Harrisburg on My Mind

Today through my internship/fellowship with Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities, I was given a tour of Harrisburg by a true, born and raised, Harrisburger (yes, that is the official title). I tend to pride myself in my knowledge of Harrisburg history, learned through a course I took last semester and my continual research into all things Harrisburg. However, hearing about Harrisburg from someone who has been living in and around the city since the 1950’s was an entirely new experience for me and I learned a new perspective on Harrisburg’s rich history, that of an African American woman. This woman has a truly incredible story and she was more than willing to share what life was like growing up in Harrisburg, and the vast differences that exist between that time and our present age. Even in the course of 60 years, the city has changed a great deal, and from what I know of Harrisburg in 1900, it is remarkable how much has changed in the 100 year time period.

1900 Harrisburg was not a particularly nice place to live. It did not have the violence that we know today, but it was described by its citizens as being ugly. This is what led to the City Beautiful Movement, which did a great deal in trying to beautify the city, however, the citizens who began this movement lost their interest in the city, grew frustrated with each other and the politics of the movement, and abandoned either the movement or the movement and the city itself. Despite this, citizens were drawn together and a true sense of community began in Harrisburg. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Harrisburg was a sprawling city, people were involved in their community, and despite the separation between races and classes, the people loved the city. There were, and still are, four divisions in the city: uptown, downtown, the hill, and the west shore. The woman who gave the tour said that the lines between races were very distinct. You knew that once you crossed the bridge and entered downtown Harrisburg, blacks were safe. If you were black and walking through the west shore, you knew that you were not welcome and people would stare at you. She even noted that to this day, she does not feel comfortable anywhere near west shore. On the hill, blacks and whites lived together, but only if you had money. Throughout the city, people were either divided by race or class. Maybe this is what created a sense of community, within your race and your class.

She also noted that the city has truly gone downhill in the years that have passed. We traveled through several of the projects, and even these government-issued houses were run-down and not something that you wanted to look at, let alone travel past. Other places throughout the city, places that were once prosperous are now closed, run-down, or nonexistent. The city truly has fallen and it needs help in being picked back up. Though I have never been one to “feel called” to do anything, throughout the tour, I truly felt that I need to do what I can to help the city. That begins this semester.

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