Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Blog: The “Right” Stuff

Artist’s rendering of the new federal courthouse at N. 6th and Reily streets.

A large, white tent dominated the corner of N. 6th and Reily streets yesterday, raised to shield VIPs and their guests from June’s mid-afternoon sun.

Inside, 100 or so chairs were arranged in an arc in front of a makeshift stage, where local and federal officials would go on to speak for more than an hour.

It was the groundbreaking for the new federal courthouse, one of the most-anticipated events in recent Harrisburg history. It certainly was one of the longest in coming—10 or 15 or 20 years, depending on how you counted it.

Naturally, everyone inside the tent was happy, as this was an occasion for celebration. Speaker after speaker told of the struggle to reach this day, and both Reps. Lou Barletta and Scott Perry took deserved credit for their success in securing funding for the project.

However, as I looked around the large crowd assembled underneath that tent–at the people I mostly didn’t know–I perceived a glaring absence. Something was missing, and that something was easily identifiable—the Harrisburg community.

I first came to Harrisburg about a decade ago, and some of the first people I met were members of an ad hoc group that called itself, “Right Site Harrisburg.” These were residents who had grown weary of watching Harrisburg’s historic heritage crumble around them—building after building razed, mostly downtown, replaced by large, modernist office buildings and, even worse, parking lots and garages.

And, now, it was threatening to happen again.

The U.S. judiciary wanted out of its boxy, 1960s-era Ronald Reagan Federal Building at N. 3rd and Walnut streets, deeming it insufficient and insecure. Over the years, numerous sites had been considered, but the judges and their staffs had one principal requirement—they wanted to remain downtown, near all of their favorite lunch spots and bars and restaurants.

Now, I can’t fault them for not wanting to stray too far from McGrath’s and Café Fresco. However, following 9-11, security requirements meant that a new building needed much more land so that, to stay downtown, entire city blocks would have to be leveled.

“No,” said the residents of Harrisburg.

In meeting after meeting, they spoke out against proposed sites at N. 3rd and Forster, at N. 2nd and Locust, at N. 3rd and Pine. Reluctantly, the U.S. General Services Administration considered sites just across Forster Street, but that would have entailed razing public housing. Again, the people said, “No.”

In 2007, this activism, rooted in the neighborhood groups Capitol Area Neighbors and Friends of Midtown, coalesced under Right Site Harrisburg, which began promoting an out-of-the-box solution. There’s plenty of empty land in Harrisburg, the members said, if you just go a little farther uptown. They identified a patch of bleak, unpromising grass and gravel with little than a few bedraggled buildings, a drop-off point for donations and a boarded-up fast-food joint. It was N. 6th and Reily.

Quickly, the coalition, backed by Mayor Steve Reed, sprung into action, amassing an 8,000-signature petition and uniting the city’s local politicians and congressional delegation behind it. Three years later, GSA selected Right Site’s right site.

In April 2010, the first tent went up at the corner of N. 6th and Reily streets. This one was much smaller than yesterday’s and, on a chilly, rainy morning, Right Site members gathered to celebrate their unlikely victory, listening as that era’s pols (Reed, Sen. Arlen Specter, Rep. Tim Holden) made their own speeches, as the site selection was made official.

They all hoped to gather again in two or so years, when groundbreaking was expected.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Eight long years passed and, by then, the critical effort by this group seemed to have been largely forgotten.

Right Site member Don Barnett said that he learned about the groundbreaking just last week, when TheBurg reported it. He then found out that the event was invitation-only, and he had not been invited. Member Judy Forshee tried to go, but was turned away at the entrance by guards from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Her name was not on the list.

Several Right Site members gathered across the street, toasting their unappreciated victory as close as they could get to the site—at the bar of Café 1500. As a classic movie fan, I immediately thought of Barbara Stanwyck in the final scene of “Stella Dallas,” an ordinary woman who made sacrifice after sacrifice for her daughter, only to be barred from her lavish wedding into a wealthy family.

Yesterday, a small, yet significant, injustice was done to the activists who agitated for years to bring the new federal courthouse to N. 6th and Reily streets. Without them, this day—this groundbreaking—likely never would have occurred. In all probability, the judges would have gotten their way, and another swath of history would be missing from Harrisburg’s already frayed urban fabric.

A blog post can hardly undo this slight, but perhaps it will give a small measure of recognition to those who were shut out yesterday, whose efforts were critical in bringing about the new courthouse—at the right site. It seems that a little thoughtfulness, a little research and a few extra seats underneath that tent would have been easy to do and entirely appropriate.

Pictured above: Members of the Right Site Harrisburg coalition on the future courthouse site at N. 6th and Reily streets, 2010. These members included Craig Peiffer, Roy Christ, Don Barnett, Reggie Guy, Judy Forshee, Jane Allis, Lori Raver and Robert Disabella.

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