Nestled on a picturesque plateau in Pennsylvania’s northeastern region, Hazleton is the kind of postindustrial city that for decades looked as though its best days were behind it. That’s why artist James Moran revealed on canvas the vitality of his hometown of Hazleton not as he saw it, but as it was—when the city was in its heyday in the first half of the last century.
Moran, who passed away in March, was born in 1940, a time when the downtowns of American cities featured blocks of cinematic quality: neon lights, flashing marquees, bustling stores, and packed diners. In Moran’s youth, Hazleton possessed all these features, instilling a perception that the city was larger than its real size. And so, after the neon lights were turned off and the downtown façades had started to crumble, it was the more nostalgic vision of Hazleton that would inform Moran’s work. But nostalgia erases the hard edges and magnifies the romantic. It also undermines the value of the present. Which is why Hazleton is in many ways a perfect expression of the themes of 2016.
Hazleton’s prosperity was the consequence of geological serendipity. The city sits on the world’s richest vein of anthracite coal, which propelled a massive influx of immigrants to Hazleton from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Moran’s ancestors were peasant farmers who hailed from Donegal, Ireland; they immigrated to the New World to labor in Hazleton’s mines. Upon arrival, they settled in one of Hazleton’s surrounding coal-company-owned “patch towns,” and along with other Irish newcomers eventually established their own ethnic enclave—Donegal Hill—which abutted the city’s downtown.