Undersold and maligned, Coatesville isn’t what you’ve been led to believe it is
From spoken word poet Aadil Malik to Arts Holding Hands and Hearts to pop-up lending libraries, Sarah Alderman's film "Bypassed" documents a vibrant community full of voices clamoring to be heard.
While working as a real estate agent in Chester County, clients always told Sarah Alderman they’d buy anywhere — except Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
“I would hear that constantly and I would ask why,” Alderman said. “They’d almost always blame it on, ‘We’ve heard bad things about the schools.’ But then no one could cite what bad things they’d heard about the schools. I realized that the reputation and the stigma that Coatesville had was what was sort of keeping it in this stranglehold.”
Alderman is a native and longtime resident of Coatesville, a town of about 13,100 people in Chester County. To counter the city’s stigma, she wanted to highlight the people of Coatesville through the documentary project Bypassed. Alderman said she expects to release the project this summer as a website of videos of residents telling their Coatesville stories.
Past media reports have glazed over any good happening in the city and labeled Coatesville as a place of high poverty and violence, Alderman said. One 2015 Al-Jazeera article called it “two square miles of ghetto.” A 2018 New York Times article named it a “struggling steel town.” The city is also physically “bypassed” by the U.S. Route 30, which connects Lancaster and Philadelphia and cuts through the town.
But Alderman’s project puts residents’ stories, told in their own words, at the center.
About 100 people participated in the project, but 20 will be featured in the final version, Alderman said. Many were wary of Alderman’s intentions at first. To build trust, she attended events in the community and partnered with existing organizations like AHHAH, or Arts Holding Hands And Hearts. AHHAH is a youth-focused nonprofit based in Coatesville, said Jan Michener, the nonprofit’s executive director.
About three years ago, AHHAH and Alderman put on collaborative writing workshops to gather stories for Bypassed, Michener said. At one of the workshops, Aadil Malik, then a Coatesville resident, recited “bypassed,” a poem he wrote for the project. It plays in the background of one of the project’s trailers.
“Search and only find critical headlines. The city set ablaze. The city slandered by slurs. The steel city of robbers, raiders. A city adverse. A city where poverty ain’t an anomaly. The city that’s cursed that’s drugged with violence, one of Chester County’s worst,” the poem says.
“This is Coatesville,” Malik continues. “You might know our name. You might of read what we can note but what if I told you you do not know our city of coats? We refuse to be known as a city that’s broke.”
Michener said Bypassed can “break walls down” with voices like Malik’s. “It’s so important to bring people that are different together, to share their stories,” she added. “Because…when you share something that maybe was painful for you or something that brought you joy or something that makes your heart shine or something you fear, you find you’re not alone. And then you find where you’re unique, you’re different. … It’s time to take away the fear of how we’re different, but let the love and the light inside of us connect.”
Alderman also supported AHHAH putting up pop-up lending libraries, or PULL stations, which are boxes filled with free books for anyone to take placed around Coatesville. In February, Alderman posted a wishlist on Amazon asking people to buy children’s books featuring Black characters so Coatesville’s children could “see themselves in the books being offered,” according to the page.
Alderman supported the project while others doubted its feasibility, Michener said. They’ve already put 27 up and are planning on adding 20 more in April. “When we came up with the idea of pool pop-up lending library campaign, we had some community meetings of trying to bring in everyone from the community to work on it. … There were so many other people in the community that were saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. This is Coatesville. You need to put surveillance cameras out. People are gonna steal the books,’” Michener said.
“Sarah understood the goodness of people, you know, no matter where you live and said yes, this, you know, you know, Coatesville will embrace this. Let’s do this,” Michener added. There are now 27 PULL stations.
After four years, Bypassed is still in the works. It was originally slated to be an interactive online web documentary, but it cost too much to produce at $75,000 price tag, Alderman said.
In 2016, Bypassed raised $26,820 for equipment and production costs via the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo. The funds have been exhausted, and Alderman is lacking some of her original teammates. Alderman expects to fund the final stretch of post-production with her money and energy.
But Alderman’s dedication is long-running — like her history in the city. She comes from four generations of Coatesville residents on both sides of her family. Her great-grandfather owned a well-known grocery store there. Alderman moved around during her 20s, but her grandmother’s house in the city was always an anchor to return to. Now 37, Alderman is settled back in Coatesville, raising two girls. In addition to highlighting the community in Coatesville, Alderman wants Bypassed to show residents where they can collaborate together — and that they have the power to make change.
“We look for your saviors in government or saviors in organizations to come and facilitate the changes we want to see in our community as yet the most effective changes come through each of us as individuals doing the small piece that we can each do,” she said. “I’d love to see is not just individuals feeling more empowered about taking their ball piece, whatever their talent is, whatever they feel their passion, your calling is, but applying it in their own home town.”