HARRISBURG, CAPITAL CITY OF PENNSYLVANIA.
A version of this article was originally published on May 13, 2010. Recent events and conversations have warranted an unearthing of this message. While weighty fiscal issues float dramatically over the heads of the citizens of Harrisburg, some of the greatest problems we face as residents are the ones we encounter every day right outside of our front doors as we tackle the monumental task of trying to make this city a better place. We can only succeed in that if we start working together. For that to happen, we need to talk about the prejudices that have been bred here for too long.
Call It a City, It’ll Act Like a City
“It’s not a city, not a real city,” some say. Despite the scorn, Harrisburg is a city, a real city. Not only does the City’s Charter define it so, but Harrisburg also has many attributes of a city—multiple neighborhoods; a variety of people; several centers of business; and access to miscellaneous services and utilities. Harrisburg has tall buildings, traffic, public transit, schools, colleges, churches of various faiths & denominations, stadiums, museums, concert halls, art galleries, restaurants, and a multitude of organizations, clubs, and groups. Yet, one of the most significant characteristics of Harrisburg that designates it a city is that it’s always changing. From the time it was first settled by Harris, through the turn of the 20th Century and City Beautiful, surviving Agnes, up through now and these times of uncertainty and potential, Harrisburg’s dynamics are myriad with people always coming and going.
It has stood a long test of time and deserves to be called a city.
Scoff, if you will, but why not embrace it? Go with it. We should all appreciate and seriously seize the opportunities that come from living in a city, that come from having such a concentration of people in an area. It means a plethora of cultures, languages, faces, and random conversations. It’s potential for variety and choice without standards or exclusiveness.
Unfortunately, though, such embrace of the multiplicity of Harrisburg isn’t rampant. There is a very strong attitude that Harrisburg is us and them.
I was reminded of this all too well. While I was walking down the street with a friend of mine, we passed some people he knew, sitting on their front stoop. “Hey, man!” one of the girls yelled out to him.
“Hi, there! How you on this fine day? You stayin’ outta trouble?”
“Yea…who’s your white girl! Huh? Where’d you find her!” Everyone on the stoop laughed as we kept on walking. “Hey now!” my friend said, and I looked over my shoulder at the girl who had said that.
“Ahhh, I was just kidding.” She looked at me, “Seriously, I was just kidding.” I could tell she was thrown-off and sincere in her discomfort. I nodded. Good, I thought…she deserved to feel that way. I looked away.
Imagine if she and I were reversed. If I was the girl on the stoop and she was the girl with my friend, and in the spirit of trading places, my friend will be white in this version of the story. So, imagine—he a white male and she a black female walking down the street and I, a white female yell out, “Hey, who’s your black girl? Where’d you find her?” I tossed this scenario over in my head with probable outcomes.
My friend looked at me. “You know she ain’t right,” he said. “She always gettin’ in trouble, goin’ in and out that place.”
“Whatever,” I said to him. “That’s not the point. Plus, that’s twice this week.” And it was. Earlier in the week I attended a meeting at Summit Terrace where another woman was openly prejudiced in her perspective of Harrisburg.
It was a Public Safety Advisory Committee meeting, a group trying to get community leaders from all over the city to come together to discuss and confront quality of life issues around the whole City, specifically in regard to public safety.
It was at this meeting that a woman stood up against a plan for a Citizen’s Public Safety Academy. This type of “academy” is common. Cities across the U.S. do it. The concept is that residents get training in police services. Basically, the idea is to make the public aware of how the police work in order to establish a more effective relationship between cops and citizens. Harrisburg has conducted these academies in the past, and what was proposed was a basic, rough plan to resurrect the program. The plan was laid on the table and in need of discussion and adjustment.
As soon as the presentation was done, a woman stood up to respond/react to it. Right off the bat, she let it be known she didn’t like it as an idea for a solution to crime. Fair enough. However, while she may have had some valid reasons why this plan didn’t make sense to her, she came across as angry, hostile, and racist.
Her inappropriate soliloquy was full of agitated attitude. She was indignant the proposal was proposed. She referred to herself as a “normal Harrisburg citizen,” who would never attend an academy because normal Harrisburg residents don’t care about programs like this. “And when I say ‘normal,’ I mean someone who has lived in Harrisburg from birth to present. Their whole lives,” she said. “This type of solution isn’t for us.”
Us and them.
She clearly established the us.
Anyone who did not fit her description became them.
The strict parameters were set.
She went on to discuss guns and stated that when she grew up on the streets of Harrisburg, “no black family I knew had guns. Guns came into the City from Perry County. They brought the guns in to get their drugs, their crack and heroin. You don’t see black people with those big guns. No black people I know hunt. White people hunt.”
Us and them.
She was impatient and frustrated. She made it clear that she wanted more police and police substations, not educational forums on community policing. “I don’t care about the inner workings of the police department or the philosophy of our officers. I want them to just come and get the bad guys off of my street!”
Linda Thompson is markedly responsible for this attitude. On the road to the Mayor’s office, the Thompson campaign called for this type of rhetoric, a rhetoric of “our City.” The campaign promised too many costly things. Instead of encouraging City residents to work together to confront the City’s challenges during these lean times, Linda Thompson victimized the City and so many of its residents. She promised delivery from human misery and gave people hope in the form of impossible promises like more police officers and numerous substations. She said it was time to take back “our City.”
The woman who spoke at the meeting may have had legitimate points, but she all but suffocated them in a rant of impertinent demand, demand for the things she was promised by an ambitious and impractical politician. Rather than negotiate other possible solutions and partnerships, she’d rather fight. It’s an issue of trust. “Who are you to come and try to say you have solutions to our problems?”
For this aspect of her attitude, former Mayor Steve Reed is markedly responsible. He created this degree of us and them. He excluded so many people and neighborhoods for so long, paying attention to his inner circle and grand projects, arguing this was the way to combat the problems of the City’s infrastructure and quality of life. His verbose pontification turned into false hope and became apathy and resentment.
Then Linda Thompson came along, stoked fires in order to elicit the cynicism she needed to fuel her personal goal to triumph as the victor in a sad war.
This war carries on and its fighters are still in place.
It’s an insidious war destructive and detrimental to this fragile city. As if the burden of Harrisburg’s financial mess isn’t enough, citizens are caught up in this onerous fight of identity. At this point in time with so much unknown and unsure facing the City of Harrisburg, what we must keep in mind is that we are here all in this together. No matter black, white, brown, or green. No matter from Midtown, Uptown, Allison Hill, Bellevue Park, or Sibletown. No matter a homeowner, a renter, a business proprietor, a police officer, a fire fighter, a native of Harrisburg, a transplant, or an alien. We’re all here because it’s a city. That’s the beauty of it.
Yet, too many on the street still don’t think this way.
Citizens of Harrisburg need leaders, rhetoric, and calls to action that bring us together. We no longer can afford to be so divided. Citizens need to find the common ground and be willing to trust one another in order to work together to get things done which are best for as many of us as possible. Otherwise, we’re just breeding more negative impressions about people and about the City of Harrisburg. Otherwise, we’re just contributing to the ruin of this city.
Fortunately, there are little seeds of inclusivity and holistic community being sown throughout Harrisburg—-groups and organizations, public forums, community gardens, creative initiatives, environmental projects, youth programs, and clean-up endeavors. The key to success is to overcome the us and them, to strive to move beyond caring about the color of skin or how long someone’s been here. In order to help this city prosper, citizens must work together and advance past such base superficialities because that’s what it means to be city folk, real city folk. That’s the way we’ll embrace the true essence of what a city is, should be, needs to be, and can be. That’s the way we’ll make Harrisburg better.