Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Wishing Well: Thoughts from an empty city.

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

Some 35 years ago, a Don Henley song called “Boys of Summer” was an inescapable earworm on top-40 radio. Part of the song goes:

“Empty lake
Empty streets,
The sun goes down alone”

Walking around eerily quiet Harrisburg over the past month-plus, those lyrics have become fixed in my brain. I’ve thought of them maybe a hundred times jogging around Italian Lake, strolling through the downtown.

I sometimes wonder what I’ll remember most from this bizarre period in our shared history. More than anything, I may recall a feeling of isolation mixed with a sense of helplessness.

It’s like that with memories—you often feel them more than truly remember them.

As I run around the empty lake and stroll the empty streets, I wonder what Harrisburg will look like at the end of this.

Will my sick, elderly friend survive the pandemic? Will the local diner still be around? Will my neighbors be able to keep their restaurant going? Will TheBurg make it? Right now, I can’t guarantee any of these.

A few years ago, I wrote a column that I called, “FutureBurg,” in which I imagined a prosperous future for this little city on the river. That vision now seems as distant to me as what we once called “normal” life—the one in which we didn’t wonder about the health of the person who just passed us on the street or about what lays, unseen, on the countertop or currency we touched.

It’s certainly possible that, six months from now, we’ll return to our routines. The streets will get crowded again, the bars busy with customers, folks out of their houses, enjoying each other’s company. But it seems equally likely that this won’t happen at all. Even after the contagion eases and the “stay-at-home” orders are lifted, I fear that people will be slow to engage publicly again.

Will we become a nation of glove- and mask-wearers? Will we see danger on every door handle and drinking glass? And, if we do, you can be certain that the usual collection of crass capitalists and amoral politicians will be right there to exploit our fears, further dividing us for power and profit.

Recently, someone asked me if I thought society would change at all from this experience—and, by that, I think she meant change for the better. Clearly, I have my doubts about this. But to cheer myself up (because I obviously need cheering), I made a wish list.

So, here’s what I wish for, collectively, for the Harrisburg area. I don’t actually expect these things to happen, but, hey, I’ve had a lot of alone time to ponder the meaning of life.

I wish we could heal the east/west, city/suburb rift. Believe it or not, there are plenty of wonderful, well-intentioned people on both sides of the great, fake divide.

I wish that the zero-sum, us vs. them mentality would end. I believe this mindset holds us back from imagining and realizing a better, more prosperous future.

I wish the commonwealth would take greater responsibility for its overwhelming presence here, becoming an active partner with the city for the benefit of all.

I wish we would become less reliant on cars. Slimming down Forster and State streets and putting in bike lanes and bump-outs would be a great start.

I wish that people with means—money, time, whatever resource you have in abundance—would make a greater commitment to helping their community.

I also wish for such things as less poverty, crime and racism, but that applies throughout our entire society, challenges certainly not unique to the Harrisburg area.

I suppose that all of these fall under the umbrella of being nicer to one another—kinder, more patient, more understanding, more giving, less willing to jump to conclusions, expect ill intent or demonize one another.

I do have one solid idea that goes beyond just a wish.

Last month, I wrote a blog post in which I implored people—those who can—to dedicate half of their federal stimulus checks to local businesses and organizations. So, I would like to repeat that suggestion here.

Of course, I realize that many people need every cent to pay their rent or purchase food and other essentials. But, if you’re fortunate enough to have resources to spare, please don’t lock them all away—spread them around to others.

Do you have a favorite restaurant, shop, sandwich joint, nonprofit or arts group? Spend it there: donate, buy a gift card, tip generously, make a purchase. These pillars of our community need our help now, and we desperately need them to remain here with and for us.

One day, this crisis will be over. Countering Henley’s lyrics, the streets won’t be empty, nor will the lake. People will gather again to watch the sun go down over the Susquehanna. And then someone will say, “Hey, let’s meet up for a burger and a beer,” and perhaps we’ll think for a moment about how lucky we are to be doing something so simple.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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