When I first came to Harrisburg, one of the first people to engage me in a serious conversation about the city was Ronn Fink, the long-time, greatly missed co-owner of the Bare Wall gift shop on Green Street.
Ronn had been around Harrisburg for almost 40 years and, as he himself said, “had seen it all”: the decline, the floods, the porn theater/streetwalker years, the Reed era, the occasional sprigs of hope. Ronn had started out as an idealist—had even helped found the Historic Harrisburg Association—but, like many disappointed optimists, had become increasingly cynical in his later years.
On any halfway decent day, you could find Ronn perched on a folding chair just outside his shop, cigarette in hand, nose invariably buried deep in a pulp paperback. He knew everyone on the street, greeted passersby, laughed easily and welcomed good conversation.
Thus, he was eager to speak with me when, after a year or so of publishing TheBurg, I began to write more seriously about Harrisburg. I believe our talks began after I wrote a column praising a group of people who had started a new arts event called 3rd in The Burg. I could tell he thought I was naïve.
“I’ve seen Midtown on the verge of turning around so many times,” he said, shaking his head, as if to give me fair warning of my own eventual disappointment.
Then his voice lifted a little, revealing that it really didn’t take much to reach that underlying vein of hope that was his true nature.
“Who knows?” he said. “Maybe this time it will work.”
I think of that conversation frequently when I walk up N. 3rd Street in Midtown—so much potential, too many dashed hopes. Empty storefronts, a lot of great shops that never made it, and then some other dreamer shows up willing to give it a shot.
I’ve learned a lot about Harrisburg since that first talk with Ronn—some good, a lot not. But one important thing I have learned is that Harrisburg’s condition or fate isn’t the way it is just because it’s the way it is. It’s the way it is because people— individuals—make decisions that cumulatively add up.
Midtown is a great example.
Right now, Midtown is caught between two opposing forces—let’s call them “old” Harrisburg and “new” Harrisburg.
Old Harrisburg is ghetto Harrisburg, dilapidated Harrisburg, a city that looks broken down—and the individuals who are happy to keep it that way.
They’re the folks who own the rundown buildings that line N. 3rd, who seem fine with renting apartments cheaply as long as they don’t have to put a penny more into their buildings.
They’re the groups who run old-time social clubs with blocked-out windows, completely cut off from the world and community around them, prompting more than one person I know to ask, “What the heck goes on in there?”
They’re the owners of troubled bars who seem to have no problem condemning entire neighborhoods to danger and blight so they can continue to sling cheap booze.
They’re the commercial landlords who let yet another lottery ticket/cigarette/soda-and-chips joint open or, alternatively, who ask so much in rent for retail space that their buildings are always empty.
Old Harrisburg is deeply entrenched. They’ve survived, even thrived, for decades doing whatever it is they do, even as their buildings fall down around them. They’re not going anywhere.
Unless squeezed out by new Harrisburg.
New Harrisburg is where the hope lies for the city in general. Almost without exception, new Harrisburg is made up of people who’ve arrived relatively recently to settle and open businesses. They come from places where it isn’t acceptable to let your rental property go to rot or run a bar where there’s a shooting every few months. And they’re trying so hard to give Harrisburg something better.
They’re folks like Josh Kesler, who is doubling—make that tripling—down on Midtown by opening a farmer’s co-op in the Broad Street Market and renovating a long-vacant landmark building for a restaurant and art space; like Sri Kumarasingam, whose Pastorante may well be Harrisburg’s best new restaurant; like Steph and Ammon Perry, whose amazing Yellow Bird Café has become a magnet both for the neighborhood and for outsiders; like Eric Papenfuse, who, whatever you might think of his politics, is a one-man Midtown improvement machine.
And therein lies the hope for Midtown and for Harrisburg.
If Ronn were still around today, he might say that he warned me, that the forward progress I cited a few years back couldn’t be sustained, that we’ve returned to two steps forward, one step back.
I’d have to agree with him. Many of the interesting, creative new businesses that seemed to be transforming Midtown then are already gone.
But then he’d smile slightly, shrug his shoulders and say: “Who knows? Maybe this time, it’ll work.” And I’d have to agree with that, too.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.