Fixing the Rust Belt with Playgrounds and Murals

I write this from a desperate time. The near-past. The waning months of a presidential election.

A time when it seems desperate voters are only asking desperate candidates desperate questions like, “can you fix our country?”

Sure any candidate and every candidate will answer, “yes, I can fix your country, and yes I will,” but each and every one of them will say it knowing it’s not nearly true.

It’s a lie because given one term, two terms, maybe even a lifetime and a willing Congress, it won’t be possible to fix a nation, ours or any other, in the way that people mean when they ask for someone to fix their country – They mean jobs and upward mobility. Affordable education and dissipating blight.

I know this because although writing this from the past may be a handicap – perhaps by the time this is published, we’ll have discovered a cache of jobs somewhere deep in the earth while fracking for natural gas, rendering most of what follows moot – my argument draws upon one greater resource. My location. The Rust Belt. Where over the last 30 years we’ve been attempting nearly the same thing, the same kind of resuscitation, just for something much smaller, the Rust Belt, the region, and more honestly and more accurately, our cities and boroughs and communities individually.

If we were to measure the Rust Belt’s struggle, the effort it has put into revitalization so far and the means it would take to reverse its plight, and then multiply those quantities out to the scale of a whole nation, we’d arrive at numbers and algorithms too great for any Democrat or Republican to comprehend or bear.

And it is an issue of scale, I’m learning. We see one big problem, so we assume we need one big answer. In the Rust Belt, we – collectively, not personally – know how to rebuild an engine, how to put a new support beam under a house; and we know our doctors can do something similar and even more drastic for a person – a heart transplant. These actions save homes and cars and human beings, and so the obvious goal would be to find some equivalent for a region or at least a Rust Belt town.

If you ask someone here, in Greenville, Pa., – population around 6,000 – how do you fix Greenville, the first answer, is one such big, simple solution – you just build a mill, a plant, a factory, of any kind, as long as it employs 2,000 local men and women.

But as I implied, I’m learning, and what I’m learning is that scale, in regards to these questions at least, can be misleading. Simple can mean impossible.

To pray for a plant is a kind of deconstructionist answer – it was that kind of facility and those kinds of jobs that were pulled from here and that caused this place to collapse – although “collapse” is too dramatic a term. It can seem bleak here at times and at certain address, but “collapse” implies something even more bleak than what is.

There are businesses that more than survive on Main Street, that thrive even. There’s Hurlbert’s Hardware, the Shoe Hospital, Carini Restaurant, and others, of course. Their windows are bright and filled with merchandise, deals and placards in support of local causes. But, pressed up against them, sometimes seemingly wrapped in them, are black windows stained in the dust and darkness that come from being abandoned for uncounted years.

And if you drive north up Main Street and look to your right, through the trees of Wentling Park and over the Canadian National railroad lines, you will see a 32-acre industrial abscess. It is wrapped in a rusted and crumbling patchwork fence. There are holes in the chainlink and they are cinched together by wire. In other areas, green plastic has been woven through to try to make a better barrier to hold the ugly in, but the plastic ribbons are falling away like chunks of skin in Chernobyl. Where the boundary is wooden, where there are holes, they’ve tried to board them shut, too. But through the holes and from the elevated street, you can see
down in, like it’s some kind of abandoned exhibit, a diorama of a brutal war fought and lost, by all involved. The fallow ground surrounded, looking like what must have been left over after they cleaned up the World Wars. There are weeds in patches, stunted and gnarled. The ground is dirt but rougher than any desert, and stained. It is littered with slabs of crumbling concrete and broken beams, like someone has taken an ax to the acropolis.

Just over a decade ago, this used to be Trinity Industries. They used to make boxcars here. This is where, on an average day, 2,000 people came to work. But there is no savior in this Trinity. About a dozen years ago they shut the doors, and took the jobs. Soon after the state started investigating. They found contaminants in the soil, and charged Trinity. Trinity consented to clean up but no one can build there until they do.

Trinity left a big hole, but they weren’t the only ones. There used to be Chicago Bridge & Iron, Bessemer Railroad, and just outside the borough in Sugar Grove Township, there’s Werner Ladder, the world’s leader in climbing equipment. Werner’s was founded here and built here, but all that’s left are the offices of its global headquarters. Jobs, sure, but only a fraction of them.

The obvious answer to the question, how do you fix Greenville, is to build a plant, but the evidence, the exodus of industry, indicates that it’s not a possibility. Like a species driven out by climate change, these plants are of an endangered kind. They’re fairy tales now. Praying for one would be the equivalent of planting magic beans in the dried out, unsettled land at the Trinity site.

That’s not the answer. That’s the bleak, and that’s not the moral. The moral, if you can call it that, is back in town. But when you’re headed back, before you get back to Main Street, turn right onto Alan Avenue, then back into Riverside Park, and find the new playground. It is the wooden Kingdom at Riverside with swings and slides in the shape of a canal barge, a nod to Greenville’s Erie Extension Canal past. The whole thing was built by volunteers and volunteer tools. Eight-hundred people gave of their time over five days to make it happen. And if you go back to Main Street, heading north again, there’s a mural of a kayaker, a covered bridge and white-tail deer on side of the Steele Building. It’s to be the first of 16 such pieces. And down in front of the borough building, there is now erected an electronic, scrolling sign that lists all the events and goings on about town.

They’re all the product of the countless and ever growing small groups that have been working and continue to work, in varying levels of specificity, to answer our initial question, how do you fix Greenville.

Juxtaposed against the goal of getting a new factory, a new electronic sign might look tiny. But over the course of half a decade one of these groups, The Committee to Promote the Greenville Area, or CPGA, worked diligently to raise the several thousand dollars needed to make it happen.

CPGA’s name is a little on the nose, but there’s also WAG, or Women’s Action Group, that has made the mural project happen and that is also responsible for the planters along Main Street, and other projects that have included painting flowers and trees on the windows of some empty Main Street storefronts.

There’s the Chamber of Commerce’s Marketing Committee, which has taken on John M. Schultz’s “Boomtown USA” roadmap and held monthly seminars and open forums to discuss ways to bring people and businesses to town.

There’s the Pool Committee, meant to resurrect Greenville Memorial Swimming Pool. The structure was originally furnished by the town’s veterans after they watched fellow soldiers who couldn’t swim drown in World War II. They hoped giving kids that skill would prevent those kinds of horrors in the future, but 60 years later, the basin is rusted, closed and empty.

There’s the new Greenville Opportunities, or GO, Team, meant to get adults under 40, somewhat of an uncommon species amongst the aging population, to tackle some projects, too.

And there’s more, often too many to keep track of, and sometimes too many projects to catalog, too – at one point, collectively and simultaneously the groups were trying to raise money for a new pool, a new playground, the murals, and the sign – and again this is all happening in a town of 6,000.

To be sure, it’s literally impossible to gauge or quantify in any way how much a mural or a new playground will actually benefit a town, financially or otherwise. But the people here have waited through legislative promises, they have cursed trade agreements, and they have prayed for new plants. And it seems when that old brand of patience wore out they stopped praying for a new Greenville and began fixing up the one they inherited. They changed the “fix,” from the goal of returning to the oft-recounted and mythologized Greenville that could support and featured, not only the pool, but an ice skating rink, and JC Penney’s and the Jordan Theatre, to
something more measured and tempered.

Now the unspoken collective understanding is that each project, each painted window, each good deed, even, is a step toward the good. If each action is a step in a different direction, sure you don’t go anywhere. But what this kind of perseverance seems to say is that if each step, no matter how small, is in the same direction, in a good direction, and if you keep your head down and keep walking, eventually you’re going to end up somewhere. Somewhere good.

The goal is to build around Thiel College, the UPMC Horizon hospital, and the three museums that are here; to make this town a place that people want to come and a place that people want to live; to make this a place that someone would bring a small plant, or a small business, or maybe just come for Heritage Days and get a couple hot dogs at the Majestic.

Such tempered goals, like the electronic sign, may look silly from the outside and out of context. Maybe it requires the unique and specific kind of faith found here, a faith in a Protestant God and the Pittsburgh Pirates, not to leave out St. Michael’s Catholics or the Cleveland Browns.

All that can be said with any level of certainty is that it won’t bring a new Werner’s or a new Trinity, something that will employee thousands in one shot. But it seems the worst case scenario is that someday down the road we’ll all wake up in a Greenville with a new pool, a new playground, 16 bright new murals, and all the people of a place working together.


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