Reading is the county seat of Berks County and with a population of 87,893 is the fifth-largest city in Pennsylvania. According to the 2010 census, Reading has the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation. Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, it is the principal city of the Greater Reading Area.
The city, approximately halfway between Philadelphia and the state capital at Harrisburg, is strategically situated along a major transportation route from Central to Eastern Pennsylvania, and lent its name to the now-defunct Reading Railroad, which transported anthracite coal from the Pennsylvania Coal Region to the eastern United States via the Port of Philadelphia. Reading Railroad is one of the four railroad properties in the classic United States version of the Monopoly board game.
Reading was one of the first localities where outlet shopping became a tourist industry. It has been known as "The Pretzel City" because of numerous local pretzel bakeries. Currently, Bachman, Dieffenbach, Tom Sturgis, and Unique Pretzel bakeries call the Reading area home.
Lenni Lenape people, also known as "Delaware Indians", were the original inhabitants of the Reading area.
The Colony of Pennsylvania was a 1680 land grant from King Charles II of England to William Penn. Comprising more than 45,000 square miles (120,000 km2), it was named for his father, Sir William Penn.
In 1743, Richard and Thomas Penn (sons of William Penn) mapped out the town of Reading with Conrad Weiser. Taking its name from Reading, Berkshire, England, the town was established in 1748. Upon the creation of Berks County in 1752, Reading became the county seat. The region was settled by emigrants from southern and western Germany who bought land from the Penns. The first Amish community in the New World was established in Greater Reading, Berks County. The Pennsylvanian German dialect was spoken in the area well into the 1950s and later.
By the time of the American Revolution, the area's iron industry had a total production which exceeded England's. That output that would help supply George Washington's troops with cannons, rifles, and ammunition in the Revolutionary War. During the early period of the conflict, Reading was again a depot for military supply. Hessian prisoners from the Battle of Trenton were also detained here.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the capital of the United States at the time of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. President Washington traveled to Reading, and considered making it the emergency national capital, but chose Germantown instead.
Susanna Cox was tried and convicted for infanticide in Reading in 1809. Her case attracted tremendous sympathy; 20,000 viewers came to view her hanging, swamping the 3,000 inhabitants.
The Schuylkill Canal, a north-south canal completed in 1825, paralleled the Schuylkill River and connected Reading with Philadelphia and the Delaware River. The Union Canal, an east-west canal completed in 1828, connected the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers, and ran from Reading to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Railroads forced the abandonment of the canals by the 1880s.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R) was incorporated in 1833. During the Long Depression following the Panic of 1873, a statewide railroad strike in 1877 over delayed wages led to a violent protest and clash with the National Guard in which six Reading men were killed. After over a century of prosperity, the Reading Company was forced to file for bankruptcy protection in 1971. The bankruptcy was a result of dwindling coal shipping revenues and strict government regulations that denied railroads the ability to set competitive prices, required high taxes, and forced the railroads to continue to operate money-losing passenger service lines. On April 1, 1976, the Reading Company sold its current railroad interests to the newly formed Consolidated Railroad Corporation (Conrail).
Early in the 20th century, the city participated in the burgeoning automobile and motorcycle industry as home to the pioneer "Brass Era" companies, Daniels Motor Company, Duryea Motor Wagon Company and Reading-Standard Company.
Reading experienced continuous growth until the 1930s, when its population reached nearly 120,000. From the 1940s to the 1970s, however, the city saw a sharp downturn in prosperity, largely owing to the decline of the heavy industry and railroads, on which Reading had been built, and a national trend of urban decline.
In 1972, Hurricane Agnes caused extensive flooding in the city, not the last time the lower precincts of Reading were inundated by the Schuylkill River as a similar, though not as devastating, flood occurred during June 2006.
The 2000 census showed that Reading's population decline had ceased. This was attributed to an influx of Hispanic residents from New York, as well as from the extension of suburban sprawl from Philadelphia's northwest suburbs.
Reading has its share of obstacles to overcome, namely crime. However, new crime fighting strategies appear to be having an impact, as in 2006 the city dropped in the rankings of dangerous cities, and then again in 2007.
In December 2007, NBC's Today show featured Reading as one of the top four "Up and Coming Neighborhoods" in the United States as showing potential for a real estate boom. The interviewee Barbara Corcoran chose the city by looking for areas of big change, renovations, cleanups of parks, waterfronts, and warehouses. Corcoran also noted Reading's proximity to Philadelphia, New York, and other cities. The financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent nationwide recession stifled optimism; in November 2011 the PBS Newshour reported that Reading was officially the poorest city in the nation with 49% of inhabitants living below the poverty line.