The 'Burg Becoming
by William Wood
What becomes of a city when half its population leaves over the course of 50 years? Large, once-prosperous cities, such as Detroit, Buffalo and East St. Louis, that are now riddled with blight and crime are the usual urban subjects when the media chooses to discuss the topic. Is the decline any less precipitous when the city is smaller?
I moved from Kentucky to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in late 2012 to take a job with a local branch of the national non-profit I have worked for since 2007. Set in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the capital of PA was once a glorious town, replete with all the architecture and splendor one would expect from the center of state government. Examples of great buildings (outside of the state-owned ones) can still be found if you look among the broken ones; the Amtrak station is one of the best-preserved 19th Century transportation structures I have seen, and probably only rivals Portland, Oregon’s station in its time-capsule authenticity.
Why did half the population leave Harrisburg? The usual suspects (cars, highways, desire for a larger house and yard) would be my guess. My neighborhood is rough, but it’s better than it used to be, or so my neighbors tell me. Those yards that suburbanites like seem pretty crucial around here -- recently I had the misfortune of leaving my grungy little block to venture into the suburbs of the “White Shore” (the nickname many of Harrisburg’s residents use to refer to the west side of the Susquehanna River, which is in a different county and is definitely proud not to be Harrisburg). A close friend was having a birthday party, and it was hosted in a place that probably had rolling fields and trees a few decades ago. As I was stepping out of my car (no biking to this party!) a group of adults drinking in a nearby garage told me to “get off the grass.” Having shifted my style in the past 18 months from friendly southerner to semi-friendly semi-Yankee, I put my head down and trudged ahead. “No, really. I mean it” was hurled at me next, by the time I had reached the sidewalk. So this is how life is lived out here on the White Shore, I thought. I have friends who have been mugged in my neighborhood. A walk down my alley reveals condoms, needles, graffiti. I carry weapons at night if I am going somewhere without my 95 pound pit-bull/husky mix. Yet this insult, hurled at me by adults fortunate enough to possess a house, a car and most likely lots of privileges my neighbors will never know, forced me to dig down deep into my adult self so as to prevent a hail of beer bottles from raining down upon their driveway…I couldn’t wait to leave that goddamned place.
Two blocks west of me lies the Susquehanna River, which is one of the oldest and most polluted rivers in the U.S. I’d argue it’s one of the most beautiful too. Its headwaters begin near Cooperstown, NY, and it is so shallow that most stretches of it are only navigable by flat-bottom boats or canoes. A series of islands along the entire river provides places to camp while one paddles the Susquehanna River Trail from Cooperstown to the Chesapeake Bay. I walk along the river almost every day, and see waterfowl that one would never expect in an urban setting. Most of the riverfront on the Harrisburg side (East Shore) consists of 100-year-old steps that allow you to go right up to the water’s edge, sit with a beer and picnic, observing the fresh-water mussels and crawdads and the herons that hunt them. Why does one leave something like this behind to dwell in a vinyl-clad house in a cul-de-sac?
Two blocks east of me is an abandoned lot where I helped start a permaculture-focused community garden last year with my girlfriend and a few other fellow travellers. Across the street is an abandoned house with semi-regular foot traffic where it appears drugs are sold. Next to this likely crack-house, another abandoned lot, littered with the usual trash -- plastic bottles, glass, old toys, a mattress and box spring. A sign declares that “This blighted building has been removed to make the neighborhood safer and cleaner and to generate investment in the community. Linda D. Thompson, Mayor.” I wonder if the person who wrote those words believed any of them. I wonder how many folks on the block can read and comprehend the sign, due to Harrisburg High School’s 38% graduation rate. I wonder if the two brothers who I ran into the other day for the first time this year, a year’s worth of growing bigger than last summer but still riding their bikes like boys and hypothesizing what breed of dog Bela is (“she’s a Pit!” “naw, she a Greyhound. Like a great big Greyhound”) might take more than a passing interest in the garden and come get their hands dirty. I wonder if they will have a chance to leave of their own accord once they are adults.
One of my first party-type experiences in Harrisburg was at a private German club (Der Maennerchor, or the “Men’s Choir”, and yes, PA has a lot of these). Some friends of mine write for a great magazine, called Local, and were celebrating the fact that they had just published their first issue. I stepped into Der Maennerchor and was awestruck -- I had never been to a place like this. A large mural on the wall, exquisite woodwork, old men and women drinking mugs of Yuengling, a slightly out of place Street Fighter II game. A doorman ID’d me - “Kentucky? What the hell are you doing here?” “I just moved here.” “Moved here? Are you fuckin’ crazy? Most people are trying to move AWAY from here.” Harrisburg isn’t pretty. It’s dirty, corrupt, desperate, and crime-ridden, but I like it here, and I hope that, like a campsite, I will leave it in a better state than I found it when I do move along. I’ll probably be here a while. I leave you with that. Thanks for reading.