by Jackie Phillips
My father was a coal truck driver for my entire life and for many years before I was born. As if through some genetic code transfer, I always felt like the coal region was an innate part of my being. When I interviewed at colleges in 2008, I talked about my dad’s job to a theater professor at my now Alma Mater of Muhlenberg College in Allentown. I suddenly became more intriguing. He asked me a series of follow up questions – interviewing me like I was from some mythical place that he scarcely believed still existed.
Even just a short one-hour drive away, my status as a coal truck driver’s daughter bred a certain degree of fascination and novelty. While I continue to cherish the uniqueness, passion, and tenacity nurtured in me by my coal country DNA, I also reflect on another trait I appear to have inherited when I was born to a coal region family: A seemingly innate desire to leave the area one day.
I am not alone. A significant number of people who once called the Pennsylvania Coal Region home have made the conscious decision to move on. Obviously, the experiences of those who left Northeast PA, and their reasons for leaving, are incredibly varied.
When Anthracite Unite surveyed followers this year to collect stories about individuals who moved away from the coal region, employment opportunities proved the most common reason for this decision. In some cases, people packed their bags so they could put their college degrees to use. In others, jobs were simply not available within a reasonable commute or left them severely underpaid compared to peers in other towns and cities. Overall, about 75% of the 22 respondents mentioned work as at least part of the reason they left. While other factors were at play, it comes as no surprise that employment was a unifying theme.
The coal region is in many ways characterized by economic transformation and workforce movement. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European immigrants settled in coal towns as they found work in the mines, often helping to build and strengthen these quickly industrializing rural communities. This influx of largely Irish, Italian, and Polish workers formed the backbone of coal region life in the decades that followed.
In more recent history, recessions in the 70s, 80s, and then again in the early 2000s had a marked impact on the economic and employment landscape of Northeast PA. Steve, originally from Shenandoah Heights, shared the kind of story that most of us who live in the area have heard before. “In 1973, [the] economy was very bad. [My] parents had a hardware store […] and a building business. Bankruptcy was looming. Most storefronts were empty. No one had money much less work.” Like Steve, I heard my fair share of stories about shuttered businesses and a failing economy often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a household with two parents who maintained consistent employment despite financial downturns. Still, these stories and this ingrained cultural ethos (in addition, of course, to very real economic concerns) was a key contributor to my intrinsic drive to leave the coal region. Like Jake from Williamstown, I made a “promise to myself not to move home” so I wouldn’t end up “stuck,” and I wonder if this vow was due to both lack of jobs in my field and this bleak aura that seems to have pervaded the coal region thanks to decades of financial struggle and an evolving economic landscape. One anonymous respondent noted, “It was never really an option to stay. My parents basically drilled it into my sister and me that we should work hard, do well in school, and then ‘get out of this town.’” Like many of those surveyed, I got a college degree and found a job in another city – in my case Philadelphia.
Coal region towns are undoubtedly changing. Case in point, while jobs may be the primary reason for out-migration, they are, quite ironically, also the reason for the massive influx in immigration in recent years. Just as many born and bred residents are leaving in search of opportunity elsewhere, immigrants, many Latinx, have found their way from larger cities to places like Hazleton in search of work.
Between 2000 and 2014, the Hispanic population of Luzerne Country rose from under 10% to just under 50%. Many of these individuals cite better job opportunities, in addition to affordable housing as the primary reason for their move. The juxtaposition is striking – in terms of both history and today.
Just like European immigrants came to the area in search of jobs in the mines, new coal region residents are drawn here by jobs in factories, warehouses, distribution centers, and food-processing plants. Also much like their European forebears, this new crop of immigrants brought with them economic resurgence and the vitality of their cultures. Now, many of those storefronts that emptied in the 70s and 80s are being reopened as bodegas, barbershops, and bars. Streets that were once empty are now bustling with people and activity.
While some welcomed this with open arms, others felt threatened as they watched the city they loved evolve before their eyes. This resistance to change was another key theme expressed in the survey. Next to jobs and education, survey respondents quoted this opposition, sometimes encased in racist rhetoric, as one of their primary reasons for leaving. For them, intolerance was hard to tolerate. Helen, who lived in Shenandoah and then Hazleton, noted that she “enjoy[s] the fact that [in her] new neighborhood, people embrace diversity and even celebrate it.”
While the common complaint issued of an increase in crime is not entirely unfounded, the divisive reliance on a narrative of a dying coal region “overrun” with Spanish-speaking immigrants has very little bearing on reality. In fact, the prejudices that some coal region residents exhibit toward the Latinx community feed a vicious and ironic cycle of economic struggle and blame.
It is no question that the Coal Region is in the midst of an evolving, and in part failing, economic climate, like many rural communities in the United States. The quickly growing Latinx population has become an easy scapegoat for these ills. In turn, some coal region residents, many from younger generations, plant roots in cities and other locations that foster diversity rather than condemn it. In this way, the unapologetic stereotyping of our new Hispanic neighbors as inherently criminal might even be considered one of the driving forces behind the region’s continued decline. At the very least, it’s a contributing factor to the mass migration of many of the Anthracite Coal Region’s younger residents.
At the end of the day, I suspect we can all learn something by exploring the many similarities coal region residents share – whether past or present, lifelong or newly settled. We all want to be gainfully employed. We all want a bright future and high-quality education for our children. We all want to be happy. And while, as one anonymous survey respondent noted, we cannot fight “an uphill battle against economic forces that are beyond anyone’s control,” in my opinion, we can band together. Banding together is more important than ever, in light of the ongoing political threats targeting our Latinx peers. Ultimately, once we realize we are all more alike than different, it becomes almost second nature to work toward the common good of all people – in Northeast PA, the country, and the world.