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A Neighborhood in Harmony: How Music Helped Build Community in South Reading

by Ruby Mora

A Neighborhood in Harmony: How Music Helped Build Community in South Reading
Musicians and neighbors celebrate after a successful porch concert in the South of Penn neighborhood. Courtesy of Barrio Alegría.

In warm weather months, Reading’s South of Penn neighborhood echoes with the rhythm and melodies of local musicians sharing their talents.

People who want to enrich their lives with the culture and creativity from their fellow neighbors are able to do so without having to pay a cent and without even leaving their homes.

The grooves that reverberate through the South of Penn emanate from a project called  The Reading Iron Porch Concerts. The concerts have been coordinated and run by local musician Lyn Lessig, who described the concert series as “a concert the neighborhood can enjoy just by stepping outside.”

And many people from the community did.

The concerts were supported by The South of Penn (SOP) Taskforce, a community outreach project focused on increasing home ownership, improving livability and fostering interpersonal relationships with neighbors in the city between Canal and Franklin Streets.

Former SOP coordinator Tony Veloz approached Lyn in Fall of 2019 with the idea of holding concerts, and Lyn was all in.

Lyn Lessig, third from the left, and former SOP coordinator Tony Veloz, third from the right, participate in one of many community clean up events in the South of Penn Neighborhood. Courtesy of Barrio Alegría.

“[It was] an idea that had been kicked around by a few folks for a while, in a ‘hey wouldn’t this be neat’ kind of way,’” Lyn said. “I don’t think there is one sparkly moment where it manifested. All it took was a couple of people who had the means to say ‘yeah, so let’s do it.’”

The idea materialized with Lyn transforming her front yard on South 7th Street into a concert space for bands and musicians. Because neighborhood initiatives are supported by the SOP coordinator, Lynn was able to advertise and livestream her concerts, and provide food for concert goers.

People from the community gathered to enjoy these concerts, from those who knew about them ahead of time, to neighbors who just happened to either pass by or hear music from their homes and came outside to enjoy them on their porches.

The concerts were tremendously impactful during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic where the South of Penn community, and many others in the area and around the world, had to socially distance themselves from others to be safe.

Violet Coup performs in front of the South 7th Street home of Lyn Lessig. Courtesy of Barrio Alegría.

The porch concerts became a way for people to still be united through the joy of listening to music outdoors.

“I think it ended up being especially impactful that first pandemic summer, because we all really needed something like this,” Lyn said. “A way to connect. A small thing to brighten some dark days.”

The community showed up to these concerts in different ways.

“Some people know about the concerts and come out each time, some are folks who happen to be passing by and decide to stop,” Lyn said. “Some are neighbors who hear music and step out for a while to enjoy. Some come out to see a band they like play in a place they might not have visited before. Hopefully it introduces them to the charms of this neighborhood. All I know is that it makes people smile.”

After the 2020 season concluded, the South of Penn Task Force were able to pay the musicians that participated via funds given by the Reading Music Foundation, and they were awarded funds again for the 2021 season, which was held in Lucky’s Lane, an event space shared by the community that became a concert space for that year.

Lyn and everyone involved with the Reading Iron Porch concerts would have never predicted how vital these concerts would be.

Porch concerts spread to Lucky’s Lane in the SOP. Courtesy of Barrio Alegría.

The concerts became an anchor in the midst of the initial months of the pandemic, instilling a sense of community when the community couldn’t traditionally gather in enclosed spaces. In discussing how the porch concerts impacted the community.

“I hope it sends the message to the community that they’re cared for, that they deserve fun and lightness and sweet jams,” Lyn said with a laugh.

“There is something about having music played live, it has a unique sort of joy to it,” Lyn added. “It connects people. You can see that connection grow in the conversations folks have after the show. It’s lovely.”

This article is a part of “Historias del Barrio,” a series of stories written by local storytellers to highlight community members who have engaged with Barrio Alegría and the South of Penn Task Force, through a strategic partnership with The Wyomissing Foundation, to make positive impacts in their neighborhoods.