A view of downtown Erie, PA from Bicentennial Tower on Sept. 19, 2020.
Sam Dunklau / WITF
A view of downtown Erie, PA from Bicentennial Tower on Sept. 19, 2020.
Sam Dunklau / WITF
WITF’s Sam Dunklau produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. WITF and StateImpact Pennsylvania are part of America Amplified, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Erie County has been described as crucial for either presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania.
For years, Republicans and Democrats have used the northwestern Pennsylvania area to gauge their political fortunes.
But listening to people on the ground reveals a more complex struggle for reinvention, one that transcends politics.
That struggle is particularly pronounced in the area’s center, the city of Erie itself.
If you’ve never been to Erie, chances are you’ll be told to check out one place above all when you go: the coarse sandy beaches that line the peninsula of Presque Isle.
The several-mile-long strip of land acts as a barrier between Erie and its namesake lake, literally and figuratively. You could spend a whole week there and not know a thing about what’s going on in the small city across the bay.
But if you venture into town, to a place like its main park of Perry Square, you’ll find a portrait of Main Street America: closed-up shops and budding enterprises co-mingle amid established employers like UPMC Hamot Hospital and Erie Insurance.
Though the Erie region is studied for its politics, during a number of conversations with residents just a few weeks before a presidential election, politics didn’t come up organically. People talked mostly about Erie’s quest to reinvent itself and their role in it.
Tina Mengine of the Erie County Redevelopment Authority has been studying the reasons why that concept is so important here.
“We’re a little bit later to the game, but we know that we need to transform Erie to regain population, to create jobs, to just redefine who we are,” Mengine said.
Erie County is thought of as a Rust Belt area, long past its prime. Like a lot of places across the country, it has lost staple manufacturing jobs and the population that goes with them to outsourcing and modernization.
Erie itself, home to around 96,000, also is home to one of the poorest ZIP codes in the country, 16501. Median household income for a family of four is less than half of the federal poverty level of $26,200, and a fraction of the average median household income in the U.S., at $68,703.
Household income in the county that surrounds it has lagged behind the state and country for years.
Mengine said if that all is going to change, the city and county will have to rely on one another.
“At some point a community recognizes that it can’t continue on the same path and can’t continue doing what it’s always done, because it’s not working,” Mengine said. “And I think we had that ‘aha’ moment a few years ago and it’s really made a difference.”
That moment came in the form of a community-wide plan. Since 2016, city leaders and collaborators have been following what’s known as “Erie Refocused,” which sketched out what a better Erie will look like and how the city can line up decision-making around it.
People like David Tamulonis of the Erie Downtown Partnership are working to see it through.
“I think for cities like Erie [and] other midsize post-industrial cities, you need a combination of both recruitment of new residents [and] marketing of your city,” Tamulonis said. “There’s plenty of great stuff here. [There’s] plenty of great reasons to move here.”
Here are a few people who see the good reasons to live in Erie, but who also see things holding it back. Each is trying in his or her own way to help the city redefine itself.
Mabel Howard is the executive director of the Bethany Outreach Center, which regularly provides clothing, food, and literacy programs to hundreds of families.
That work is particularly important given income levels in some of Erie’s neighborhoods.
“Most of the families that we work with live in poverty, and poverty is touching them in some way or another,” she said.
Howard runs two businesses, Cafe 7-10 and a personal project called Mind And Body Education Link, in addition to leading the Outreach Center. Alongside taking care of her own family, she’s trying to make life a little easier for anyone that comes to her door — by listening.
Erie is awash in nonprofit groups and other entities trying to lend a helping hand, something people across the city tout as one of the area’s bright spots. But Howard said she’s seen a fair share of those groups define what a community needs before talking to those that live there.
“The only way to truly know what people need is to ask them what their needs are,” she said. “I might say that I want to give the community coats…but it may be summer and they may be looking at me, [and saying], ‘We don’t need coats!”
Howard said each person she meets works hard to provide for themselves, but some find it tough to access things like education that can help break the cycle.
“It’s just having the opportunity and the barriers being reduced so that you have that opportunity,” she said.
Immigrants and refugees from all over the world have come to Erie for opportunity. They come to improve their surroundings, and have helped improve Erie in turn. Erie Arts and Culture Folk Art Director Kelly Armor said the city has been particularly welcoming to refugees in the last 30 years.
“Erie has been a destination for many, many resettled refugees,” Armor said. “In the ’90s, there was a big influx of Bosnians and people from what is now called South Sudan. Then in the 2000s, there were a lot of people from Iraq and Somalia and Burundi…and a big community from Bhutan.”
Devi Subedi is one of those people. He came to Erie more than a decade ago after fleeing persecution in his home country of Bhutan in the late ’90s.
“In 1998, the government brought a policy ‘One Nation, One People.’ That means, we believe in Bhutan. People should follow our same cultures, traditions, customs, everything, but we are Hindu religion. We are Nepali,” Subedi said.
“When that policy [came], every Nepali who lived in the Southern Belt…the government started violence against the Southern Belt.”
Subedi said he initially fled to India, but after a few months there, he was rounded up by Indian authorities friendly to the Bhutanese government, and was deported to Nepal. There, he spent years as a refugee.
In 2006, Subedi was offered a spot in a resettlement program, choosing the U.S. as his new country and eventually ending up in Erie. He was the first in his family to arrive, but eventually got nearly his entire family of 11 brothers and sisters settled in the city. Subedi became a US citizen in 2014.
“I came in the summertime, and when I stayed living here for a couple of months, I liked it,” Subedi said. “It’s a small city for us, because we grew up in villages and small towns, so it is very convenient for us to work and to reach out to places.”
Subedi works at the International Institute of Erie, and has served as the president of the Bhutanese Community Association of Erie. He’s engaged in sharing Bhutanese culture and traditions and collaborates with groups like Erie Arts and Culture.
Subedi also knows what’s missing in Erie. He and others say the lack of a local community college makes staying in town tough for some.
“Maybe the younger generation who finish their school who cannot pay the fee for the private school, they might look for the place that has community college and they move out,” he said.
The city says it’s going to be getting a community college soon, hoping to offer it alongside the other universities in the area. Subedi said either way, he’s personally and professionally invested in the city, and its future success.
“It is…our home now because we love it. We know all the people here. We know all of everything here,” he said.
Corey Cook is a musician, father, and philanthropist, and one of the people helping to redefine what opportunities the city’s youth can access. He runs a nonprofit program called Life Through Music, and teaches Erie’s middle and high school kids the ins and outs of the industry.
“We incorporate technology, playing virtual instruments, recording our own music, mastering it, and those things to really give our kids the edge on 21st Century musicianship,” Cook said.
Cook says he wants to help students reach their potential amid the education funding challenges Erie School District faces. In 2017, the district consolidated schools across the board. Cook said that’s worried him as a parent.
“There’s certain schools where kids are flourishing. They’re doing extremely well. They love the experience. And then there’s others where there’s more challenges. There’s disruptions. There’s larger class sizes,” Cook said. “That experience really is based on the environment the kids are in.”
Many of the hundreds of kids Cook has worked with were fierce opponents of the consolidation effort when it happened.
“They understand that we have 20 kids in our classroom right now. If we go up to 50 kids in a classroom and one teacher, there’s going to be a problem. There’s going to be issues of disruption and everything else,” Cook said.
An audit of Erie Public Schools last year shows the district still needs millions of dollars more in revenue from taxes and other sources to offset its debt.
Cook said low educational investment in his community has been the story for far too long.
“Just like it took decades to get to this point, it’ll take decades to kind of get out of it,” he said.
Urban gardener Stephanie Ciner is among those trying to make up for what’s been lost in industrial departures and low neighborhood investment. She has a plot next to her house, and a brightly-colored garden she cultivated over the summer.
“I’m a very hand-scale operation. I don’t even have a car, so I’m out here with a wheelbarrow, with a digging fork and a shovel,” Ciner said. “It just takes time to get garden plots established.”
Ciner came to Erie in 2016 as a member of the service group Americorps. She said she noticed right away that many in Erie can’t get to any of the grocery stores that lay miles outside the city center, a condition made worse by the pandemic.
“It became pretty clear that there was a greater desire to secure fresh food [and] make sure that it would be available,” Ciner said. “People were taking more time to cook and to think about their health and wellness.”
To help reinvent how fresh produce gets to neighborhoods in need, Ciner started Wild Field Urban Farm, one of a few urban gardens scattered throughout the city, in May. The lot she’s gardening in used to be a trash-dumping site.
In addition to selling her wares at the local farmer’s markets, she’s also been working with local schools to help teach kids and families about the plants they can get their hands on.
“That’s really the work that I want to do, more just than growing and selling food: it’s building community around food,” Ciner said. “It’s connecting people with where their food comes from, and hopefully getting people interested in growing their own things and doing it themselves if they’re interested.”
Ciner said to address Erie’s food insecurity fully, it’ll take a lot of other things, like better public transit and healthcare.
“Erie is still figuring it out. We know which neighborhoods are in trouble and we know the needs that a lot of people have said that they have,” Ciner said. “There’s just so much to learn from people, from their stories.”
The efforts of those four residents represent just a sampling of what Erie is doing to reinvent itself. Here are a few others:
Tina Mengine of the Erie County Redevelopment Authority said she hopes all these efforts will point this region by the lake in the right direction.
“A city like in any area is the heart and soul of a region or a county,” Mengine said. “So the city of Erie’s revitalization is critical, I think, for the whole region.”
Sam Dunklau can be reached at email@example.com
WITF’s Sam Dunklau produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism.
Sam embedded for several days during September and October in Erie, PA, speaking to more than a dozen sources in the politically-active community about what the problems they’re combatting in their community, even after the presidential campaigns have pulled up stakes and political reporting eyes have turned away.
Most interviews were conducted in-person in a number of Erie’s neighborhoods, and a few others were conducted via Zoom. Nearly all sources were asked throughline questions drawn up by America Amplified aimed at finding out where people Erie stood on concepts like leadership, the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and racial injustice.
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
I met most of my sources outdoors, and we each followed mask-wearing and social distancing requirements during each interaction. This generally made them more comfortable with talking to a guy who had just dropped into their community from the state capitol, a good five hours away!
To get them comfortable with having a boom mic shoved under their nose, I usually prepped them for what we were going to talk about, and gave extra assurances about being able to start over and collect their thoughts if they seemed particularly nervous. Communicating a genuine desire to get to know them and their story, whether it got included in the final piece or not, was crucial in my quest to get the best tape possible.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
I set up a booth at one of Erie’s downtown farmer’s markets in order to reach out to as many people in-person as possible, given pandemic-era restrictions. What surprised me was the number of people eager to give their thoughts about Erie and what it meant to live there.
In my experience, what was key to this engagement was framing. I had to know what sort of question to ask that could pique interest from passersby, eventually settling on: “would you be interested in giving your thoughts on Erie?” then expanding on what I was asking for once they agreed to a short interview.
Again, trust proved crucial. Doing everything possible in a moment to communicate to your source that you won’t betray their confidence or their willingness to share is how I’ve managed to secure what I have.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
Allow any conversation with a source to be natural. Sure, you’re going to want to extract specific points to use in a story later on and you’re going to want to ask all those journo basics (read: who, what, where, when) , but allow them to offer their organic views and feedback in the order they wish. Being open to surprises during an interview can yield some great stories, and is especially helpful when you’re just trying to get to know someone.
Also be sure to check and recheck your tape and notes for something you missed! This story was essentially a series of short profiles on individual Erie residents, so I had to pore over my notes repeatedly to make sure I had all the details right. I even texted a few sources after the fact to confirm details. Don’t be afraid to make contact again if needed! It’s all a part of showing our communities that journalism is a trustworthy way to share stories of what’s really happening.