Jacob Wolff

A generation ago, social critics decried an irreversible death of our great cities, publishing volumes on white flight, race riots and the precipitous decline of American manufacturing.

Some blamed the crisis on corporate greed. Others said the government grew too big, crowding out “real civic life” when it bulldozed neighborhoods to make way for interstates. Yet cities recovered.

And while the latter point is still up for debate – urban neighborhoods are no longer affordable and African Americans disproportionately fall victim to aggressive policing – our national conversation has shifted toward healing the “urban-rural” divide.

Few dispute President Donald Trump’s role in awaking this small-town pathos. Portraying himself as a man of the people, Trump left Manhattan to campaign against a vision for America that embraced change – and carried hundreds of rural counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2012, including Luzerne County with a 25-point swing.

I grew up in that part of the state and not long after the election, I went back. Almost every vacant storefront had a placard reading “Trump Digs Coal.”

Anthracite coal production peaked in Luzerne County at the height of the first World War, and the population has fallen steadily since the Great Depression. Per capita income has never been above the national average. Breaker boys were paid in company script. Wives collected forgotten coal from the side of railroad tracks. Striking miners were gunned down.

It is difficult to imagine when times were great.

Pundits, such as David Brooks, suggest rural America is not actually collapsing, but romanticize the timelessness of small towns: immigration still requires integration, college graduates should not leave, and those who remain “seem to wear 15 hats” just to keep vital services, like the newspaper, running.

His advice? We should embrace this hardscrabble work-ethic, but he provides no vision to help rural communities dealing with population change and disinvestment.

Some Democrats believe that Silicon Valley can resurrect the Rust Belt. Former representative and 2020 hopeful, Beto O’Rourke, famously referenced Tinder when advocating for greater broadband access in Iowa, and Sen. Bernie Sanders has called broadband “a necessity, not a luxury” in a 2017 Facebook post. Digital access, in theory, will lead to better opportunities.

Jem Spectar, president of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, editorialized in the Washington Post that expanded broadband will inject “new life into moribund main streets,” such as those throughout rural Pennsylvania, because “millennials ... will gravitate to these hot spots.”

He continues, “perhaps companies such as Amazon may someday establish their new headquarters in rural towns that will be all too happy to embrace them.”

The idealism is well intended. However, the Brookings Institution found tech companies are concentrating in just a few big cities at an increasing rate. And it doesn’t help that artificial intelligence threatens to automate many entry-level programming jobs within in the next decade.

That is why we should not depend exclusively on tech-sector growth.

Knowledge goes beyond digital technology, or any other STEM field for that matter. And cultural institutions such as the Johnstown Area Heritage Association enrich the lives of people who visit from around the world and within our region.

Since the early 1990s, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association has shaped a cultural renaissance in the former Bethlehem Steel facilities and neighboring communities.

The historic Blacksmith Shop will soon be home to the Center for Metal Arts, and the Heritage Discovery Center retells the stories of immigrants who toiled throughout the steel mills and coal mines of western Pennsylvania.

This spring, however, the Discovery Center is hosting a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit on eugenics in Nazi Germany. The exhibit, running until the April 27, could not be timelier. Antisemitism is on the rise in western Pennsylvania. We learned this from the tragic mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.

Just as much as broadband networks and university-industry partnerships can benefit rural America, we need cultural institutions. Vibrant, well-supported museums, regional college programs in the humanities and public libraries create spaces for us to engage, in-person, with one another to discuss our challenges, envision shared futures and to heal.

Basic human dignity, freedom to practice one’s spiritual and cultural beliefs, and an unalienable right to life are universal values. These issues are not urban versus rural. When we recognize that we are not defined by where we live, but how we treat one another, we can narrow our political divide.

Jacob Wolff is a 2014 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and later studied urban redevelopment at the University of New Mexico. He now works in the Lehigh Valley for a commercial contractor specializing in university construction projects.

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