How Scranton Became the New Peoria

How Scranton Became the New Peoria

By Mark Jurkowitz - August 27, 2008

For a long time, Scranton, a declining old coal town tucked away in the rolling hills of Northeastern Pennsylvania, was the Rodney Dangerfield of cities.

Its most memorable moment in pop culture came in a 1972 episode of "All in the Family" when Edith Bunker was coping with menopause. In a scene clearly intended to depict the irrationality of a woman at war with her hormones, Edith turns down a trip to Florida for another destination. "I wanna go to Scranton," she insists as Archie cringes.

In some quarters, Scranton still can't get no respect. Forbes recently named it one of America's "fastest dying" cities, citing population decline, an unemployment rate over 6% and an economic growth rate of a mere 1.3%. The bright side, the story noted backhandedly, was that NBC's Scranton-based comedy "The Office," gave "the city an excuse to start an annual 'Office' convention" that drew "thousands."

As a native of Scranton, it's fun to see a hot network sitcom that celebrates, or perhaps mocks, the quirky ordinariness of Scrantonians. And don't think we're not proud (The local newspaper website has an interactive "Office Tour of Scranton" to identify local hotspots ranging from a coal museum to the kosher deli.)

But the "Office" renaissance is nothing compared to what happened in the 2008 campaign. In the past few months, this hard-bitten city, known to millions of passing motorists for the junkyard that loomed above Rte. 81, has become the new Peoria--ground zero for old-fashioned American values, the psychic heartland.

It really began with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. As she began to focus on connecting more with regular folk, she embraced her Scranton roots--her father grew up in the city and she spent time there as a child--as a symbol of her grit and everyman empathy.

"I relate to people who may have been knocked down because the real test is whether you get back up and the people of Scranton are getting back up and they are doing what they need to do," the AP quoted her saying in the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary. And while Obama made remarks about "bitter" Pennsylvanians who "cling to guns or religion," Clinton claimed kinship with them, citing her experience learning to shoot a gun at her family's cabin at nearby Lake Winola.

Clinton not only won Pennsylvania handily, she found a theme that helped her beat Obama among working-class voters for the rest of the campaign.

But Clinton's embrace of Scranton was outdone last Saturday, when Barack Obama rolled out Joe Biden as his vice-presidential pick. Biden may have represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for the past three dozen years, but the most important part, of his biography now appears to be the 10 years he spent growing up in hardscrabble Scranton.

"He is still that scrappy kid from Scranton who beat the odds," said Obama introducing his running mate. Biden hammered home his humble beginnings, declaring that "I'm here for everyone I grew up [with] in Scranton," and stressing his connection to "the cops and the firefighters, the teachers and the line workers..."

Commenting on the speech, CNN's Gloria Borger said, "It's like he...isn't the senator from the state of Delaware. He was talking about Scranton, Pennsylvania."

"I think they mentioned Scranton more than they do on "The Office," cracked her colleague Tom Foreman.

Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to usher in some much needed economic revitalization to a place that has lost much of its economic base and struggles to keep younger residents from leaving. And Scranton is on a little bit of a roll right now. The city is home to the New York Yankees AAA baseball team, managed to turn a steam engine museum into a National Historic Site, and has a highly regarded Jesuit school in the University of Scranton. (Its adopted nickname, "The Electric City," however, most assuredly does not describe the quality of its nightlife.)

With its population of socially conservative voters who tended to be Democrats by birth, Scranton has been a kind of political bellwether in national elections. But for all the city's attempts to to "get back up," as Clinton would say, no one could have envisioned its emergence as a full-blown icon in this campaign.

In an election in which economic hardship and working class anxiety are crucial issues, Scranton has somehow become a symbol of both the ills and resilience of our society as a whole. And for the candidates, a Scranton background is a badge of honor, a way of saying "I am one of you."

The way things are going, Bruce Springsteen will probably write a song about Scranton. (Billy Joel did "Allentown," but he was off by about 50 miles.) All that will be needed to complete Scranton's improbable rise as the touchstone of this year's election will be for a candidate to utter the cliche, "Today, we are all Scrantonians."

Mark Jurkowitz

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