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A Brief History of West Chester, Pennsylvania

It’s a Friday night in downtown West Chester. The borough’s main street, Gay Street, is packed with couples out on dates, a smattering of families and throngs of students from nearby West Chester University. A line forms at Scoops ‘N’ Smiles to get scoops of Mocha Chip and English Toffee Crunch. Moviegoers fill the circa-1916 National Guard armory that has been repurposed as the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center to watch a series of short flicks, part of the West Chester Film Festival.

Located about halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington, this Chester County seat is home to an array of schools, cultural institutions and businesses. Its Greek Revival architecture, many of which was funded by civic leaders who sought to establish a national reputation for the borough, gave it the nicknames “Athens on High Street” and “Athens of Pennsylvania.”

West Chester is also renowned as a destination for equestrian sports, with one of the country’s premier large animal hospitals and an extensive trail system. And its historic district is a major draw for heritage tourists, with more than 80 percent of the borough designated as a National Register of Historic Places site.

But the borough hasn’t always been so lively. In the 1990s, like many of its neighboring suburban communities, it struggled with declining population and high property crime rates. In 2000, West Chester’s property crimes were more than twice as high as those of surrounding Chester County.

In the early 21st century, the borough embarked on a revitalization effort that would ultimately earn it the Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2017. In addition to improving public spaces and encouraging entrepreneurship, the initiative has preserved historic structures and opened the door for new ones.

A walk through the borough, which is divided into four districts, provides a sense of what it once was. A map from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map & Publishing Company catalogues civic landmarks such as the City Courthouse, the original Turk’s Head Hotel and the Baptist Meeting House.

As the borough gained connections to a larger world, its economy diversified beyond wheat and dairy farming. It became a hub of clock- and watchmaking, and a few small early steam-driven industries such as a brewery and an iron foundry. Nurseries became a big business as well.

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin grew up in West Chester and attended segregated public schools, although biographers claim that his grandparents, who owned a small business in the East End, allowed him to attend interracial social activities. He later worked at the Commodore International home computer company, based in downtown West Chester. Today, the borough is known for its mix of housing and community buildings with open space and natural beauty. Its success as a heritage tourism destination led the National Trust to name it a Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2006. Volunteers guide visitors through town tours and village walks each year.