. She is usually hanging outside her house, an elderly figure with a boisterous voice and a contagious laugh, she is secretly looking for someone to pass her cape onto, to become the protector of the community. Someone who can continue the traditions, ceremonies, and stories of South 7th Street.