Lynn Nottage sets her play Sweat in Reading, Pennsylvania—a once-prosperous city 48 miles northwest of Philadelphia—captivated by its early 21st century economic struggles. Reading’s story, from its earliest pre-Revolutionary beginnings to its apex in the 1930s to its current state of economic decline, mirrors that of many cities across the nation that have undergone sweeping changes in their economic landscapes.
Thomas and Richard Penn, sons of Pennsylvania founder William Penn, founded Reading in 1748, naming it after the British town from which their family hailed. Britons and Germans settled the area, with the British controlling local affairs until the Revolutionary War. The town and its surrounding region became known for manufacturing iron products—including cannons, rifles and ammunition for Washington’s troops. In the 1820s, workers completed two major canals: the Schuykill Canal and the Union Canal, which connected Reading with Philadelphia and the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, allowing cargo to be transported to and from the area.
In 1833, only a few years after the canals’ completion, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was founded, rendering the canals almost obsolete. For more than a century this railway transported coal from the Pennsylvania Coal Region to the eastern United States; though now defunct, the Reading Railroad lives on as one of the four railroads on the Monopoly game board.
Early in the 20th century, Reading increased in population as its industries grew; it was known at various times for manufacturing bicycles, textiles, hosiery, automobiles and pretzels, while maintaining its production of steel and other iron products. By 1930, it was a bustling city of 111,000, making it the nation’s 76th largest—slightly outsizing Miami, Florida and Sacramento, California.
By the mid-20th century, some of Reading’s industries were in decline and, like many cities that had once prospered on the profits of industry, it experienced a decrease in population and an increase in crime. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes caused flooding in the already struggling city: the Schuykill River, which had once made Reading a transportation hub, overflowed its banks.
After bottoming out at 78,380 people in 1990, the population edged up due to an influx of Latinx transplants from New York City, and because Philadelphia’s northwest suburbs had sprawled to the edges of Reading. By 2010, the population had rallied to just over 88,000; Hispanic or Latinx residents made up 58.2% of the city, while African Americans comprised 13.2%.
Reading, which had maintained its German identity throughout the centuries since its founding—transformed over the course of a few decades into a diverse city. People of all races needed not only to make the cultural adjustments necessary to live peaceably together, but also to compete against one another for the relatively few jobs still available. More than 26% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2010. In 2011, The New York Times called Reading “America’s poorest city.”
It was this combustible combination of economic desperation and racial tensions that propelled Lynn Nottage to visit the city—and begin writing Sweat.
Neena Arndt is the resident dramaturg at Goodman Theatre.