A Road Trip to NEPA’s COAL Country
March 11, 2020
A generation after the implosion of the American steel industry, the city of
Pittsburgh has famously rebounded as the city of “eds and meds,” with
gentrifying neighborhoods full of the researchers, professors, and computer scientists whose innovations drive the twenty-first century economy. Pittsburgh is far from being the only place in Pennsylvania affected by deindustrialization.
I recently took a road trip to northeastern Pennsylvania, the corner of the state still widely referred to as “the anthracite country” even though demand for the hard coal found there was falling before the advent of the Great Depression and—after a wartime boost—steadily declined from 1945 on.
The stories one hears there are not wildly dissimilar from those one hears in Pittsburgh: Geisinger Health System and the startling number of small colleges in the region figure prominently in conversations about the local economy both in Bloomsburg, home to a state-owned university, and in Scranton, the largest city in the region. The much-discussed natural gas boom went unmentioned as a source of local jobs, although Bob of Scranton’s Greentown neighborhood made the point that there were more than a few local farmers, his own cousin among them, who had found a level of economic security they had not known in years thanks to the land they have leased to gas companies.
There is no mistaking one critical difference between the northeast and the communities clustered around Pittsburgh: three generations after coal and railroads began to fade, the idea of inexorable decline is simply taken for granted in these hills. West Scranton’s Bev summed up the paradox this way: “call centers and warehouse come in here, get a break on taxes and cheap leases on space—and then leave a year or two later because they just can’t find anyone to hire.”
In a presidential election year, there is always a political angle to questions about, well, virtually anything. At both stops, I heard over and over again something usually overlooked in the otherwise relentlessly analyzed 2016 election: “at least Trump knows that places like this exist, and wants to help us.”
How true that is may be open to question—but the firmest of the iron laws of politics is that “perception is reality,” and it cannot be disputed that Trump’s unexpected win in Pennsylvania in 2016 owed much to his showing in the northeast.
Another topic came up as well, even a few weeks before it became apparent that Joe Biden was the all-but-certain Democratic candidate for president: Joe Biden is a son of Scranton, who with his family moved away in the fifties as the economy contracted.
That appeal should not be dismissed, and might make a real difference if Pennsylvania proves as competitive in 2020 as it was in 2016. Even discounting the improbable number of people in Scranton who claim to have “known him as a boy,” there was no mistaking the special status conferred by a childhood in Lackawanna County with at least one group of swing voters. Will that transcend the region’s general swing toward the GOP? It is too soon to tell but this year already promises to be fascinating in the onetime “coal counties.”