Well, not actually from the road. We’re back home, and as is usual on road trips, events got in the way of actually continuing the story while out and about. But I do want to share some of our observations. So: onward.
Day 2 saw us travel from Erie, PA south to our destination, Monaca, PA, north of Pittsburgh. Amy’s parents are from this vicinity, and our event was near here, so we made camp in the late afternoon, settling in for a couple of days.
On the way south from Erie, we lunched in Mercer, the county seat of Mercer County.
The blinking red traffic signals notwithstanding, it was nice to see all of the monuments and memorials on the grounds of the county seat. These various place markers suggest that this square and its building are still an important presence in the lives and memories of county residents. We often take these kinds of places for granted, but they are nonetheless freighted with the symbols of our common life as a community.
And here’s something else we found interesting about Mercer.
Mercer, PA, from Google Earth.
Something like 10 roads all converge on the center of town from across the countryside. Interesting. We didn’t have time to find out much about the town’s past, but what we found did get us wondering about how it came to be such a center of activity. If you consult your road maps, you won’t find many places that look quite like this.
On we went, arriving by and by in Rochester, PA, the town where Amy’s mother grew up (her father grew up in nearby New Brighton). Rochester is at the confluence of the Ohio and Beaver Rivers, and is right in the middle of what was once one of the nation’s centers of heavy industry. Today it looks like this:
In the late 1920s or early 1930s, Rochester looked like this:
And what are those running in the middle of Brighton Avenue? Streetcar tracks? Again?? Ack!
Steel, railroads, Joe Namath, and more steel were once at home in this place. The towns are Beaver and Monaca and Aliquippa and Conway. Not so long ago, daylight was twilight – the air was so filled with pollution. Amy’s mother used to tell us of changing clothes four and five times a day because they got so dirty from the soot and filth in the air. Pretty rough places, in more ways than one.
Sorry Pittsburgh fans, but we decided to spend our free time on this trip looking at these towns, and trying to understand what they were, what they have become, and what might lie ahead. We both do love Pittsburgh – it’s a terrific place. But we found ourselves engaged by the profound changes north of the city, and interested to think about the challenges these smaller communities face. As ever, onward.
In the old, old days, Aliquippa, Monaca’s next door neighbor, looked like this:
In the 1940s, Aliquippa looked like this, from a place just around the corner from the photo above:
Photo by Jack Delano, from a favorite website, Shorpy.
Here’s another view by the amazingly gifted Jack Delano, also found at Shorpy. (You might want to take some time and learn more about Jack Delano – he was a remarkable man).
In the background, smokestacks at the Jones and Laughlin steel mill. In the 1980s, a similar view looked like this:
And today? Gone. All gone. Jobs gone, most heavy industry gone, most pollution gone. Families gone. Retail gone – sacked by the shopping mall on the hilltop in Monaca. Every little town has much that is empty, abandoned, falling down.
In less than 30 years, this neighborhood has been radically transformed. These proud little towns have been so changed, first by industrialization, then by de-industrialization, then by recession. You can spot traces of what once was in a few places, but mostly they look like this:
Brighton Avenue, in Rochester, PA. Photo by dougules, on Panoramio.
Hard to tell what’s next. Clearly these places today are not sustainable, in any real sense of the word. They have changed quickly, and could change quickly again. But….
But into what will these places change? Is there enough capital, will power, insight, civic loyalty, ambition, hope, and imagination to convert these towns once more?
We found ourselves wondering about these questions over and over on this trip. In Dunkirk, Erie, Mercer, Rochester, Aliquippa. And on the return trip home, in Meadville, Jamestown, Olean (Olean – how badly damaged by the 20th century – so sad). And on our final leg, from Olean home, through Arcade and Attica and Batavia. Even the tiniest hamlets look hurt, pained.
Each of these smaller places has so much in common. They have all been badly damaged by cars. Big box retail has killed the town centers. Junk and abandonment is everywhere amid the dwindling populations.
We make no mistake here – we are not being nostalgic. These places have never been Edens. Life in these places has never been easy, or tidy, or carefree. In fact life has always been a huge struggle in these places, as it is now, and certainly will be in the future.
But what there was once that is now gone is a kind of coherence, a kind of clarity to these places. Centers of activity where now there is only vapor. People gathering, where now we are all driving away, or around, or by. A willingness to stick, where now there is an emptying out. A kind of consensus about what town life looked like and felt like, where now we have too many cars, crapitecture, strip shopping, fast food, and interstates.
Progress is a funny thing – will we ever agree on what it is?