The Commuters of Easton Ann Murray reports on Easton Pennsylvania's efforts to revitalize itself by luring in New York City workers willing to make the four hour round-trip commute in exchange for low housing prices and small town living.
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The Commuters of Easton

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The Commuters of Easton

The Commuters of Easton

The Commuters of Easton

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Ann Murray reports on Easton Pennsylvania's efforts to revitalize itself by luring in New York City workers willing to make the four hour round-trip commute in exchange for low housing prices and small town living.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Aging industrial towns in Eastern Pennsylvania are home to a growing number of people who work in New York City and New Jersey. This migration has been the Lehigh Valley the fastest growing metro area in the State. Reporter Ann Murray, of Allegany Front Productions, looks at how this influx of people is changing one small Pennsylvania town.

ANN MURRAY reporting:

It's 4:30 in the morning, and Kurt Rau(ph) is up fixing tea and toast.

Mr. KURT RAU (Resident of Easton, Pennsylvania): So it's a nice time of the morning. I've got my BBC on.

MURRAY: Rau has to get up early every workday to make a two-hour bus commute. In 1998, he and his wife, Peggy Campbell, decided they wanted more space and different schooling options for their daughter, Claire. They moved from a small Manhattan apartment to a three-bedroom Victorian in Easton, Pennsylvania. Rau kept his New York City job.

Mr. RAU: Well, gosh, I'm sort of an old guy, you know. I'm 55 and I've got 23 years with my company. I didn't really think I had a lot of options.

MURRAY: Rau is one of thousands of long-distance commuters from the New York/New Jersey region who have moved to the Lehigh Valley in the past few years. Most live in the Valley suburbs, but small towns like Easton are becoming a draw. Dianne Elliot, a city consultant, hopes this influx of well-heeled commuters will kick start a long-awaited Eastern renaissance.

Ms. DIANNE ELLIOT (City Consultant, Easton): In order to get this city to thrive once again, they're going to have to bring in people who can afford to dump revenue into the city. You can't build a city on low-income folks, unfortunately.

MURRAY: Easton lost its economic base when dye and textile factories folded in the 1960s, and suburban malls siphon business from the downtown. On a walking tour of the town center, Elliot points out Easton's cache of historic 19th-cenury buildings and pockets of empty storefronts.

(Soundbite of small town noise)

Ms. ELLIOT: Right here is the Rite-Aid, but they're going out of business.

(Soundbite of construction)

MURRAY: But she's eager to show off the final phase of construction at The Eastonian, a once-grand downtown hotel. Developers are turning the hotel, a long, empty department store and small buildings up the street into high-end condos.

Ms. ELLIOT: These condos go from anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000.

MURRAY: Local developer Steve Guy estimates a couple hundred condominiums are being built in Easton with well-to-do commuters in mind. There's already a waiting list for many of these units and talk of more construction.

Mr. STEVE GUY (Developer, Easton): We found in one of more recent projects that there is a demand for condominiums that would mimic the type of condominiums that people would find in urban areas in northern Jersey and, actually, in New York, and that same product can be found here in Pennsylvania at a much-reduced price, relative to what it is in New Jersey.

MURRAY: Local realtors are also targeting out-of-state commuters who are looking for single-family homes. Easton's stock of architecturally diverse houses often goes for 30 to 40 percent less than similar space in the New York region, but housing prices are going up, and that's spurred questions about how Easton will keep living cost within reach for many residents.

Mayor PHIL MITMAN (Easton, Pennsylvania): I don't know what the city itself will do.

MURRAY: That's Easton Mayor, Phil Mitman. Mitman says affordability is a real issue here. 16 percent of Easton's population live below the poverty income level and unemployment is the second highest in the region. But he admits dealing with gentrification has taken a back burner because the town's struggling to pay its bills and needs to broaden its tax base.

Mayor MITMAN: It's just the expenses definitely outweigh the revenue, so in three or four years, we could be in much more serious trouble unless these condos and other things keep happening.

MURRAY: Regional land use planners welcome Easton's efforts to attract this rush of out-of-state commuters. Most other small towns in Pennsylvania have lost residents in the past few decades.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

MURRAY: Back at Kurt Rau's house, it's 7:30 in the evening. Rau's just made it home. He says his daily commute keeps him away a lot, but he still finds time to know his neighbors. Rau sits on the board of Easton's Canal Museum with long-time residents and other newcomers to the area.

Mr. RAU: So that's put me into contact with a lot of people in the Valley and I consider that a really valuable experience.

MURRAY: Contacts that Rau hopes set up some common ground between the old and new Easton.

For NPR News, this is Ann Murray.

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