Scranton – Small Town, Big Shadow

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Last Updated on June 20, 2020 by Audrey Scott

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

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?”

Scranton, PA: The Electric City
Scranton, the Electric City?

Ah, Scranton, Pennsylvania. My hometown.

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, Pennsylvania Politics
Scranton, politics as usual.

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.

Scranton, Pennsylvania
A Scranton sunset.

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.

Scranton, Pennsylvania Diner
A classic Scranton diner in fisheye.

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 Office

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.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

19 thoughts on “Scranton – Small Town, Big Shadow”

  1. I will always think about the “banana song” when I hear Scranton. I grew up listening to that tune. I remember the song actually sent me to the map to discover where the heck was this town with all of those tragic bananas. I always wondered what kind of folks lived in Scranton. Now I know! 🙂

  2. I noticed the top picture on this page says, “Scranton the Electric City.” What’s the story on that?
    Hope you both have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
    We’ve had good early snow in Michigan. I was able to get out cross country skiing the other day. I plan to go downhill in January. Hopefully no wheelchair time this year.

      • More accurately, it was the first place that had a streetcar system entirely powered by electricity. Though there is some contention of who actually had the first system, according to Wikipedia:

        Another early electrified streetcar system in the United States was established in Scranton, Pennsylvania by November 30, 1886; it was the first system to be run exclusively on electric power, giving Scranton the nickname “The Electric City”

        Other contenders for the first system were New Orleans, Mongomery Alabama, Omaha, and Richmond VA.

  3. I can’t think Scranton without thinking The Office. That’s definitely my connection. And if there’s one TV show I miss, it’s definitely The Office. What a great show!

  4. Hi everyone, thanks for your comments. My apologies for the glacial response time. The holidays, you know. Individual responses below:

    @Steven: A tagline worthy of consideration: Scranton, the land of tragic bananas?

    @Pete: Scranton earned that name because it was home to the first electric streetcar network in the U.S. (click on the photo for the description). A belated thanks for the holiday wishes. We hope your holidays were good to you. Glad to hear that you are back out on the slopes.

    @Pam: Sounds to me like you might have a Scranton connection of your own.

    @Brian: Man, that hurts. But how was the pizza in Slough?

    @Theresa: You are part of large and growing fan club, apparently. I’m reluctant to admit it, but I think I prefer the UK version of The Office. The British dry humor perhaps? Or maybe the Scranton, PA version hits too close to home.

  5. Well it truly is a small world. I met you folks in Luang Praubang with 3 friends in Jan 07…had no idea you were a fellow Scrantonian. Like my brother and I always say “Scranton, what a great place to be from…”
    Have a good 2009, I voted for South America, that’s where I’m heading next, maybe we’ll see you on the road…

  6. @Nancy: Scranton comes through again in its illustration of the small world phenomenon. We remember meeting the four of you in Luang Prabang, of course.

    It looks like Central and South America is where we are headed next. So, we’ll look forward to meeting again. Stranger things have happened, particularly when a Scranton connection is involved.

  7. Hi,
    A fine capsulization of Scranton!

    Though I was born in Scranton and currently hail from there (I presently live 1/2 block from the crash site of the banana truck), that has not always been the case. It was a girl in Oregon who first alerted me to the Harry Chapin ballad upon learning that I was from Scranton. At least I didn’t get the “Isn’t that the where the world’s biggest junkyard is”? line. Parenthetically (more or less without parentheses this time), the junkyard has been cleaned up and replaced by one of the two biggest garbage dumps on the east coast, on da udder side of the highway. It has made Uncle Louie a very wealthy man indeed; he has netted upwards of 10 figures on his enterprise. This enabled him to more or less *simultaneously* build a new student union for da U, an athletic field for Prep (the former Haddon Craftsman factory on Wyoming Ave.), AND build a casino in the Poconos.

    The last item is where a tale of intrigue really begins. Somehow after operating the casino for several months (with his daughter as president of the enterprise, of course), mysteriously and out of left field comes an indictment from the Dauphin County grand jury in Harrisburg alleging lying on the gaming commission’s application about “mob ties”. Thus we have the following tangled web:

    1. Uncle Louie (hereinafter referrred to as UL)
    2. An “alleged” mobster who is squealing on everybody to get out of prison earlier than he should (the squealer)
    3. A coal baron caught up in the “alleged” mob tangle, laundering drug money for the squealer
    4. A priest friend of Uncle Louie who is under indictment for lying to a grand jury about UL’s purported “mob associations”, once again on hearsay from, you guessed it, the squealer

    and more recently

    5. Two county judges from Lucerne County (WilkesBerry) who were sentencing kids to juvenile detention for profit and who are more or less directly tied in with the squealer

    So, as you can see we have a better-than-average soap opera playing out right now. All it lacks is a foreign espionage angle (maybe you can help us out here and come up with, say, an attractive foreign spyette who shows up in the Lackawanna Courthouse with a USB thumb drive with all the real names, dates, amounts, associates, affiliates etc.).

    Of pseudo newsworthiness as of late is the bishop of the Diocese, This guy is a total train wreck. After “restructuring” the Diocese which has included closing most of the catholic schools and halving the number of churches, he has appointed himself as arbiter of all things that would send one directly to hell.

    In the past week he has:
    1. Threatened to close the cathedral on St. Patricks day if the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick allowed any “pro-abortion” public officials to be honored by appearing in the parade. Oddly enough, the only ones who showed any balls in the matter is the Women’s Irish Society whose reaction was “If he closes the church, we save $500”. The boys somewhat predictably cowtowed to hizzoner.
    2. Attacked Joe Biden and Bob Casey on the abortion issue, saying that they could not receive communion if they appeared in the diocese because they don’t tow the church line on abortion.
    3. Told College of Misericordia that they have to close the Diversity Institute as they had the temerity to feature a black gay man (a former co-student with Obama at Harvard).
    3a. Threatens to remove the catholic affiliation from Misericordia

    That was all in one week! Of course the Times had to give front page ranking to his every announcement. Oddly enough, he refuses to be interviewed by anyone or meet with parishoners about anything. The thing he doesn’t realize is that, with each rant, he is diminishing his and the church’s importance. Of course that was ignored by the catholic Taliban who picketed the Times yesterday, alleging that they are too hard on hisemminence.

    As usual round these parts, the chamber of commerce types missed a great opportunity to capitalize on all the free publicity that was wended our way in the presidential election. I would have, for instance, had a Scrantonian (maybe the actual mayor) arise from what was supposed to be a hushed audience during Biden’s Scranton rant on Saturday Night Live and say “Hey Joe…” and put some positive perspective things, humorously, of course. Speaking of Biden, it was perhaps William Warren Scranton III who put it best as to Joe’s present-day perception of the Scrantonshphere: (paraphrasing) “To listen listen to Biden talk, people expect to drive into town and expect kids to be playing hopscotch and trading baseball cards on the sidewalk”.

    Anhywayz., this is perhaps the best synopsis of Scranton that I have come across and it is obvious that you put in some effort to compile it. The one and only thing I found somewhat remotely disconcerting was the use of the Reaganism “cautiously optimistic”. Other than that it was great including the fish-eye view of Dougherty’s. How do you explain that place to anybody? Or perhaps, more Scrantonianally, shouldya?

  8. @George: Thanks for a terrific, thoughtful and humorous comment. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Actually, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed your comment.

    Love the references to “da U”, “UL”…especially. I’ve heard bits and pieces of the casino-to-juvenile detention centers saga, but never before so well connected. If I were artistically inclined…and had some time, I would draw a diagram of this tangled web. Someone needs to.

    And yes, Bishop Martino is slowly but surely becoming world famous (or is that infamous?).

    “Cautiously optimistic” – It’s the best this realist can do. It’s better than being cautiously pessimistic, isn’t it?

    Dougherty’s: in one respect, it is uniquely Scrantonian, on the other hand, it’s an example of the all-time American gathering place. Among other things, what makes it special: at just about any point, you’ll have a collection of folks inside that could tell fully the recent history of Scranton.

  9. Great write-up. I’m from Scranton as well as attend the now defunct Bishop Hannan High School. It is fascinating when I visit family to see how much it has changed and how much stayed the same. The new Coney Island Texas Lunch cracked me up because it was so sparkling white and somehow that seemed horrible to me.

    Thanks for the memories.

  10. @Kristen: Nice to see you here and thank you for your comment. Scranton is that sort of place — on the move in some ways, but running in place in others. Funny you mention Coney Island Texas Lunch. I had some “Texas Lunch” at home in honor of Coney Island. I completely understand how the new sparkling white Coney Island seems horrible. More importantly, there’s no guy lining the wieners up his arm before slapping on the chili, onions and mustard.

  11. I would have to agree that scranton is not the height of civilization, but it is always nice when political events put a small town on the map, it is great for tourism and local culture!

  12. Scranton has significant potential, however lacks the investment, jobs and infrastructure to lift itself out of the condition it is experiencing. The biggest win for Scranton would be to connect the train line to NYC…this would be a life line to establish the opportunity for investment, jobs, economic expansion. Many cities that have been revitalized after many years of decline need investment for the turnaround and the incentive to attract new industries. Scranton has the makings of a Northeast technology center for millennials if you connect the train line….you have what once was a thriving city’s architecture which can certainly be used to house new technology companies . Medical centers, churches, cultural centers and universities are plentiful….these are good foundational items that cannot be replicated or built in other start up towns. The Fed and State government should step in and provide the appropriate incentives to bring the great city back. With a new train line…it fits the new world order. Millennials could live cheaply, walk to work, have access to cultural, religious, education and medical facilities. If you look around the country….Scranton actually has a lot of potential. You just have to see the future through a different lens….


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