Thursday, September 23, 2010
I say this as someone who, at age seventeen, fled the area as fast I could. The Great Depression was slow to reach what had been a boomtown built on hard coal and locomotives. As late as 1937 rich New Yorkers took the train to Scranton to shop on Lackawanna Avenue and dine at the Casey Inn Hotel, where one could still get real silverware laid across the fine china from a real linen napkin.
But when the market for anthracite did finally collapse, it signaled a long, nearly fatal tumult for Scranton. Beginning in the 1940s, the city lost, on average, 1,000 residents a year. The loss of population was so swift and so devastating that the city hasn’t had a downtown grocery store since the 1960s. A recent look at photographs from the 1980s confirmed my impressions of the time: the city was dreary and dirty, distinguished by sooted-over architectural details and an abundance of garbage in the streets and on the sidewalks.
Yet now there’s a palpable sense that Scranton’s time is just beginning. Several of the city’s most significant architectural landmarks have been rehabbed or restored and will, within months, be occupied by several hundred new downtown residents, most of them between twenty-five and thirty-five years old. This month, the Commonwealth Medical College, the first new medical school to open its doors in Pennsylvania in decades, is matriculating its second class. The University of Scranton has begun construction on a large, and expensive, new science research center.
And Scranton has begun to carve out a new identity for itself as a center of arts and culture.
Much of the credit for the turn-around goes to Mayor Chris Doherty, who leveraged Scranton’s proximity to New York and Philadelphia, what’s left of the splendid boom era architecture, and its air of great untapped potential into $400 million of investment in a little more than eight years. That’s enough for a pretty attractive facelift.
But there’s something else going on, too, another force that has laid claim to a city with a reputation for drab isolation—a grassroots effort driven men and women between thirty-five and forty-five years old to remake the city in their own image.
Some of these men and women are developers who, growing up in the 1980s, have never suffered the deprivation that made earlier generations of Scrantonians, who lived and then died on the dwindling market for coal, cautious, even pessimistic, with their investments. Some are entrepreneurs who have committed themselves to the kinds of boutiques and restaurants they used to leave town to enjoy.
What gives me the greatest hope, however, is the seemingly spontaneous, even reflexive effort by disparate people to build new and serious arts and cultural traditions downtowns.
Groups of college students whose classrooms are twenty or thirty miles outside of town have chosen central city locations to convene their writers and artists groups, and they’ve brought along a new generation of university faculty that has begun moving into the city, despite having to commute to school. A then-high school student with a fondness for old movies opened the Vintage Theater, which has become Scranton’s for-the-people by-the-people art house cinema and the new generation’s first choice venue for readings, salons, and other art-centric events.
And then there are the festivals.
Scranton has long been a city of ethnic festivals—Irish, Italian—but six years ago Marko Marcinko, a jazz musician who at a fairly young age was performing in New York City and in the Pocono region’s world class jazz scene with some of the biggest names in the business, launched the Scranton Jazz Festival, a three-day affair that has made good use of Marcinko’s connections and drawn increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and beyond.
More recently, the Pages & Places Book Festival, of which I am co-director, was created to make two significant contributions at once. First, by doing what exceptional book festivals do, Pages & Places strives to offer a high end, daylong cultural event. By “high end,” I mean that Pages & Places is bringing to Scranton the caliber of personnel and seriousness of topic that one would expect to find only on elite college campuses or at, say, New York’s 92nd Street Y. This year, for example, Christopher Hitchens is joining Jay Parini, the author or editor of more than 40 books, in a discussion about the people, books, and debates that have most shaped American civic life. Joseph Sebarenzi, who was president of the Rwandan parliament in the days after that country’s hideous genocide, will participate in a conversation about how societies rebuild, or reinvent, themselves in the wake of catastrophe. An Icelandic novelist and an Argentine novelist and their translators will talk about the ways that ostensibly national literatures inform each other, in a panel moderated by their publisher, Open Letter Press’s Chad Post.
All this sounds pretty elitist, doesn’t it?
Well, it ought to. That’s the idea, in fact. The festival’s founder and driving engine, Liz Randol, recognized what was already afoot in Scranton and identified the lack: of a cultural event that didn’t just serve the city’s extant population but brought to town precisely the kind of people—heavy weight writers and intellectuals and the people who go out of their way to hear them speak—that wouldn’t otherwise visit a small post-industrial city.
But this is not at all to say that Pages & Places is disregarding of Scrantonians. Quite the opposite. The Places part of the festival’s title signals the other half of its mission.
Places operates in two essential ways. First, all of Pages & Places highbrow panels are set in familiar local businesses—bookstores, boutiques, bars, restaurants. Likewise, the festival’s planning committee and board of directors are made up not of arts and culture administrators but area businesspeople, in fact many of the very same entrepreneurs I referred to earlier. The goal of this approach is to offer a singular cultural event that is, from its conception through its planning to its execution, as integrated into the larger working of the city’s revitalization, and as available to its residents, as it can possibly be without compromising the seriousness of its content.
Second, Pages & Places has implemented partnerships designed to draw local and regional cultural institutions beyond their borders and into the community. These partnerships began as cross-promotional endeavors, but these relationships are now driving toward bigger and more substantive partnerships on events to take place downtown rather than behind the walls institutions.
Scranton is smaller, and therefore a lot easier to impact, than other post-industrial cities still struggling to invent new and functional identities. But we are starting to feel really good about our city’s emerging new image.
This article first appeared in Rust Wire.
The author of this post is Bill Black. Bill teaches literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, but has accepted a post as Writer-in-Residence at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, in order participate in Scranton’s revival. He is Co-Director of the Pages & Places Book Festival to be held in Scranton October 2.