Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Let’s Talk: The nation’s “social infrastructure” may be withering, but Harrisburg’s is growing stronger.

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

In late October, a group of Harrisburg residents, officials and canine-lovers gathered on a brisk late afternoon to cut the ribbon on the city’s first public dog park.

To fit the occasion, there were, of course, the requisite speeches, some pooch-related puns and the yip and yap from city dogs off-leash and frolicking in the fresh, damp grass in the newly fenced area at N. 7th and Granite streets.

So, certainly, if you’re a mutt or hound, a pedigree or mix, this ribbon cutting was a landmark event, one you’ll probably relive in your doggie dreams until your next visit. Less emphasized, however, was what the park will mean for us—the humans of Harrisburg.

A few months back, Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, wrote about something he called “social infrastructure” for the Atlantic Monthly. In his piece, he lamented the poor, deteriorating condition of our shared spaces—libraries, parks, markets and the like. These, he said, offered natural opportunities for people to meet, talk, form friendships and otherwise make attachments, all to the benefit of themselves and their communities. Many of these social spaces, however, now are threatened by lack of care and investment, particularly on the part of governments, he wrote.

Naturally, Klinenberg’s article had me thinking about life in this city.

If I had to grade Harrisburg’s social infrastructure, I might give it a “B-minus,” maybe a firm “B” on a good day. So, not bad, but certainly room for improvement. The thing is, it wasn’t long ago when this mark would have been much worse. Harrisburg spent decades fraying and falling, with terrible consequences for the quality of life here. But, now, as the city bounces back, it is bucking the larger, national trend described by Klinenberg. Its social infrastructure is actually getting better.

Anyone who has visited a dog park knows that it’s not just the dogs that get friendly with one another. The owners stand around, watch their pets, and get to know each other. Many friendships, even relationships, have begun at dog parks, especially since even the most small-talk-challenged have a shared interest and natural launching point for conversation.

But I don’t mean to put too much pressure on one little dog park. In the decade I’ve been in Harrisburg, I’ve seen the social infrastructure in this little city improve dramatically.

Certainly, the Broad Street Market sits at the crossroads of the community and, as such, is a reflection of its social health.

After decades of struggle, the market has been on a prolonged upswing, thanks to a combination of strong management, excellent vendors and the general comeback of the Midtown neighborhood. If there is a load-bearing beam holding up Harrisburg’s social infrastructure, the Broad Street Market is it.

Walking through the crowded market buildings, you would never know that, not long ago, vendors, sparse as they were, seemed to outnumber shoppers. But, today, the market is the scene of thousands of interactions and conversations—from the main dining area to the Zeroday Outpost to the ordering counters to the shared tables. The market is prima facie evidence that we are a social species, happier together than when divided or isolated.

Spiraling out from the market, Midtown Scholar Bookstore has become a de facto community center; Strawberry Square has mounted a surprising rebirth as a gathering and meeting place; the Midtown Cinema parking lot has become a free outdoor film venue and flea market space; and profoundly underused Italian Lake Park is finding new life as a place for free outdoor concerts and events.

Some of the examples may not strictly fit Klinenberg’s definition of social infrastructure, since he distinguishes purely “public” spaces from commercial ones. However, both Midtown Scholar and Midtown Cinema basically donate their venues for community use, as, often, does HMAC. And I’m certain far more business gets done at the tables in Little Amps than at the ordering counter.

In fact, what I like so much about Harrisburg’s approach is that, for the most part, private entities—Friends of Midtown, the Harrisburg Parks Foundation, Friends of Italian Lake, Harristown, HYP, the LGBT Center, Bethesda Mission and many companies—have stepped up to build and strengthen the city’s social infrastructure when and where the cash-strapped municipal government could not. I like to think that TheBurg also contributes through our free magazine and community reporting, by donating staff to 3rd in the Burg each month and by sponsoring free events like the Harrisburg Mural Festival.

So, Dr. Klinenberg, take heart. I know you were in Harrisburg a few months back to give a book talk, but you really should return and, this time, stay awhile. Study what we’re doing. Speak to the people building Harrisburg’s social infrastructure from the ground up. Bring your dog. I think you’ll leave with more hope than when you arrived.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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