a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This blight is an old victim of America's recession

This abandoned building was demolished with federal blight money in 2008 before it collapsed in downtown Charleroi, Pa.

By Scott Beveridge

CHARLEROI, Pa. – My grandmother knew how to show a kid a good time five decades ago in her adopted hometown of Charleroi in the middle reaches of the Monongahela River valley.

Madge Sine Beveridge would sometimes board a bus then with me in tow for the short trip from our home in Webster, Pa., to that borough also known as the Magic City on the day she received her Social Security monthly benefits.

The streets and alleyways were bustling in the early 1960s with shoppers, merchants, bankers, lawyers and wives of the steelworkers and coal miners whose paychecks kept the cash registers chiming.

Grandma would first stop at her bank with a granite and marble lobby on Fifth Street to convert the check to cash while I waited in the quiet lobby parked on a cold leather chair. My eyes would remain fixed on the gumball machine off to the side until she gave it a penny to make me happy.

The afternoon typically disappeared in the Coyle Theater, a workingman’s movie palace that was once a burlesque house, where she preferred to catch a Jerry Lewis slapstick comedy.

The idyllic day wasn’t complete without an ice cream sundae at Isaly’s, a white tiled dairy and meat chain store that was famous throughout the region for its tall skyscraper cones and chipped ham. Their glorious sundaes were served with a cherry and a signature pretzel twist on top.

With our sugar cravings satisfied, we’d wait next door at the Murphy’s five and dime store for the next bus back to Webster while its lunch counter clanged in time with waitresses passing around dishes and bowls of cheap food.

Grandma loved Charleroi where she settled near the end of the Great Depression about the same time she became a young widow. She stayed there while her two sons served in World War II and until 1960 when she followed our young family out of town. Yet Charleroi would remain the place to be seen for at least another two decades.

She would be appalled, though, to see what has happened to the town and its surrounds in the decades since the steel and coal industries collapsed in the region.

The old Murphy’s on Fallowfield Avenue is now a dollar story, while many of the storefronts across the street are vacant, as are many of the others in the downtown that had more shoe and clothing stores than have most modern malls.

So much of the worker housing on each end of the town is vacant and rundown. The blight only worsens on the steep hill above the downtown where houses are stripped of their copper and other valuables as soon as their occupants leave them.

In this harsh economy with a 9.5 percent unemployment rate in the United States, such industrial cities as Detroit have captured headlines for their blight and having an even higher rate of joblessness and desperation.

But, places like Charleroi and a string of fading Pennsylvania boomtowns from the upriver Brownsville to Aliquippa on the lower Ohio River and beyond in America’s rust been have been bleeding jobs for decades.

This ugly recession is old news to them.


Amanda Blu said...

Too true. Don't forget Beaver Falls. The downfall of that city is heartbreaking. Nicely crafted narrative, Scooter.

Becky said...

Love your writing, Scott.

MJ said...

Nail on the head, Scooter. The deplorable conditions of many American small towns is appalling. Sadly, it's becoming all too common.

ms.sow said...

Isaly's chipped ham.......we ate it like candy. And those tall ice cream cones!! Don't forget the klondikes!