This post was written by Myles Schaller, who travelled from Berkeley, California to work with us here in the Hazleton area. In this post he reflects on some of his first impressions of the region.
Four weeks ago I arrived in the east coast for the first time, not to see the sights in the big cities but to study the history of the Anthracite Region. Different foods, traditions, architecture and accents can always hit you with culture shock, but one change caught me off guard: the way people talk about the past.
I live in Berkeley, California, one of the famous (or infamous) centers of 1960’s counterculture. People still sell tie-dye shirts on the sidewalk, the worker-owned cooperative bakery makes the most popular vegetarian pizza in town, and my hair is about three times longer than any man’s haircut I’ve seen in Hazleton. That era has an obvious influence on my city, and people frequently acknowledge that. But before the 1960’s? Apart from a shallow education in gold rush history taugh in schools, almost no one talks about it.
At a recent panel discussion on “the future of Hazleton”, Jamie Longazel described the town as “oozing with nostalgia”. For Hazleton, these nostalgic times look back not at the 1960’s, but at (among other events) the influx of manufacturing jobs in the 1950’s attracted by city and volunteer efforts. Unlike Berkeley’s persistent counterculture scene, those jobs have become sparse, and (Jamie argued) Hazleton’s nostalgia only hinders its revitalization.
A more exciting and positive difference between here and my hometown is this community’s attachment to local history of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I’ve met families that have lived here for five or more generations, patch town residents who know the last sixty years of their village history from experience and another sixty from stories, and people inspired by their immigrant worker ancestors to seek better treatment today. Drawing on the era of coal mines and labor strikes is not a retreat into nostalgia; locals know how difficult and dangerous life could be in that time, and search it for lessons of endurance and the hope of improvement, not to retreat into a whitewashed past.