Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Good Times, Bad Times: Harrisburg, going up, going down

Illustration by Rich Hauck

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately.

This month marks the 14th year since the birth of TheBurg, causing me to reflect on my time in this unique, sometimes great, often frustrating little city.

To use a Harrisburg-appropriate metaphor—there’s been a lot of water under the (Market Street) bridge.

And, in this case, water is the appropriate medium, since much of my pondering seems to take place during walks and runs along the river.

Water seems to have that effect upon people. Based upon folks I see sitting alone on the river steps, staring off into the liquid distance, I’m not the only one lost in thought.

Personally, I’ve been reflecting upon the status of our city—things that have gotten better, or have gotten worse, since I arrived here.

Always in search of a good column topic, I thought I would share my ideas with readers. This short list is not meant to be complete or indisputable. These are simply a few things that struck me as I strolled pensively down the river walk.

Going Up

1. City Government

When I came to Harrisburg, the municipal government was on the brink of fiscal collapse—and then it fell off that brink. So, sure, I started covering the city at a historic low, when it seemed it had nowhere to go but up. Nonetheless, Harrisburg should take pride in how far it’s come in balancing its budget, expanding core services, and getting out of the death spiral of deficit and debt.

2. City Roads

In the 1950s, the city conspired against its own future by tearing through neighborhoods, replacing buildings, businesses and people with acres of asphalt. When I got here, I felt that the city’s main streets were too wide, too fast and too decrepit. A lot of progress has been made since. The long list includes 3rd Street, 7th Street, State Street and, most profoundly, N. 2nd Street, which is being reclaimed as a two-way, neighborhood road. As commuting gets replaced by home and hybrid work models, the commonwealth and the city should rethink other roads, including Forster Street, Front Street and the rest of 2nd, helping to stitch the city back together.


3. Broad Street Market

Before coming to Harrisburg, I lived near Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., and loved the crowds, the variety, the vibe. I found none of that here. Around 2009, the Broad Street Market was the proverbial “diamond in the rough,” two beautiful old market buildings that suffered from a lack of vendors, a lack of customers and chronic neglect. Then came new market leadership and a rapid renaissance, as people rediscovered this marvelous asset. Having said this—the pandemic and recent management flux have taken their toll, requiring renewed vision, commitment and stability going forward.


And Going Down

1. Downtown

In recent years, downtown Harrisburg has suffered the one-two punch of crazy parking rates and a terrible pandemic. COVID then became the plague that kept on plaguing, first emptying the downtown of people and then ushering in a new era of work-from-home. The one saving grace—several developers, led by Harristown, had the vision years ago that downtown’s future would be more residential than office. How right they were. Going forward, the city should do everything in its power to facilitate this long-term trend towards a vibrant, livable downtown, encouraging walkability, development, density and amenities.


2. River Walk Steps

In 2019, Harrisburg laid fresh concrete on the lower river walk, which had suffered years of neglect and decay. The project, though, stopped there, leaving the crumbling steps that descend into the river to crumble even further. Certainly, fixing the river walk steps is an expensive, extensive endeavor, but the city needs to begin thinking seriously about how to preserve this treasure from our City Beautiful past, even if it takes many years to complete. Otherwise, we’ll need to resign ourselves to watching the Susquehanna River slowly reclaim its muddy banks.

3. Homelessness

I don’t know if there are more people living on the streets today than when I arrived in Harrisburg. However, as the city redevelops, homeless encampments seem to have become more concentrated, pushed more towards the river. Some occupy private land that is overgrown and undeveloped, but is for sale. Some day, maybe not too far in the future, someone will buy these long-vacant, well-located riverfront parcels, and people way smarter than me on this issue will need to ponder what comes next for the folks who live there now.

In creating this list, I thought about many possible areas of progress and decline. Some, such as the school performance, I regarded as “about the same” as when I arrived. Others, such as crime, were a mixed bag—some encouraging trends and some discouraging ones. And then there were a few runners-up: Midtown (a lot better), bike/pedestrian safety (a lot worse).

Perhaps you have your own ideas on what’s better—or not—in Harrisburg over the past decade or two. If so, email them to me. If I can gather enough thoughtful responses, I’ll publish a follow-up column online.

If you need some quiet inspiration, I strongly recommend a long, contemplative stroll along our beautiful riverfront.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.


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