The Harrisburg Remembered
Harrisburg, I hate what is happening to you right now. But then again, I love you so much because I remember what you are to me.
As a person that grew up here, but moved away at the tender age of 17 to attend college and after graduation work in another city for decades. When I returned to settle back here, I don’t think I could have ever imagined the dichotomy I feel now. Not that I never came home during those decades away. I did, and when I did, I saw changes. At times the changes in the Harrisburg skyline I saw crossing the Susquehanna to come home was thrilling. Sometimes it just didn’t feel right and filled me with a sense of foreboding, that I couldn’t understand those many years ago during those heady days of Harrisburg being considered the “Jewel of the Susquehanna” with purportedly one of the greatest mayor’s on the planet at her helm. But, I am painfully aware of that sometime uneasy feeling’s significance now.
I remember vividly the old Harrisburg before I left home. Pomeroy’s, where I shopped for my groovy new clothes as a youth. Bowman’s, where the “old folks” shopped. The seedy old porno theaters. Market Square where my grandmother, a life-long housewife whose job was to take care of her home, husband and children, worked briefly after my grandfather died. She worked in the Square bathroom. Underground, beneath the still there square clock (except on the other side of the street where the clock was originally located), keeping the underground bathroom squeaky clean for little money and the rare tip until her children said, “No more of this, Mom. We will take care of you.” My grandmother then did what she loved doing the best again—taking care of her children. She took care of me and my brother and her other grandchildren while our parents went to work. She loved us and was happy loving us and taking care of us until the day she died. Grandmoms were the original “daycare centers” during my time when our mothers started having careers of their own.
I remember the Old City Hall, where as a teenager I would occassionally show up at my Police Captain dad’s office, which is now an apartment, to boldly ask for money to go on my shopping excursions to Pomeroy’s which was across the street from City Hall. I still can’t resist looking at the window where my dad’s office was located and seeing in my mind’s eye those times there with him as I looked wistfully out his window towards Pomeroy’s (which now has a view of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology parking garage) while giving him my best “but Daddy, this outfit is so special and cool” wide-eyed look and speech. He’d always give me the money I asked for after he fussed just a little bit. Police officers are notoriously hard and tough, but they almost always melt to mush for their baby girls, I suppose.
I still fondly remember the beautiful mechanical Christmas displays in the windows of Pomeroy’s I enjoyed as a child. Later as I gained my first employment there as a young teenager I was so proud and happy to be an employee of such an iconic local business. It wasn’t easy getting the job. One had to pass a math test first, but I and some of my friends did pass. I sometimes wonder how many of our youth would be employable by the department stores of old today with the tests that were required. They were jobs that gave us our first taste of responsibility on our path to becoming grownup members of our society. Jobs that helped us to stretch our wings and have just a little bit of our own. Jobs that gave us confidence and experience to build upon. I shudder to think that many of our young people today in Harrisburg will not have the skill or opportunity I and my friends had.
I also remember my favorite places such as the Deb Shop with its cool flickering light fixtures and sunken location which was like an underground, super trendy site downtown with the best teenage clothing and makeup. Later, the Plum’s original location became the place for me, at least in the discounted area in the upstairs of their suave boutique where the sale prices were, and I assume still are, awesome. I also remember the ultra swanky and very grown-up Feller’s Department Store where I could only afford the newest pair of sparkly stockings with seams up the back a la 1940s retro look popular during the late 70s. My mother still owns a couple of beautiful Feller’s coats she bought long-ago in her more youthful years, of the now politically incorrect persuasion, which I will anticipate inheriting and keeping after she has passed on….thank you very much, Mom. Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store was where we shopped for bargains. I guess those would be considered the “everything’s a dollar store” today due to inflation, but the dollar store stuff is no where near as good as the 5 and 10 cent stores of long ago, in my opinion.
The Spot on Market Square was open 24 hours and a haven for biker dudes. Sometimes when my dad was out late after a shift, he would bring me a philly cheese steak sub home. The Spot was, in my opinion, just as famous for their cheesesteaks as their chili hotdogs in those days. We won’t talk about the rumors that swirlled around what the Spot steak subs were made of during the 1970′s beef shortage. All I know is they were delicious and a treat regardless.
I recall the Elk in Reservoir Park that every kid climbed, or attempted to climb, upon. The uncovered reservoir with its sparkling waters exposed near where my young, beautiful mother and father, aunts and uncles, played and picknicked with their children. Devil’s Ditch, which was really deep when I was a child and my cousins and I ran rolled down to our delight. In the fall my cousins and I picked up walnuts fallen from the park trees to roast as we discussed our juvenile issues of the day that seemed so serious at the time.
As a young lady, I loved hanging out innocently on the “black top” (now the Civil War Museum site) with my friends on lazy summer afternoons listening to the latest music and checking out the cutest “cool” guys who were nonchalantly washing their cars or hanging out with their “boys” after a sweaty game of basketball.
Perhaps this is a totally romanticized rendition of Harrisburg before Reed. I’m almost sure my dad, if he were alive today, would say my view was just that—romanticized—because he saw up close and personal the raw and hard side of life in this city every single day of his working life. But, from my child’s eye, Harrisburg is a beautiful and enchanting place.
What will my children and my grandchild see and remember? I want them to recall a time that they can be proud of in some form or manner. Perhaps not because Harrisburg was beautiful in their eyes physically, but because they remember a time when the people stood up, became involved, and took control of their neighborhoods, lives, and destinies that some of the powerful tried very hard to take away. Perhaps they will remember a time when the People said We will stand for this behavior no more. We are in control of our community if for no other reason than We pay for it, reside in it, and are responsible for it.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the saying goes. Who knows what beauty our children will see or what they will decide to be proud of or miss about their hometown of Harrisburg in the future? I truly hope they remember a community that stood up against seemingly insurmountable odds and governmental pressures and not as, as some would say, a group of merely contrarian obstructionists or apathetic complainants.
The fact is we are citizens of this place. We are citizens who care, understand and appreciate our roles in the successful continuance of our community, a community that raises us, nurturers us, protects us, and gives us memories—for better or for worse. We must seek the success of our city as a strong and viable community of people with common concerns and common goals who only ask for an open, transparent, accountable, and consistent government that will aid us in establishing our image for the future. We have the constitutional power to shape and adjust our government, to displace those people and laws that do not work for us. Therefore, it is we as the people of Harrisburg who will determine the way the the City will be remembered.