Thursday, November 15, 2012


It is not just a trip to where I was born.

Persons of my age and my generation, who come from small cities
and towns, very often left home and made a life elsewhere. In my
case, I went to university and graduate school, traveled to and lived
in foreign countries, worked in New York City for about a year, and
then settled in Minnesota where I have spent most of my adult life.
When my parents, and my uncles and aunts, lived in my home town,
I visited there regularly, but over some time, all of them died. My
only brother and his children lived elsewhere. The very large family
of my parent’s generation, and the one before them, shrunk into a
small and scattered group.

Everyone has a different relationship with the city where they were
born and grew up. Mine was much more enduring than perhaps most
have, that is, than most who have moved away have.

The truth is that Erie, PA is one of America’s forgotten cities of
100,000 or more population. It is one of those places easily derided.
(One epithet: “The mistake on the Lake.” Another: “Dreary Erie.”)

Moderately old, by U.S. standards, it is one of those “Rust Belt”
cities on or near the Great Lakes that saw its industrial base of the
late 19th century evaporate by the end of the 20th century. It was
historically an ethnic, blue collar place with some unusual geography,
rich rural farmland and strategically located so that it could play
a curious and small role in U.S. history, especially in the 19th century.

The more notable places which surround it pushed Erie into the
shadows. Only a hundred miles away were Cleveland to the west,
Buffalo to the east, and Pittsburgh to the south. It was perhaps too
small to become a household word, and its collective nature too
reserved to promote itself. Until just before World War II it had few
colleges and no universities. But it did have a significant industrial base.
It led the world in the production of nuts, bolts and meters. It became
a notable plastics center.  Everything from toys to caskets were made
here. It had the largest fine paper mill in the nation. Since its beginnings,
it had been a shipbuilding center, and this continues to the present time.
It has one of the largest plants in the world producing diesel locomotives. 
Some of its companies were known worldwide, including Hammermill,
General Electric, Kaiser Aluminum, Erie Resister, American Sterilizer,
Bucyrus Erie, Marx Toys, Zurn Manufacturing, Erie Insurance Exchange,
American Meter, Eriez Manufacturing and many others. Only General
Electric remains as a large manufacturer, but it recently moved its executive
offices to Chicago. The only major local companies really thriving are Erie
Insurance Exchange and Donjon Shipbuilding.

What have arisen, on the other hand, are colleges and universities,
hospitals, and a tourist industry. Erie, PA is transforming itself slowly and
quietly from a blue collar town to a white collar town. Its large German,
Italian and Polish ethnic base is changing, as it is also happening in most
Americans cities, large and small. Unknown only a few years ago, Erie
now has coffeehouses, fine dining restaurants, a giant regional shopping
mall, the nation’s largest medical school, and a rich arts and revived cultural

Forming a large bay facing the city is a unique peninsula called Presque
Isle. It juts out into Lake Erie, forming a natural harbor and protection
from the ravages of the waves of the Lake. From its earliest days, Erie
was a port, and in the early 1800s it even had its own branch of the
Erie Canal (going from Pittsburgh to Erie). It was also an early American
railroad hub, but today has only two Amtrak trains stopping in the city daily.

Presque Isle, a pristine state park, has miles of sandy beaches that rival
south Florida, and sunsets with no national rival. It draws more than
4 million visitors each year, mostly in the summer.

Erie County's agricultural products, including sweet corn and other produce,
are substantial. It is a major grape growing county in the U.S., and now has
several vineyards and wineries. The back roads of North East, a community
in Erie County filled with seemingly endless acres of grape vines, would
remind one of rural France (except, perhaps, for the cuisine).

For a hundred years it was a political shadow in the northwest corner of the
state, barely known to exist in the eastern part of the state. Until Tom Ridge,
no Pennsylvania governor had come from Erie, and no national figure for a
hundred years.

In the mid-19th century, celebrities appeared and spoke in Erie. Erie was on
the national vaudeville circuit, and leading actors appeared in plays at its
Park Theater.  Presidents and former presidents visited. Erie was on the fast
track. The first American circus had its winter home in Erie County.
In the early 20th century, the Erie Philharmonic presented famed virtuosi to
local audiences, Jascha Haifetz among them. The Erie Playhouse was a local
professional theater with a national reputation, and several Broadway and
Hollywood stars performed in it at the beginning of their careers. Its minor
league baseball team, the Erie Sailors, sent some its players to the major
leagues. Bob Hope was married in Erie.

Today, Erie’s cultural and intellectual life is reviving. I have returned to
participate in Global Summit IV, a week-long annual symposium with
speakers such as David Brooks and Karl Rove. Steve Scully, also an Erie
native, returns to serve as chairman of the event, even as he now plays an
important role in Washington, DC as a top figure at C-SPAN and the White
House Correspondents Association. Erie’s historic port is also reviving with a
stylish new bayfront Sheraton Hotel next to a stunning new convention
center, both overlooking Presque Isle Bay.  At Erie’s piers, ships from
around the world unload their cargo. At Erie International Airport a new
7500-foot runway now accommodates the largest commercial jets. The city has
begun celebrating the 200th anniversary of Perry’s historic naval victory in the
War of 1812, an event in which it played a vital part. Speaking with Erieites,
I perceive a new sense of optimism. After years of returning here to “deary”
Erie, and its rust belt syndrome, I now return to “cheery” Erie.

It’s good to be home.

Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.


  1. Barry, I both enjoyed and was encouraged by your report from "home." Having recently returned to my hometown in Michigan (another representative of the Rust Belt) for our 50-year high school reunion, this column was especially relevant to me. One concern that I have is that the new vibrancy you described is confined to such industries as health, education, and tourism -- all life enhancing for sure and one doesn't even have to get their hands dirty. However, we all need "stuff" (need less than want, but need nonetheless) and if we don't contribute our share of "stuff" we become takers and we all know what happens when there are too many takers and not enough producers.

  2. Perhaps in a way Erie may be a microcosm of what large numbers of other communities and even the United States as a whole have to do to compete in a global economy. The absence of change and re-invention only leads to stagnation and decline. There would seem to be no middle ground. Erie has moved down a path that offers some hope for its future. For any of us that are satisfied with our own status quo there might be a lesson there.