When I arrived in Harrisburg some 11 years ago, I had quite a few “what’s up with that?” moments.
For instance, a large, boarded-up stone building at 3rd and Boas streets that clearly had once been a stunner—what’s up with that? Ditto, the tall, majestic building a few blocks away, blighted and deteriorating, and the abandoned brick pile on Verbeke Street that had a few fading Art Deco flourishes.
What was up with all of these—and many others?
As a new resident, I wanted to know how they had reached their lowly states, especially since they all were located so close to the Capitol complex, home to thousands of state workers daily.
Perhaps my greatest “what’s up with that?” came the first time that I saw the 1000-block of N. 6th Street. Here was an entire block of blight, with one major exception, the popular lunchtime spot, the Jackson House.
Every day, hundreds of state employees breezed right by these ruins to grab a legendary Jackson House burger or sub. Logically, you’d think that someone would see a business opportunity to re-develop this area. But no.
So, how did this happen?
It’s actually a complex story and one that, in the ensuing years, TheBurg would return to again and again. I can’t tell it all in this space, but it shares two elements common to most blight stories in Harrisburg—and in other once-thriving industrial cities across the United States.
Element #1: Flight. Starting in the 1950s, industry closed, and people began leaving the city for the suburbs, commuting in for, increasingly, service-sector jobs, which, in Harrisburg’s case, mostly meant state government. The 1972 flood was the nail in the coffin here, as residents took their federal flood money—and the few pennies that opportunistic slumlords gave them for the properties—and fled in a second huge wave.
Element #2: Disinvestment. Property owners stopped maintaining their buildings. Typically, they rented them out, for increasingly less money, until they became utterly uninhabitable. Then, instead of fixing them up, they boarded them up, and the dilapidation continued. Some fell apart slowly, others collapsed suddenly. Some sold for taxes, some landed with the Redevelopment Authority, others were flipped to speculators who let them rot further.
All of this happened to the 1000-block of N. 6th Street.
Of the six properties on the west side of the street, one caught fire, one collapsed in a
storm, one pancaked in, one was boarded up and the other should have been. Only the Jackson House, smack-dab in the middle of the street, remained truly sound.
And that, in a nutshell, was what was up with that.
Also, the blight fed on itself so that, for more than 50 years, few imagined that any of the old commercial streets of Midtown Harrisburg could be any different.
But then they were.
Fortunately, it turned out that the opposite also could happen. Just as blight can spread, so can redevelopment, and that’s where we are now in this story.
Over the past decade, nearly every one of the blighted, boarded-up buildings I saw on my first walk through Midtown has been renovated and redeveloped.
One is now StartUp. One is H*MAC. One is the Millworks, and another is the Coba apartment building. There’s Midtown Scholar and the Susquehanna Art Museum and ModernRugs and Campus Square and numerous smaller shops and restaurants like Yellow Bird Café, Pastorante and Urban Churn. One is even TheBurg.
Redevelopment has become such a powerful force that it’s now rolled over even the most desperate of streets—the 1000-block of N. 6th.
Currently, three of the buildings are being redeveloped as a mix of apartments and retail. Brothers LeSean and LeRon McCoy, Harrisburg natives and professional football players, are investing in the block, undertaking two cellar-to-roof renovations. They also hope to buy and build new on the vacant corner parcel, where the former Bethel AME Church burned down in 1995.
This street has a great deal of meaning to Harrisburg. It is one of notable history, the last remaining block of what was once an extensive African-American commercial enclave—a street of barbers, rooming houses, hotels, groceries and other businesses that catered largely to a black clientele in segregated Harrisburg, and it was almost lost. Well, unfortunately, some of it indeed was lost, but some now will be saved, so that life will return again to the street—that is, for more than a quick bite at lunchtime.
I find that, in Harrisburg (maybe everywhere), there are the glass-half-full and the glass-half-empty people. The latter might say—well, that’s fine for Midtown, but what about the rest of the city?
I try to be an optimist, but understand their point, too. Heck, on my block, two small apartment buildings have been condemned this year alone. There are still far too many old-time property owners who regard Harrisburg as only a place to extract money from, not invest in, seemingly believing that even simple building maintenance is a dollar out of their pocket.
But I’m not going to begrudge redevelopment where it happens. A revived 6th Street is good for the city, especially because it links up with other progress nearby, creating a critical mass to attract people and motivate further investment. It’s gotten to the point that, walking around the city, I still have my “what’s up with that?” moments. However, when I do, it’s because I see the boards coming off and construction signs going up.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.