A Postcard from the Provinces

On New Year’s Day, my wife and I drove with our sleepy five-month-old to check out a farmhouse for sale near our home in Pittsburgh.  Now, we aren’t in the market for country living at the moment, but the pictures and price we stumbled across seemed too good to be true.  So, on this laziest of lazy days, down to Fayette County we went exploring.

Situated on Pennsylvania’s rugged border with West Virginia and far western Maryland, Fayette County is part Appalachia, part Rust Belt.  According to a 2009 study, more than 35 percent of families in the county struggle to make ends meet—the highest figure in the state.

The first town we hit after crossing into Fayette County was Fayette City—about half a dozen blocks of narrow one-way streets on the banks of the Monongahela River.  If there are any businesses still operating along the main drag in Fayette City, we didn’t see them.  This is a town whose reason for existence faded long ago.  It doesn’t take a terribly active imagination to visualize this floodplain as overgrown ruins to be discovered by some future archaeologist.

Back in the countryside, we passed an old barn defaced with graffiti.  This was not “public art,” but wanton vandalism.  And it speaks to a kind of bored despair even stronger than its urban counterpart; unlike in the city, out here you have to seek out property to deface.

We soon found our farmhouse at a country crossroads.  It’s a century-old white clapboard structure with tall windows reminiscent of a church’s.  A sagging iron fence might be as old as the house.  It is a property of picturesque dilapidation—the type of place local children tell haunted legends about in an ABC Family movie.

For our ride home, the nearest crossing of the Monongahela was at the National Road (US Route 40) in Brownsville.  In the mid-19th century, it was still an open question whether Brownsville or Pittsburgh would become the regional metropolis.  Brownsville’s promise is all boarded up now, as if a hurricane were approaching.  It is the type of place sustained only by the heroic will of its residents.

The “Historic Brownsville Welcomes You” mural valiantly projects optimism, but it only throws into sharper relief the blighted surroundings, like a lamp in a dingy motel room.  Brownsville is, it must be said, legitimately historic.  St. Peter’s Church is the oldest Catholic parish west of the Alleghenies.  The Flatiron Building is one of the oldest iron buildings this side of the mountains, and is said (legendarily) to be the prototype for New York’s skyscraper.

Ah, New York City.  Only a few hours before our visit, the residents of Brownsville joined millions across the country in watching the festivities there.  In Times Square, seats at Applebee’s went for $375 and a table at the Renaissance Hotel with a view of the ball drop went for $8,500—about 60 percent of the per capita annual income in Brownsville.  And that crystal ball that glitters for one minute per year?  Two million dollars.

It would be demagoguery for me to imply that that two million dollars could shift the fortunes of a place like Brownsville (though it could pay the town’s median income for one month for all 1200 households).  A one-time infusion of almost any amount of cash couldn’t eliminate the region’s long-term structural economic frailties.

I wonder, though, what would happen if one year all the networks and cable channels fixed their New Year’s gaze not on the LED jungle, but on Brownsville.  It would be dark save for a few flickering streetlights.  And at midnight, nothing would happen.  All the storefronts would remain barricaded.  All the bricks would remain crumbling.

I wonder if, then, we might take seriously the challenges faced by the people and places in our vast economic blind spots.  Or perhaps we’d glibly move on with our lives, content to condemn our countrymen to the sacrosanct vicissitudes of the economy.

I’d bet that farmhouse on the latter.

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