Reporter's Notebook

Erie, Pennsylvania
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‘Years of Effort, Undone in Weeks’

Ember + Forge, a coffee shop that has become a center of downtown life in Erie, Pennsylvania, but whose revenue has virtually disappeared. Small businesses like this have led Erie's downtown revival. A new study examines what it will take for them to survive.
Ember + Forge, a coffee shop that has become a center of downtown life in Erie, Pennsylvania, but whose revenue has virtually disappeared. Small businesses like this have led Erie's downtown revival. A new study examines what it will take for them to survive. Courtesy of Nick Warren and the Erie Reader

It has been nearly half a century since Erie, Pennsylvania, was officially recognized as an “All-American City.” But beginning with the first of our repeated visits nearly four years ago, Deb Fallows and I have come to think of Erie as an important bellwether location, a representative small city for the America of our times:

  • It grew with a strong, classic-American manufacturing base, but suffered as its factories, like so many others in the “Rust Belt” region, closed during the globalization era of the 1990s, and again after the financial crash a dozen years ago.

  • But over the past decade, like other cities along the Great Lakes swath from Buffalo to Cleveland and on to Detroit, it has worked hard to reposition itself as a “Chrome Belt” economy, with advanced-tech industries (aerospace, sustainable energy, 3D-print and plastics) rather than mass-production sites.

  • During its industrial-boom heyday a century ago, Erie was a major magnet for immigrants, mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe. Now it actively promotes refugees as “new citizens.” Before the current clampdown on U.S. acceptance of refugees—about 110,000 four years ago, fewer than 20,000 now—as much as 20 percent of Erie’s total population was made of recent refugee arrivals. They came from Syria, from Sudan, and from other troubled spots around the world (as Deb Fallows described here).

  • The proportion of Erie’s African-American population is slightly larger than the nation’s as a whole, and its past (and present) race relations track the strains and inequalities of black-white relations nationwide.

  • At first glance, what you notice in Erie’s downtown is what is gone: the stores that are shuttered, the factories not making things any more. What we came to notice, on second and subsequent looks, was what was emerging: the stores being reopened, the smaller, newer workshops in the back rooms of old, broken-windowed factories, the little tech companies and larger start-up companies developing downtown. I described one of those firms in 2016 here, and another in 2018 here.
Performance at a gala benefit for the historic downtown Erie Playhouse, in 2016. This month the Playhouse announced that it was closing indefinitely, because of the coronavirus. (James Fallows)
  • Also at first glance, you see on Erie’s streets signs of America’s social distress—especially of homelessness, addiction, and grossly unequal opportunity in schooling. On longer exposure, we saw signs of efforts to reknit a civic fabric, from nonprofit organizations like the innovative Jefferson Educational Society (including its program to train cadres of future leaders); to the locally headquartered Erie Insurance company, which has invested heavily in new downtown structures; to numerous arts and civic organization we’ve described over the years.

In short, if you want to see the goods and bads of modern America, its burdens and its possibilities, go to the Bayfront, or walk along State Street or Peach or Sassafras in downtown Erie, and look around, more than once.

The battered-looking part of Erie, two years ago. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Now all of the United States, with much of the world, faces a public-health emergency that is becoming an economic disaster as well. And from the “representative city” perspective, the most dramatic change in Erie is that the very institutions that have led its nascent recovery are most imperiled by this moment’s economic collapse.

Small businesses. Playhouses and music venues. Startup tech companies. Civic-action and resettlement groups. These have made a crucial difference in Erie, and many other cities. Now all of them face unprecedented stress.

“The story of Erie is is a microcosm of the challenges many cities are facing across the nation,” Ben Speggen and Bruce Katz wrote in an illuminating report, issued yesterday. (Speggen, based in Erie, has worked for the Erie Reader and the Jefferson Educational Society. Katz, co-author with the late Jeremy Nowak of The New Localism, is director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.) They add that today’s Erie:

shows how a community writ large—and a group of remarkable, passionate entrepreneurs, and city builders—have been able to restore a sense of civic pride and purpose and put a city back on track, and how that years-long effort is at risk of reversal in a matter of weeks.

Years of effort, undone in weeks. That’s the prospect that Erie, and countless towns and cities like it, are facing right now.

Of course the pressure applies in every part of the nation, and restaurants and stores from San Francisco to New York are shuttered as well. But those cities’ ascent has been vastly more powerful than Erie’s uneven recovery. Battered as even the superstar cities are at this frightening moment, no one doubts that some time they will be back strong.

As for Erie? The Katz and Speggen report goes into “tell us everything” dollars-and-cents details for two businesses that have been important parts of the downtown revival. One is a relatively new coffee shop called Ember + Forge, which has anchored an important corner of downtown. The other is a relatively established local brewpub and restaurant called Lavery Brewing, which has been so successful that it recently opened a second location.

Both had been thriving; both have seen their revenue shrink virtually to zero; both have had to lay off most of their staff and are considering what it will take even to survive at all.

The full Katz and Speggen report is available in PDF here, with articles about it on the Drexel site and at the Erie Reader. I won’t attempt to summarize it, since its details are its strength. But I encourage anyone interested in the practicalities of American economic recovery to read it— and to compare it with some of the pre-coronavirus reports I mentioned recently. I completely endorse the “what comes next?” parts of its conclusion. In it they stress the complex, fragile networks that have allowed businesses like these two to emerge, and for cities like Erie to renew themselves:

On one level, a fast recovery in the long term (when the health crisis abates) is dependent on the nature and scale of the short-term response. The longer we can keep small businesses alive and workers employed, the quicker the recovery and rebound will be ….

Almost overnight, downtowns have eerily become lifeless movie sets— literally former shells of their former selves; the buildings are intact (unlike after a flood), but there is little or no business being transacted given the imperative of social distancing and the collapse of basic consumerism. If we can keep businesses alive, then the bounce back will be rapid and pronounced. If businesses collapse, then the recovery will be slow and painful.

On another level, the recovery will depend upon the kind of bottom-up responses and collaborative action that is a hallmark of Erie and many other communities. In our view, this crisis is too complex and multi-dimensional to be left to policymakers sitting in our remote national capitol. Rather, local networks of public, business, civic, university, and other leaders need to band together—now—to prepare their communities for what comes next and be a constant feedback loop for national and state governments.

At some point, the emergency will be over. Then the longer-term recovery will begin. Reports like this are important guides to what should happen next.

The Erie bayfront, on our first visit (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Trees are reflected in a puddle at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Over the past three years, Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about the lakeside city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and its reaction to the loss of traditional manufacturers over the past generation.

One continuing theme has been the importance of the city’s overall openness to outsiders—refugees, other immigrants—in trying to make an economic, cultural, and civic future for itself. (Yes, including recognizing decades-old obstacles for many of its African American residents.)

One example of Erie’s embrace of diversity, whom we’ve often mentioned, is a man in his mid-30s named Ferki Ferati. He was born in Albanian Kosovo; spent part of his youth in refugee camps; and has become a central figure in Erie’s civic scene, as president of the innovative Jefferson Educational Society. He and his wife, Katya, originally from Russia, recently had a son, named Adrian.

This month, Ferati’s father, Selman, suddenly died, at age 68. An appreciation of what he stood for, and the values he thought America might advance, is available online here. A sample:

Standing up for justice and opposing oppressive governments is what many dream of doing. Selman Ferati, the 68-year old, father of six, spent most of his life doing just that. He was among the first to show his opposition to the Milosevic regime (Yugoslavia), a regime that believed that non-Serbians living in Yugoslavia were second-class citizens …

Selman stood by his beliefs even as Milosevic carried out genocidal acts against Albanians and Bosnians living in Yugoslavia. His family became his priority, and he led them out of the Kosovo to Macedonia—and eventually (most of the family) to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1999. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Selman never showed fear—he led, and in leading, he leaves behind a legacy of integrity and action! He provided and encouraged his children to take advantage of their new found freedoms, to “dream more, learn more, do more and become more.”

Another tribute can be found here.

Sympathies to all of those related to and inspired by Selman Ferati.

To those who didn’t know him, his life is a reminder that idealistic people from outside America’s borders have continually prompted the country to live up to its own ideals. He had asked to be buried in his native Kosovo, but his spirit lives on in his adopted home.

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