Studying Change in 'The Electric City'
What happens when a city neighborhood’s demographics dramatically shift in race, class and immigrant status? How do city governments, businesses and residents respond to these changes? These are questions that could be applied to any city in the post-industrial United States, but they are especially fitting for the city of Scranton. Since arriving at The University of Scranton in fall 2007 from Baltimore, Md., I am struck by how the “big city problems” that plague my hometown cities, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., emerge in the microcosm of the small city of Scranton.
A City in Transition
While Scranton enjoys low levels of violent crime and little snarled traffic, it is subject to the same global pressures as other Rust Belt cities that no longer provide industrial employment for residents. Scranton lost 6.6% of its population from 1990 to 2000, declining from 81,805 to 76,415. Its 2010 population stood at 76,089, and it has a higher poverty rate and much lower median income than the national average.1 Not surprisingly, there was a decline of 23.8% in regional manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2006.2 And yet despite deteriorating infrastructure, vacant houses and a depressed job market, Scranton maintains a strong identity, a revitalized downtown, and tight-knit communities. Not only do many Scrantonians stay in Scranton, when they could easily move to another city with more professional opportunities, but many return to the city after gaining education and life experiences elsewhere. Although the city has often been the target of jokes – notably during the last two Presidential election seasons, thanks to Joe Biden’s Scranton roots – it is not unusual to hear people talk proudly of their home city, “The Electric City,” and the rich cultural life it sustains. It is this stubborn belief in Scranton as an authentic place, worthy of preserving, that drives the key players in the revitalization of the city.
In my qualitative research study of downtown Scranton revitalization, I interviewed 30 people from 2009 to 2010 who were involved in the rebirth of the downtown, including business owners, real estate developers, high-level politicians, journalists and cultural leaders.3 I found that while many of these important players were motivated by ideas of the “creative class” – artists, entrepreneurs, technology workers and other creative types – reviving declining cities, many also focused on social capital, social ties and quality of life as more important to Scranton’s future, rather than any culture-based “quick fix,” such as rebranding the city. One young woman I spoke to returned to Scranton from the big city where she attended college to open a downtown boutique. “I made the decision to stay in Scranton because there is potential and there are people who care enough to stick around and see that potential through. And that’s exciting to me,” she told me. “I don’t get that everywhere else I go. There are other great cities. There are better cities with people who already have these things implemented and are doing it, but the thought of being able to stay here and see something grow and progress and to be a part of that is really important to me. I’d like to see the changes that need to happen, happen here.” The ability to fully participate in the revitalization of Scranton is a result of its smallness and the strong social networks already in place. Even though thick social ties can sometimes bind, revitalizers in Scranton viewed these ties as the glue holding the city together, assisting them in their endeavors to revitalize the city.
Scranton remains financially distressed since this research study was completed in 2010.4 Nevertheless, I hope that the city maintains its efforts to promote its livability through downtown living and cultural programming. Scranton should take advantage of the “new urbanism” qualities of its downtown – its pedestrian-friendly, dense grid footprint and green public spaces – and work to attract more downtown residents. With the growing popularity of downtown living, simple amenities for residents must be provided, and these are not currently available through the downtown mall. Basic amenities, such as grocery and hardware stores, could fill empty lots and storefronts. Making the downtown more livable for residents will make the city more attractive overall. As explained by respondents who were actively involved in promoting downtown living, downtown residents are not just young hipsters; they are a diverse mix of empty-nesters, college students, newcomers and longtime area residents. If Scranton’s quality of life improves and more living options become available, families with children may also join the downtown living movement.
A Developing Neighborhood
My current research study continues my inquiry into Scranton’s revitalization by focusing on a major project in the South Side of Scranton. In collaboration with a fellow sociologist from Marywood University, Joseph Cabrera, Ph.D., and with support from a Marywood/University of Scranton Cooperative Grant, this study examines the “Elm Street Revitalization Initiative.” Similar to “Main Street” downtown revitalization initiatives across the country, this state-funded project, run in Scranton by United Neighborhood Centers of Northeast Pennsylvania (UNC), is designed to decrease crime, reduce blight, and create a sense of community among residents of this historic neighborhood. South Scranton has undergone a significant demographic shift in the past 10 years with new immigrant communities, largely Latino, settling in this previously white ethnic area. This study seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of revitalization strategies utilized in this initiative and employs a mixed-methods design, involving both quantitative survey and qualitative interview components. We will examine whether residents who use local amenities have more social connections within the community, feel a greater “sense of community,” and have a more diverse set of social relationships than residents who do not use such amenities. We expect the results will provide a better understanding of the existing barriers preventing greater social interaction from occurring between diverse groups within the community. We have trained 17 undergraduate students from both universities to assist in this research, including collecting survey and interview data, data entry, and interview transcription.
For a future research project, I plan to revisit the city of my dissertation research5 to study the revitalization of a transitioning Baltimore neighborhood designated by the state of Maryland as an “Arts and Entertainment District.” Using ethnographic methods and semi-structured interviews, I will study the activities and attitudes of residents, both renters and homeowners, business owners, artists, musicians and those directly involved in the organizations that work to promote the neighborhood. Through this research project, I hope to broaden the understanding of the economic, political and social processes of arts- and culture-based gentrification and the particular effect it has on the city of Baltimore as a whole.
1 U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011 2 Brookings Institution, 2007 3 This research was supported by The University of Scranton Internal Research Grant and a Faculty Development Fund Grant. 4 Rich, Meghan Ashlin. Forthcoming, 2013. “From Coal to Cool’: The Creative Class, Social Capital, and the Revitalization of Scranton.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 5 Rich, Meghan Ashlin. 2009. “It Depends on How You Define Integrated’: Neighborhood Boundaries and Racial Integration in a Baltimore Neighborhood.” Sociological Forum 24:828-53.