There is a lot of negativity going around about Harrisburg these days, from local, national, and even international sources. I couldn’t believe it last fall when my BBC News homepage popped up one morning with an article about Harrisburg’s debt and former Mayor Reed’s accumulation of Wild West paraphernalia. When even the British are talking about your tiny city’s problems, you know it’s serious. With all of the bad press that our dear capital city is getting, I believe it is time for me to speak my piece. I unashamedly love Harrisburg, despite its quirks and flaws, and I am not afraid to say it. Harrisburg, with its debt, chaotic government, and exaggerated crime, is nonetheless my home. No one forced me to live here, I chose it of my own free will. This is how we met… and why I’m still here:
I first stepped foot into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2002, during a college visit to Messiah College in Grantham, PA. Being a North Jersey girl who grew up 12 miles out of New York City, I looked around and said, “This is cute, but where’s the city?” In fact, before stopping by Harrisburg, our mistaken Mapquest directions to Messiah had actually brought us smack into the middle of a cornfield. I knew I was a long way from “home.”
Despite first impressions, five months later, I began as a freshman at Messiah in Grantham, PA. I loved the school, but I went back to New Jersey every chance I got. Ironically, I felt somewhat claustrophobic by the expanse of farmland, the feeling of nothingness for miles, and being nowhere near an ocean. It was just very different from the throngs of people, the towering buildings, the short drive to the Jersey Shore (disclaimer: my childhood experience of the Shore was very different from the impression you might get from a popular television show that shall remain nameless).
I had a wonderful 4 years at Messiah, including several stints overseas to places like France, Brazil, The Philippines, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. When it came time for decisions of what to do after senior year, I looked all over the world. I applied to a missionary program in France, a non-profit organization in India, an Americorps year in California. Most of my high school friends were graduating and coming back to live in “the city” (as we North Jerseyans so ethnocentrically call New York City). But the more that I looked around, planned, and applied, the more I felt drawn to…Harrisburg.
Why Harrisburg? Most of my New Jersey friends and family wanted to know just that, when I decided to live there after my senior year. Six years later (minus one year in Washington, D.C.), I am still here. And six years later, some are still asking. Let me explain myself.
1. Harrisburg is less stressful than other cities.
The atmosphere and culture of Harrisburg is markedly calmer than many other large cities, especially New York. While not quite in the South, Harrisburg is close enough to have embraced a slower pace of life. To me, life seems less rushed, less competitive than in larger cities. People take their time, and even drivers are polite (see #2). I don’t feel the pressure to dress a certain way. It feels to me that the goal for many Harrisburgians (I may have made that term up) is to enjoy the day and to make the most of it, rather than the goal of getting somewhere. I am naturally a slow person. I never fit in with New jersey hustle and bustle, and so Harrisburg’s way is more my style.
2. The people are so nice.
This shocked me when I first got to Harrisburg. People smile, and they take the time to talk to you. They want to know how your day is going, how you are doing, how your mother is doing. I am serious; people ask me that all the time (It helps that my mother is a charming, gregarious woman who tries to make friends with everyone she can whenever she visits).
The most shocking expression of friendliness to me? The drivers. We don’t have many 4-way stops where I come from, so I was very confused about this frequent phenomenon in Harrisburg. But every single time I came to a 4-way stop, the other car waved me forward. This still happens- every single time. Six years of being waved on, and I am still pleasantly surprised each time.
3. Harrisburg is affordable.
This one is pretty straightforward, but suffice it to say that a dollar goes a long(er) way here, compared to New York or Philly. Buying a beautiful house is a dream that can be realized more feasibly than in most cities. Recently, on a walk with my mother (a real estate agent in New Jersey), we were playing the guessing game with the cost of houses for sale. In a beautiful neighborhood one block from the river, she overestimated the price of one house by about, oh, three hundred grand. “I guess I forgot where I was,” she smirked. And that was when she decided it was time to relocate to Harrisburg (once she convinces my father, of course).
4. You can make a difference in Harrisburg.
Harrisburg is small enough to actually see changes. It feels more manageable than other cities. I have heard it said before that Harrisburg is a small city with big city problems. There is truth to this. Just as in any city, there is crime, there are impoverished areas; there are deep-rooted issues in the school system. And yet, it is easier to get a handle on these problems, to understand them, and to join with others and try to change them. Organizations like Harrisburg Hope make it possible for citizens to feel a part of the process. Many neighborhood committees bring people together to make change. In my Allison Hill neighborhood, there is the South Allison Hill Homeowner & Resident’s Association. They have monthly meetings to bring residents together and help to create the neighborhood that we want to live in. Friends of Midtown is another resident’s association that works to create unity in the Midtown area of the city, making it a more beautiful place to live.
5. Harrisburg is a beautiful city.
For several years, I lived 2 blocks away from the river. I loved running and walking by the river. Riverfront Park is a calming, beautiful place to be. One of my favorite places to walk is the Peace Garden, with various sculptures and quotes devoted to peacemaking. Reservoir Park is closer to where I live now, and has a fantastic view of the city. Once, on a walk with my sister there on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, we stumbled upon a reenactment outside of the Civil War Museum, complete with a cannons and muskets display. Nothing beats “Shakespeare in the Park” during the summer, where people gather on the lawn with picnics, enjoying summer nights at Reservoir Park.
Harrisburg architecture was one of the first things that struck me about the city when I first ventured here. My mother and I quickly fell in love with multi-colored row houses along the river on Front Street. Even the dilapidated row houses in various areas of the city show much promise. Many of these houses have been restored in recent years, accurately showing off their historic elegance.
6. I can live in a city, and yet in less than 15 minutes, be surrounded by farmland.
When I lived in D.C., it took more time, effort, and energy to get out of the city. Here in Harrisburg, if I feel stifled by the hustle and bustle of city life, yearning for a more pastoral landscape, I don’t have to go far to get that farm fix. I can go for a hike on the Appalachian Trail, as there are several easily accessed points not far from Harrisburg, not to mention other hiking trails in the area. Yes, Boyd Big Tree Preserve has a funny name, but it also has 1,025 acres of conserved land and 12 miles of hiking trails. Wildwood Park has a great nature center for kids, many activities throughout the year, and hiking trails as well.
Harrisburg has most of the amenities of an urban center, but access to rural culture as well. I can go salsa dancing on Thursday night at a local city joint, then do country line dancing on Friday night out in “the country.”
7. There is a fascinating mixture of cultures.
From Burmese refugees to Cameroonian immigrants to Pennsylvania Dutch, Harrisburg is a melting pot of interesting people. Through working with youth and families in the city, I have had the privilege of tasting homemade fare from China, Egypt, Mexico, Burma, and Cameroon. I have learned various phrases in all different languages. I never would have imagined the international experiences I could have in such a small city.
One of my favorite things to do on a Saturday morning is to saunter around Broad Street Market. The spicy scent of Indian food mingles with the sweet Amish rolls, fresh baked. People of all ages, races, and cultures stop by to chat with friends or sample an overstuffed ham and cheese pretzel.
8. Harrisburg is in close proximity to lots of larger cities and attractions.
Harrisburg is 3 hours from New York, 2 hours from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., 1.5 from Baltimore…you get the idea. If you feel the need for escaping to a larger city, it is feasible for a day trip. If you want some planned excitement, Hershey Park is 20 minutes away. If you are more interested in becoming one with nature, there are plenty of trails within 30 minutes of Harrisburg (see #5).
9. Harrisburg has an art scene that is up and coming.
By now, everyone should know about 3rd in the Burg. Every 3rd Friday, from Uptown to Downtown, Harrisburg residents (and beyond) gather to wander the streets, through art galleries, listening to music, enjoying food and drink. Midtown Scholar Bookstore is an independent bookstore, coffee shop, and music venue that has live music and art openings. Little Amps, a coffee and record shop, often has live music and various craft events, just to mention a few. More and more young artists are getting involved in the Harrisburg scene, working with various mediums, from photography to painting to upcycling.
10. Harrisburg is getting greener.
I know of at least 5 intentional communities (including the one that I am part of) in which people are choosing to live in Harrisburg in shared houses to make a difference in the city, to take an active stand against the materialism and individualism of our society. Many who are not living in a specific community are making an effort to join together and live in a different, more sustainable way. There are community gardens popping up all over the city, with Green Urban Initiative or Transition Harrisburg. I will also unashamedly put a plug in for The Joshua Farm (where my husband and sister both work), which offers youth employment, education, and fresh produce for the city, with a weekly farm stand in Strawberry Square. Children and adults all over Harrisburg alike are taking an interest in knowing where their food comes from, and getting involved in growing it.
My husband and I have chosen to settle here for a time, to commit to enjoy what Harrisburg has to offer while helping to make it a better place. Harrisburg is not a perfect place; I know that. And Harrisburg is not for everyone. But it has many positive attributes, and for too long, people have been focusing on the negatives. While it’s easy to complain and look at the things we don’t like, it’s a lot more fun to find creative ways to improve those negatives. So come celebrate your capital city, Pennsylvania!
Photo by Allie’s.Dad
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