I come from Scranton, Pennsylvania and that’s as hardscrabble a place as you’re gonna find.
— An actor playing Joe Biden on Saturday Night Live
Ah, Scranton, Pennsylvania. My hometown.
I told a friend the other day that we were in Scranton and he responded, “Are you from there? How did it feel to be in America’s most famous political city?”
Most famous? I would not go that far, but Scranton’s name recognition and recent pop fame strike me as disproportionately large considering its population of only 85,000. Particularly toward the end of the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, Scranton was lighting up political radar screens with frequent mentions in speeches and a showering of high-profile campaign visits.
Scranton, Conversation Fodder
Prior to the election, the name Scranton could almost almost always be counted on to elicit a reaction or unearth a connection:
“Scranton?…I think I drove through there once.”
“Scranton?…Wasn’t Gloria Estefan injured there?”
“Scranton?…Isn’t there a huge junkyard there?”
We even discovered a Scranton connection during our travels in a remote town in eastern Kyrgyzstan.
An American Tale: Boom, Diversity, Bust…Rebirth?
Tucked into Northeastern Pennsylvania, Scranton exists geographically and culturally in Middle America with a dash of Bourgeois Bohemian thrown in, due in part to its proximity to cities like New York and Philadelphia.
Because of the success of coal and steel industries in the region, Scranton enjoyed its heyday in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It was the 38th largest city in America in 1900 and was home to the first electric streetcar system. The economic and industrial boom attracted waves of immigrants to the area from across Europe.
Having grown up there in the 1970s and 1980s, I can recall the diverse cultural by-product of this migration. We ate smoked kielbasa from a Polish butcher one night, and terrific pizza from an Italian parlor down the street the next. Weekends featured visits to our favorite German butcher and Jewish deli. Orthodox and Catholic churches shared neighborhoods with synagogues.
I took it all for granted at the time. I just assumed that every city’s phone book was like Scranton’s – a pan-European journey from Ireland on one end to Ukraine on the other. These days, the latest wave of immigration to the area is evidenced by newly opened Asian grocers, Halal butchers and taquerias.
Scranton once attracted some of the country’s foremost architects of the time to shape its downtown area in Richardsonian Romanesque, Gothic, Art Deco and Neoclassical architectural styles. But when the railroad industry declined and the coal mines closed, other factories and whole industries followed. Scranton’s importance waned; its infrastructure suffered. The down-to-earth remained, but something of a chronic economic stagnation filled the void.
Over time, bulldozers and well-intentioned beautification efforts have taken their toll, but Scranton’s grand history lives on in the surviving coal baron mansions and grand turn-of-the-century homes in residential neighborhoods like the Hill Section and Green Ridge.
Having just come from Europe, my eyes were attuned to pluck architectural gems from across my field of view; I noticed buildings and stylistic details that had never before caught my attention.
But what is it that makes Scranton so intriguing to politicians and journalists?
It is representative of America – both what ails it and what makes it appealing. Quality-of-life surveys illustrate the dichotomy: Forbes considered Scranton among America’s Fastest Dying Cities in August 2008, while Business Week only two months later suggested that it was a decent place to raise one’s kids.
Scranton: Looking Forward
What Scranton’s future holds is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it may live up to and take command of the cultural shadow it casts.
After our last visit, I’m cautiously optimistic.
Notable Scranton Cultural References
If you still have difficulty placing Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the following nuggets might trigger your memory.
Scranton Political and Comic Lore
Joe Biden, America’s Vice President-Elect, was born in Scranton. Hilary Clinton learned to shoot a gun there. As I consumed 2008 election news from various perches in Europe, I was struck by how easily “Scranton” seemed to roll off political tongues.
It even made its way onto Saturday Night Live (SNL). The Biden Scranton Rant on SNL sent Scrantonians around the world into fits of laughter. We Scrantonians – a self-deprecating lot – can laugh at our hometown.
I come from Scranton, Pennsylvania and that’s as hardscrabble a place as you’re gonna find. I’ll show you around some time and you’ll see. It’s a hellhole. An absolute jerkwater of a town. You couldn’t stand to spend a weekend there. It is just an awful, awful sad place filled with sad desperate people with no ambition. Nobody, and I mean nobody, but me has ever come out of that place. It’s a genetic cesspool. So don’t be telling me that I’m part of the Washington elite because I come from the absolute worst place on Earth: Scranton, Pennsylvania.
But Barack Obama came to Scranton's rescue in his victory speech (at 3:44, but who’s counting):
I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton…
The producers of the hit television show The Office (the American version, not the U.K. version) recognized an appropriate setting when they saw it. So Scranton finds its ways into heads and homes of television-bound Americans every Thursday night.
Call me biased, but I would suggest that Scranton is a step up from Slough (the economically depressed site of the U.K.-based version of The Office). Certainly the pizza is much better in Scranton.
Tony Soprano’s Opinion
Tony Soprano puts Scranton in perspective in Episode 14, Season 2 (2000) of the Sopranos:
Spoons: So how's Boston?
Tony: Well, it was good to be back for a while, then, ya know.
Spoons: Do I?
Tony: That place is Scranton, with crabs.
That Harry Chapin Banana Song
A wayward truck packed with 30,000 pounds of bananas ran out of control and slammed into a house in downtown Scranton in 1965. It caught the attention of the world. Well, maybe not. But Harry Chapin wrote a song about it in 1974 that lives on.
Whenever I tell someone I’m from Scranton, I’m apt to hear “Isn't there a banana song about that place?”
There sure is.