Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Student Scribes: Letter from Harrisburg

Screenshot 2015-06-01 08.33.02I heard nothing about the Baltimore riots until the following day, when I walked into work and noticed the television tuned to the news. Being at the tail end of my undergrad career, while also working four to five days a week, leaves little time for keeping up to date. I knew about the death of Freddie Gray, but not the escalating situation. The first images that crossed my vision were of fire and chaos. I worry that it could happen here, in Harrisburg, right down the road from where I live.

My neighborhood, Allison Hill, has a face only a mother could love. Empty plastic bags tumble down the streets, and scraggly weeds grow out of the cracked sidewalks. A pothole on my side street takes up so much of the road that my car can only drive down the wrong half. My car might easily be dragged into the black hole of rubble, ripping out the undercarriage and leaving a gutted shell behind. The street remains mostly unchanged since I purchased my house and moved in five years ago. Though they did throw in some cold patch a few years back that lasted until the following winter, when it began to cave in on itself again. Like the burnt-out street lamp on my block, I doubt the city will ever fix it.

And I adore it. I adore the Dominican salon across the street, the Spanish-American restaurant on the corner, the deli that sits diagonal from my house that reminds me of Brooklyn. I love the joy of the two young girls who live in the house across from me, who giggle and chase each other down the stairs and up the ramp of their home, over and over. I wave to my neighbors across the street and smile at the passersby on my way to the store. I love the kids on roller blades navigating the jutting sidewalks; the folks walking back from the supermarket pushing wheeled personal carts around the broken landscape; the souped-up dirt bikes that rip and roar up the street on any given Saturday night, or Tuesday afternoon for that matter. But in the same breath, learning to discern the difference between bullets and fireworks factored into the education of living on the tattered edge of Allison Hill. I actually reside two blocks past the technical edge of Allison Hill, but bullets aren’t concerned with invisible boundary lines.

I understand the anger of Baltimore and Ferguson, of Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and Rodney King. There is a systemic racism in this country, and it has gone on far too long. But how do we channel that anger into change? How do we become a country that values each and every life? My neighborhood could very easily descend into violence. The buildings in this city could burn alongside police cars. Walk down Derry Street, and you will see abandoned houses, chipped and peeling paint, broken and boarded up windows. The Rite Aid down the street has been robbed so often they employ a security guard. How are the people who live in this neighborhood supposed to hope for a better future when their environment falls apart around them? Martin Luther King Jr. stated that, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Who will hear the cries of my neighbors if chaos erupts? More importantly, is anyone listening now?

My friend “Jersey Mike” Van Jura moved here from New Jersey, and adopted Harrisburg as his home. He loved it here. I never asked him why he came; I missed that opportunity. He saw possibility on the streets of this city. He wanted to create a scene that encouraged art, music and theater, that encouraged political activism, that fostered involvement. He wanted a better future for everyone. His heart and soul loved and believed that Harrisburg could be a place where people wanted to live, a city where bands wanted to come because a space conducive to the arts existed. He believed that, by creating a scene where positivity reigned, the whole city could benefit.

The first few years after I moved here, I hated Harrisburg. The only thing to do in the city involved drinking on 2nd Street. Yes, there were some fabulous restaurants, and a couple fantastic little theaters, The Gamut and Theatre Harrisburg, but once you attended their productions, weeks passed before a new show opened. I regretted ever moving here to be near my family. I’d lived in Brooklyn, traveled to Chicago several times, and spent a couple months in Austin. I’d resided for a decade in Kalamazoo, Mich., a town loaded with theaters and music venues, art galleries and opportunities. Here, I felt adrift on a disappointing wave lapping at the shore of a life I used to live.

Ranting one day to Jersey Mike about the lack of culture in the city, he surprised me. I thought he’d commiserate with me. Instead, he told me I needed to be part of the creation of something bigger than an angry diatribe. He put himself out there all the time. He held tweet-ups at Appalachian Brewing Co. that encouraged people to become an active participant in the change they wanted to see in the city. He blogged about the best diners and attended City Council meetings; he wanted his voice to be heard. The last day I saw him, he wore a crisp white shirt and black vest. His smile showed his excitement at lending his voice to the politics of the city. Three days before, he’d officially submitted his name to run for City Council. He never had the opportunity make good on his promise. When Harrisburg lost Jersey Mike, it lost a beacon of light in a city immersed in darkness.

At one time, my neighborhood must have been gorgeous with its beautiful old houses. When I started looking to purchase my first home, I spent much of the time perusing cookie-cutter townhomes that appeared as carbon copies of one another. There came a point where I almost gave up hope. Then I stumbled upon an ad on one of the real estate websites showing photos of the home I would come to call my own. Boasting high ceilings, beautiful woodwork, a hardwood staircase and a claw foot bathtub, I knew I wanted to look at it. My real estate agent, a sweet, older, balding man tried to talk me out of it because of the neighborhood. He insinuated that as a tiny, single, white girl intent on living alone, that area of the city might not be in my best interest.

I knew the dangers of living in a poverty-stricken area. I’d lived in Trenton, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. My neighborhood in Kalamazoo acquired the name “The Student Ghetto.” For years, it had been dangerous, but the students stayed and bought homes, fixing them up in the process. The neighbors there looked out for one another. So, I didn’t care about the surface appearance of Allison Hill. The requisite postage stamp-sized backyard and the sloped-ceiling attic where my books could live sealed the deal. On August 31, 2009, I signed the paperwork and became a homeowner. The girl who never lived in one house longer than two years finally put down roots.

The following summer, a drive-by shooting occurred right in front of my house. In that moment, I remember thinking that gunshots sound nothing like fireworks when they happen 15 feet from your bedroom window at 2:30 a.m. I watched as a crime scene unit placed tiny, numbered placards on the sidewalk for each bullet that lay abandoned on the street. There were no casualties, but I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Who was I to live alone in such a dangerous place? I talked to friends. They advised me to consider purchasing a weapon. A black-ops military man I know, more than 6 foot tall and very imposing, suggested a rifle with buckshot. The sound of the cocking gun would become a deterrent, and, even if I couldn’t aim, the buckshot would likely spray enough that I’d hit whoever was in the process of breaking in. As a hippie, I recoiled from this whole idea. I’d never held a weapon, let alone considered firing one. Could I shoot someone even in defense of my life? I’d been advised that once I shot, I must empty the chamber into whoever stood before me. Otherwise, the police would not believe that I felt truly threatened.

Walking around Allison Hill, if you learn to look past the roll-down gates and the graffiti, you’ll see backyard gardens bristling with sunflowers. You’ll see the young trees we planted a few years ago and an anti-violence mural the community created with the words, “Live the Conversation” on the side of a building. When I walk anywhere, the people almost always smile back at me. In the five years since I moved into the neighborhood, I’ve never had a problem. But summertime approaches, and I will once again fall asleep to gunshots and sirens. After 5½ years of hard work at HACC and Penn State Harrisburg, I wonder what my bachelors of arts offers my community.

In Jersey Mike’s office hung a whiteboard. On it, in varying shades of dry erase markers, were listed the names of bands he wanted to bring to the city. I often wrote my own suggestions. Some were unattainable: Flogging Molly, Mumford & Sons, Bruce Springsteen. One late night, while sitting on the deck, we planned how we might attract Springsteen to play at the Abbey Bar. I still think about that complicated and impossible dream that involved a lot of luck. Everyone we mentioned it to enjoyed a good chuckle. But Jersey’s magnetic charm brought plenty of other bands, and I’m not sure he didn’t actually believe he could get Bruce Springsteen to play here. I’m not sure I didn’t believe he could do it. Especially considering I once wrote the name of one of my favorite bands, Lucero, on the board on a whim. I’m fairly certain I squealed the day he told me he’d booked them.

As I watched the news of Baltimore the day after the riots occurred, I listened to stories of community members calling for calm. I turned it to sports when my bar started to fill up, but the images lingered. That evening, I turned the news on at home and waited for the curfew to take effect. Riots cops lined the streets, the protestors facing them. Someone lobbed a bottle at the police, and they retaliated. But somewhere amidst the rising tension, the community chose peace and silence came over the neighborhood as people slipped back to their homes. Did the people calm because they felt that their voices had been heard?

It’s easy to imagine Allison Hill as Baltimore, easy to see potential fires where stores grace corners. I hope, if the worst happened, that someone would give voice to the unheard cries of the people who live here. But maybe Jersey Mike was right. Maybe life needs to be more than waiting around for someone else to make a change, to take a chance. I love the pockets of beauty hidden in my neighborhood, but I’ve never really claimed it as home.

I explain patiently to those who look at me quizzically when I reveal where I live that the scariest man in my neighborhood is the man who lives in the duplex on the other side of my house. I have a kiddie pool I set up in my backyard every summer. I like reading in the sunshine, a beer on the side table, XPN playing over the radio on the porch. Creepy old man neighbor insists on leaning over the fence to ask me what I’m doing, as if the swimsuit, pool and book weren’t enough of an indication. As I hastily try to cover my body from his lecherous eyes, I know now why the previous owners grew morning glories on the trellis. I’ve been forced to listen to his family scream obscenities at each other more often than not. I worry more about them than I do about coming home at 4 a.m. after closing up at my job. Yes, there are arguments at all hours that waft in off the streets, and I’ve been woken up more than once by the sound of a vehicle crashing on the block in front of my house, but I’ve never felt threatened in my neighborhood. Catcalled, yes, but I’m a woman, so there’s nothing unusual in that.

Allison Hill is quiet tonight. No siren’s lullabies seep in through my open window. My cat’s head rests on his paws as I sit in my worn blue recliner and contemplate what comes next. My eyes fall on the stacks of books, the piles of mail, the sci-fi posters that adorn my living room and hide the holes I’ve made trying to hang pictures on the horsehair plaster walls, and I wonder if I want to leave. Grad school looms on the horizon. Ten years ago, when I first moved to Harrisburg, five years before I bought my house, when asked if I planned on leaving, I always answered with a resounding yes! I’d always planned to leave. Now I’m not so sure.

Today, the dappled sun flickered over me through the branches of the oak tree, and my neighbors waved from across the street. I walked over to Rite-Aid and jokingly gave Alex, one of the employees there, a hard time, as I always do; I know most everyone who works there by name. I passed a man walking with his daughter on my way back home, and they both smiled at me. These people hold voices worthy of listening to, if only someone cared to do so.

Last summer, 13 years after I left, I drove through the “Student Ghetto” back home in Kalamazoo. I noticed the vibrant colors of repainted houses, the streets free of debris, the hippies still playing guitar on the porches. It is beautiful today, because the residents graduated and decided to stay. I think about Allison Hill, and the people who live here. Hardworking, decent people who deserve more than vacant overgrown lots and potholes. It’s days like these I ask myself what Jersey Mike would do. What made him stay here despite the odds stacked against the city? I wish I could envision the city he imagined. At a crossroads, the decision of whether to stay or to leave waits in front of me. When the sun shines down and children’s voices echo on the streets, I want to stay. I want to make it better. But when the silence of the night breaks with the ricochet of gunshots, I want to sell and get as far away from the danger as possible. Then I wonder how the media would characterize my kind, smiling neighbors, and my troubled neighborhood, if chalk outlines left ghostly imprints on the streets.

Dawn Saylor was a senior English major at Penn State Harrisburg. She graduated in May.


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