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Thursday, October 20, 2011

OCCUPY NANTICOKE, OCCUPY NEPA

I've been trying to follow along the Occupy Wall Street movement as best I can. As far as I can tell, this is a genuine, grassroots expression of public discontent with the status quo.  It is largely disorganized and leaderless. Its biggest criticism is that it has no single, coherent message: not like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt, where the goal was the removal of President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of s democratic state, nor like the Tea Party, whose goal is the removal of democratically elected President Barack Obama and the establishment of a Republican state.

Still, some themes are emerging from Occupy Wall Street. The economy is a mess, and people want elected leaders to work to fix that - not work to block any possible improvements for fear they might actually benefit the incumbent. People want jobs that pay decent wages, not the ongoing destruction of the middle class while the wealthiest 1% gets ever richer at the expense of the other 99%.

The "Occupy" movement has moved beyond Wall Street. It's moved into cities all over the country. People are pissed off, and they don't want anyone to pretend or imagine that all is well, that things are just fine the way they are. Naturally, there's been some push-back from the people who benefit from the status quo, and from their toadies and allies and sycophants.

Occupy Nanticoke would mean...something else.

Nanticoke has all the problems the rest of the country has, but worse. We're well ahead of the curve when it comes to economic devastation. Decades ago a decision was made that Nanticoke would be primarily a residential community, not a community focused on commerce or industry. As the coal mines and cigar mills and garment mills shut down, no new industries moved into the city. As the industries shut down, the businesses did too. The Leader Store and Leventhal's, Woolworth's and J.S. Raub Shoes, clothing stores and sundries shops, all closed their doors between the 1970's and 1990's. Our two hardware stores closed and were torn down, as was our decades-old theater, which had been closed since the early 1980's but was not torn down for about fifteen years. (When the wrecking ball hit the State Theater the first time, it bounced off.) The long-vacant Duplin Mill was turned into a skating rink and bowling alley in the late 1970's, and burned down in the early 1990's. It remains a burned-out hulk, repurposed for a time as a marijuana-growing operation a few years ago, until someone noticed that the property wasn't zoned for agricultural purposes.

(And the banks closed, too. Nanticoke was once famous for its many large, granite banks. Now one of them is a shuttered pawn shop. One or two have come back as smaller, less opulent banks housed within the shells of the old banks. The rest have been torn down.)

Nanticoke was reimagined decades ago as a bedroom community: people would come here to sleep, but would work and shop and play somewhere else. And many of the children of those who came here to sleep decided to move away the first chance they got, leaving older and older sleepers behind, until they died in their beds - or, more often, in strange and lonely beds in hospitals or nursing homes.

Now Nanticoke is a city filled with vacant houses. Well, not all vacant:  some are being rented out to drug dealers, or being used as crack houses or meth labs. Not all industry and commerce has left the city.

But many of the best and brightest have. There are no jobs around here, not any that pay a decent living wage. The ceiling on most wages in this area is $10 an hour - and that's in Northeastern Pennsylvania, not just Nanticoke, where there really aren't any jobs to be had, outside of the schools and the hospital and a few machine shops that haven't moved away yet. While this is well above the minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour), it still translates into an annual pre-tax pre-deduction income of only $20,800, assuming fifty-two forty-hour weeks.* In what decade was that a living wage?  (When I asked this question of an employment professional, he replied that that is why so many people have second jobs.)

This has all resulted in an increasingly aging population of retirees and social security recipients generating little or no income ("Occupation") tax for the city. Most taxes are property taxes and school taxes (which go to the school district, not the city, which goes to pay for the education of students in the Greater Nanticoke Area, whose boundaries extend far outside the city itself.) Many vacant houses, many old people, and an increasing population of resident drug dealers and manufacturers. Vacant houses make a tempting target for scrappers who treat the houses as copper mines, just loaded with copper and iron pipes (and sometimes brass fixtures and aluminum siding) that can be removed and sold to one of the many scrapyards that dot the outskirts of this area. (Business is booming at these places, especially the ones who don't ask too many questions about where the latest load of copper pipes came from.)

There is a vicious cycle at work, in Nanticoke and in all of Northeastern PA. Fewer and fewer good jobs are available. More and more of the population leaves the area for greener pastures. Those left behind are either unwilling or unable to move, or have decided to stay and work for a better future, or have decided to stay and exploit the decrepit present. Houses become vacant.  The tax base shrinks, the population dwindles, employers leave the area, and new employers stay away and fail to fill the void. Even fewer good jobs are available. More of the population decides to leave. More houses become vacant. The tax base shrinks. More employers decide to pack up and move away.

There's a way out, I think. But it's not easy.

Elected officials need to step up and work to attract businesses to the area. With a dwindling population, this doesn't seem easy. But we do have a secret weapon: schools. Colleges. Universities. They actually count as one of the largest employers in this area, and the student population is a significant fraction of the residents of any area in which a college or university is based. These students come here from all over, from Northeastern Pennsylvania and Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York and even points beyond. But they don't stay here; as soon as they get their degrees they get the hell out of the area and go to where the jobs are. If the jobs were here, some of them might stay. Maybe. If the jobs were here.

Unfortunately, the newly-elected Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, has made a single industry his top priority: gas drilling. He wants to see Pennsylvania become the Texas of the natural gas industry; so apparently he dreams of a devastated landscape, an environmental ruin brought on by unregulated industrial exploitation, where wildfires race across the the state annually. And its not like the state would see any direct benefit from the gas extraction industry: to make the state more attractive to drillers, he has taken a strong stance against any taxation of gas extraction. Any economic benefit from gas drilling would have to come from revenue generated by income taxes on workers, and sales taxes on products purchased by people employed by the industry, and business taxes on businesses that expand to serve the industry.

But this support is fairly exclusive. Support for alternative energy investment by the state has gone away. No energy is being put into attracting other industries to this area. And other Republican politicians, elected in the wave of anti-incumbency that swept across the nation last November, have not bucked Corbett's lead.

Those of us who live in Northeastern Pennsylvania know where economic monocropping leads. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, we were one of the most important sources of anthracite coal in the world. Most of the people of the Wyoming Valley were employed by the coal industry. Coal mines were everywhere, even where you couldn't see them, even where they shouldn't have been. Much of this area is literally "undermined" by abandoned coal miles, much to the surprise of the Army Corps of Engineers, who declared during the September flood that this is some of the most complex topography that they have ever had to deal with, with floodwaters suddenly vanishing into mines unexpectedly - and suddenly popping out of mines elsewhere unexpectedly. Giant culm banks still cover the landscape. Mine fires dot the region, impossible to extinguish by conventional means. Mine subsidences occasionally suck up parts of houses, or even whole houses. Individual homeowners are responsible for carrying their own mine subsidence insurance. The coal mining companies moved away long ago and disclaimed all responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And when coal mining in this area came to an abrupt end on January 22, 1959, the economic monocrop went away - as did the primary source of income for the area.

Regardless of whether the people of Pennsylvania ignore this lesson or not, we need jobs in this area. Relying on a single industry is foolish and shortsighted in the extreme. And the gas industry is not exactly the sort of industry that would persuade college students to remain in the area. So let's imagine that maybe some politicians get a clue and decide to work to bring other jobs to the area. What next?

Well, now these people will need places to live. In areas where the gas industry is "booming," such as Wyoming County, this is actually a problem: all available housing has filled up with roughnecks and drillers and truck drivers and other employees that the gas drillers have brought with them from out of state.** So when locals in these areas found their homes wiped out by the September floods, they also discovered that there was nowhere in the area where they could stay. No vacancy. And even if there were, the prices had inflated to a level the market could bear, with rental rates set at what people in the gas drilling industry could afford - not what suddenly flooded-out locals could afford.

Nanticoke has housing. Vacant houses by the score. Granted, some of them need some work. Some of them need a lot of work, especially ones where all the copper water pipes and iron gas pipes and copper electrical wiring and aluminum siding have been cut out and torn out and torn off and sold to scrap-metal merchants. In these cases it might be better to tear down the houses and connect the empty lots to nearby un-ransacked buildings, making them more attractive to potential buyers who might prefer to have spacious yards.

New residents, residents with jobs, and incomes, incomes in excess of ten dollars an hour, will help increase the local tax base. As the tax base grows, the city's coffers will fill. More improvements will take place, perhaps expansions of the fire and police departments. Perhaps more time will be invested by the police in identifying and removing drug dealers and crack houses and meth labs. As these places are shut down and removed, property values will rise. The desirability of property will rise. Fewer people will feel compelled to abandon Nanticoke to seek a better life elsewhere, More people will make the decision to move into Nanticoke to snatch up some extremely affordable housing.

And maybe stores and businesses will return to downtown Nanticoke, providing even more jobs and even more tax income.

It's not a pipe dream. There are plans to make it happen, although from another direction entirely - an approach which in no way precludes this one. I've been asked to be a part of the group investigating this possibility, and I have said yes. That approach, however, is a downtown-centered one, one which will begin to rebuild the downtown of Nanticoke independent of the rest of the city, or the region. It's a good vision, and one that could work.

But my dream is broader in scope. Bring back jobs to this area. Jobs that pay well. Convince college graduates to stay in the area. Provide them with highly affordable housing. Build the tax base. Drive out the druggies. Bring up property values.

And not just in Nanticoke. This approach is necessary for all of NEPA. It's something that a boom-town economy from a natural gas rush won't provide sustainably. It requires effort by elected officials to bring jobs and employers to this area. It requires a lot of courage and resolve from the residents of Nanticoke to stand and fight rather than to run off to greener pastures. It requires persuasive efforts to convince the best and brightest not to abandon the area. And it requires determination from police officials to crack down on the drug problem that's been allowed to flourish unchallenged.

For years - decades - the trend has been to vacate Nanticoke, vacate NEPA. Abandon it to the criminals and scumbags and druggies. It's time for us to reverse this trend.

Occupy Nanticoke.

Occupy NEPA.



* Minimum wage will get you $15,080 a year.  Good luck living on that.

**Yes, that's another fun aspect of gas drilling: it provides jobs - but not to locals. Instead the jobs go to trained workers from out of state, many of whom have homes and families out of state, many of whom send a significant portion of their paychecks back out of state - so once again, Pennsylvania sees very little economic benefit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I came across this post while reminiscing about the old state theatre and woolworthts etc. I was born an raised in Nanticoke . I left the area for 15 years to live in Atlanta Ga. where we started our own business and had a very lucrative salary as interior decorators,we prospered due to houses being built all over the outskirts of the city, people could afford our services because of the many executive jobs, an all other well paying jobs. Why arent companies attracted to this area to build their corporations here? We are close to NYC,the area is beautiful, there are many good people looking for work? It is because of all the crooked politicians,they skimmed off the top until nothing was left in the bowl......we have deplorable roads, our children are punished by having art, music and gym taken away from them in school....that is a crying shame....West Side Park is pitful, old sliding boards, a hundred yr old merry go round, an a sand box full of animal excrement and broken glass. Oh but it decorated time to time with graffiti.....Churches torn down, closed down, but thankfully we till have quite bit of bars, which are needed because what much else is left for the guys who are stuck in a rut but to go cry in there beer and be depressed with the other guys that are in the same boat....not the Titanic, but might as well be the same...the SS Nanticoke. It is a shame an I would gladly be a part of some type of action to appeal to the peopl of this area to Occupy Nanticoke