In the late 1890s, Harry and Louisa Orth, both in their 50s, lived in a four-bedroom house on Briggs Street in Harrisburg’s downtown district.
The couple, 34 years married, had three children, but only one survived—Carrie, a 29-year-old schoolteacher who still lived with them.
Harry was a “pattern-maker,” likely creating industrial patterns, and both his parents had emigrated from Germany. Their next-door neighbors, in an attached house sharing a baker’s alley, were the Floyds: husband M.A., wife Janet, daughter Edna and son Allen.
This information comes from Harrisburg’s 1900 city directory, a fascinating snapshot of time at the turn of the 20th century in the rapidly growing industrial city.
I reflect upon this tiny patch of Harrisburg because I now own and live in the Orth’s house, and I sometimes look at my surroundings and think to myself that these were the same floors and walls and stairs, even doors, that the Orth family walked on and leaned against and opened and closed.
In his book, “City Contented, City Discontented,” the late journalist and historian Paul Beers divided Harrisburg into two great epochs.
“City Contented” was the Harrisburg that the Orths knew. They were lucky enough not only to live in Beers’ happy phase, but, arguably, at peak contentment. Theirs was an expanding Harrisburg, a city about half-developed but rapidly building out its remaining vacant land, especially Uptown and on Allison Hill.
The city’s steel factories churned out bars and beams and its railroads carried them away to distant places. Scores of smaller factories produced everything from hats and books to fabric and beer. Moreover, the City Beautiful movement was about to take hold, helping to smooth out the roughest edges of unregulated capitalism.
More recent owners of my house—and there have been six over just the past 20 years—have not been so lucky.
Beers began his “City Discontented” phase with Harrisburg’s post-war decline, the result of de-industrialization, white flight, disinvestment, racial tensions, the 1972 flood and inept attempts to deal with all of the above. He ended his essays in the mid-1980s, the city in the grip of discontentment and Beers skeptical that the sorrow would end anytime soon.
In that, he was right.
During Steve Reed’s seven terms as mayor, some thought that the pendulum had begun to swing back, but that proved to be a false hope. As the city collapsed financially following decades of reckless public spending, it quickly returned to the grip not only of discontentment but of deep depression.
For cities, it gets no worse than financial collapse. Think New York in the 1970s or Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. However, in both these cases, insolvency represented the low point and, though you couldn’t know it at the time, both cities were poised for dramatic reversals once fiscal sanity was restored and confidence built back.
So, what now for Harrisburg? If Beers were still alive today, how would he feel? Would he believe that a new era had started—maybe “City Semi-Contented” or “City Re-Contented?”
Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic that the 2011-13 period was Harrisburg’s nadir, as it hit bottom after 60 years of desertion, neglect, crisis, mismanagement and false promise, or, in Beers’ more general term, discontent.
We are seeing clear signs of revival, with a general rebuilding and re-peopling of downtown and Midtown, capped off by Harrisburg University’s plan to construct the tallest building in the city. And, importantly, this is happening privately, from the bottom up, without the local government acting as the economy’s planner, prime mover and creative accountant.
So, I’m pretty confident that Beers’ “City Discontented” phase has ended. But to what exactly, I can’t say.
I do hope that, in a hundred years time, the future owners of a certain house on Briggs Street will think to themselves, “That guy back in 2018 was lucky. He lived through the start of something special.”
My desire now is to be there long enough to see this new era evolve, take its measure, and, in the spirit of Beers, give it a fitting name.
To learn about your own house and about Harrisburg history, visit digitalharrisburg.com.
Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.