Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Matter of Trust: In Harrisburg, more social space is a step towards greater social trust.

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

As some of you may know, for several years, TheBurg hosted a weekly podcast of Harrisburg political and government news.

Now, I’m an old print guy. So, when we began, I knew nothing about audio. Eager to learn, I began listening to podcasts to understand how they were structured and how I could do a better job presenting information to listeners.

Quickly, I got hooked and now listen to several podcasts a week, mostly discussions of news, politics and economics. One of my favorites is “Freakonomics,” a podcast that looks at financial issues from unique perspectives, often making unexpected connections between money and, well, just about anything.

A recent episode examined the issue of “social trust,” saying that societies marked by high levels of trust among people were both healthier and wealthier. Unfortunately, social trust in the United States has been declining for decades, the podcast said, ever since people began abandoning their social clubs, softball teams and even corner bars to bask in TV’s (and now Netflix’s) “warm glowing warming glow,” as Homer Simpson once described television’s hypnotic effect.

As is my tendency, I immediately thought of Harrisburg, a city that, on some days, seems singularly divided (and I spent 25 years in Washington, D.C.). But I’ve been told it wasn’t always this way.

A couple of months ago, announcing for mayor, Harrisburg native Gloria Martin-Roberts spoke wistfully of the many gathering places from her youth: the record store, the bowling alley, the farmers market, the fish house and the shake shop. And I’ve heard many stories about such legendary community spots as the Penn Harris Hotel, the Mary Sachs store, Pomeroy’s Tea Room, Harry’s Tavern and William Penn High School. These all helped foster a sense of place and shared identity among Harrisburg’s residents, as did the myriad of social and political clubs throughout the city.

But deindustrialization, disinvestment and depopulation took a heavy toll, hollowing out the community and its bonds of trust. By the time I got here, Harrisburg seemed mostly to have social distrust. Suspicion and finger pointing prevailed with the collapse of the omnipresent Reed administration, which, for a time, had offered at least the illusion of common purpose.

Now, an interesting thing about social trust is how dependent it is on tangible stuff: stores, schools, bars, restaurants, churches, clubs and, I might selfishly add, newspapers. You’re not going to build trust by spending all day in the virtual worlds of the Internet and all night in the make-believe worlds of television. People need places where they can gather and interact in a genuine way—converse, make friends, have fun and build community.

On this front, I find there’s both good and bad news. The bad news comes mostly from the continuing fallout from the digital revolution—fewer bookstores, newspapers and libraries; the loss of retail; the coarsening of civic discourse, especially online; and, now, the viral spread of sensationalized, partisan and fake news.

The good news, though, is that, at least in Harrisburg, there’s a countertrend. When I arrived, I saw the ghost of a once-great city. Pedestrians were scarce, grand, historic buildings were crumbling, and there were few places where social trust could take root. Since then, however, Harrisburg has quietly enjoyed what might be called a social space revolution, much of which has taken place along the 3rd Street corridor.

So, today, you might gather for a storytelling event at Zeroday Brewing, take in an outdoor film at Midtown Cinema or attend an art class at the Susquehanna Art Museum or the Millworks. At some point, you’ll probably pop into Midtown Scholar for a lecture, event or meeting. The beautifully restored Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center has become a focal point for culture and fun, while St@rtup’s stunning new space offers opportunities for collaborative work. Even Strawberry Square is refocusing on the community, hosting the HBG Flea and other events. Then there’s the revived Broad Street Market, a remarkable community asset where people flock to meet, eat, shop and linger. Just off the corridor, Little Amps and the new Gamut Theatre both deserve praise for quickly becoming important social centers.

Amazingly, until a few years ago, most of the buildings I just mentioned were abandoned or profoundly underused.

This said—we still have a ways to go. When I first came here, I remarked that many restaurateurs and merchants seemed to have a hard time seeing outside their four walls to the community beyond. That often remains the case. And I sure wish that the city’s few surviving social clubs would change with the times, drawing up their blinds, fixing their facades and showing they care about the world around them.

In addition, this resurgence hasn’t reached all parts of the city, though several organizations, such as the Camp Curtin Y and the YWCA, long have offered safe social spaces and community programs in their neighborhoods.

It’s fascinating—the podcast that inspired this column blamed falling social trust mostly on technological forces, such as TV and the Internet. I don’t disagree with that generally. However, social trust in Harrisburg was not destroyed primarily by technology but by people’s rejection and desertion of the city itself. Harrisburg’s social infrastructure now is being rebuilt—one restaurant, theater, café and meeting space at a time. The ground is being set for a renewed sense of camaraderie and common mission, for a revival of social trust, lost so long ago.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

Ed. Note: Since suspending “TheBurg Podcast” last year, I’ve been asked many times if and when it might return. Good news, podcast fans, we’re in the planning stages to bring it back.

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