On this episode of Grapple, we follow a thread of narratives about leaving and staying in Scranton with one of our reporters who’s got a personal connection to the city. Conversations include the ups and downs of business in the area, whether Scranton’s newest immigrants are fitting in, and how cheap housing and little crime could help Scranton grow again. At its peak, this northeastern Pennsylvania city had 140,000 people. Today there are about half that number of people. Historically, Scranton attracted various waves of European immigrants who came to be coal miners, as well as iron and steel workers. But by the 1930s, Scranton started experiencing major economic decline to the point where many left. Including Jane Jacobs who grew up there and went on to become one of the most influential urbanists ever, as we’ll hear.
Warren and Jean Leonard at Leonard’s Pharmacy in North Scranton. (Image courtesy of Laurie Leonard)
Our reporter Eleanor Klibanoff’s grandfather, Warren Leonard, was a pharmacist in North Scranton. He owned Leonard’s Pharmacy for nearly 40 years. As part of the family business, Warren and Jean Leonard’s four children delivered prescriptions and weren’t allowed to accept tips. Eleanor’s mother, Laurie Leonard, remembers what it was like growing up in the business. She and her three brothers, along with their many Scranton cousins, saw the pharmacy as a second home.
“So when we were little, we would go exploring in the basement. There would be old spindles of prescriptions and old bottles of stuff they used to use in the days before antibiotics. There were so many interesting, weird tinctures of this and tinctures of that. Everything was written in the Latin names in these old traditional, glass, apothecary bottles.“
Leonard’s father ran the pharmacy for many years and ended up selling in 1991.
“As time went on, the luster wore off. Things changed a lot. Chain drug stores started coming in and they bought up independent pharmacies. They had bigger stores and they had bigger volume so they could have lower prices,” said Leonard. “So, the square started losing business. Some of those old time stores started closing. There were empty buildings —that’s never a good thing. Things got a little crummier. My father had a couple of break-ins and robberies, so that was hard. The Square really fell on hard times.”
But all these years later, Leonard’s Pharmacy is still there and open for business. Eleanor stopped by and chatted with the manager, Joe Marchese. He told her about how business is steady — mainly because customers still want delivery — and how the area has changed over the last 25 years.
After Eleanor visited the pharmacy, she passed by the house where her grandparents used to live and mother grew up. They don’t build houses like this anymore: it’s all wood siding, with a large porch intended to catch the breeze, and a deep, cold basement. The house sits up high on a hill, along what used to be a really nice block of homes, and from that front porch, you can overlook the city. A grand view of a place that was once home to 140,000 people at its peak in the 1930s. Today, the population is half that. People like Eleanor’s mother left Scranton and never came back. And at the same time, big companies in the area started fading away, too.
Cathy Gavin has spent nearly 50 years in North Scranton. And she remembers how bustling the area once was with many different businesses all around Providence Square. Gavin started as a waitress at Stirna’s, on Providence Square, when she was a teenager. Today, she owns the restaurant, which has long been a gathering place for North Scranton’s politicos and business leaders. But she’s had to make changes over the years to stay open.
“Every city is facing exactly what Scranton is. It’s not unique. Everybody’s got all these struggles that are going on. Business, money, issues, politics – it’s all over. Middle class — that’s what’s most disturbing now is that we’ve lost that middle class.”
Gertrude Hawk Chocolates employs about 600 people in manufacturing in Dunmore near Scranton, Pa. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)
One company that’s still going strong in the Scranton area is longstanding family business Gertrude Hawk Chocolates.
During the Great Depression, Gertrude Hawk would make chocolates in her kitchen to earn some extra money for the family. For years she sold chocolates from her home in the Bunker Hill neighborhood to churches and for fundraisers. After World War II, she partnered with her son and husband and decided to expand the business.
Today, the company primarily makes ice cream inclusions and ingredients for national companies like Dairy Queen and Ben and Jerry’s. Dave Hawk owns the company and he talked about what it means to run a business in the area, and the changes he’s seen over time.
Many immigrants new to Scranton often first move into the city’s south side. There’s a growing Hispanic and Indian community there. Rita Patel is from India and she came to Scranton 10 years ago with her family. First, she worked in the TJ Maxx warehouse that, along with similar businesses, employs many of Scranton’s new immigrant arrivals. Today, Patel and her family are small business owners, with a convenience store that carries Indian groceries, and a restaurant they recently opened.
Safety and affordable housing have become selling points for immigrants moving to Scranton. Gus Fahey, director of community education and revitalization the United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania does a lot of work on the south side. He spoke about some of the prevailing attitudes around immigrants in Scranton.
“I worry that people that are here for the first time that have been through a lot of trials to get here won’t find this to be a safe refuge for them and I think that would be a real shame. Because for me, one of the things that makes me really proud about this community is that we are becoming a place of refuge for the rest of the world. And that makes me feel good. That makes me feel really good.”
Not unlike the immigrants he works with, Fahey has his own migration story. He grew up in Scranton, left for a while but then came back. Today, Fahey sees Scranton becoming a more livable place than it used to be.
“When I first graduated from college, I moved to Philadelphia and I came back for a five-year reunion. People said what are you doing? All I had to say was: I’m living in Philadelphia and it was like: you got out. You’re a success…that was a prevailing attitude. Get out. Get out while you can kind of thing,” said Fahey. “I don’t feel that now. I feel like the kind of people that I spend my time with see a lot of good in this place and I do too.”
A view of downtown Scranton from N. Washington Avenue. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
The ways in which Fahey sees the city changing, and what he thinks Scranton could become, might have appealed to another Scranton native deeply concerned about cities: Jane Jacobs. She’s considered one of the most influential urbanists ever. Born in 1916, she grew up as Jane Butzner in an inner ring suburb called Dunmore. Writer Glenna Lang is working on a new book about the late urbanist called “Jane Jacobs’s First City: Learning from Scranton, PA.”
“That was when Scranton was very much at its peak. And its downtown was absolutely bustling. It had beautiful department stores. It had a magnificent library. Wonderful natural history museum. It had theaters. It had all sorts of industry. Its population was hugely diverse. And these were all things that she noticed and were important to her. I believe the city hugely influenced her and her thinking; and was the basis for many of her ideas from the very beginning.”
Lang said Scranton’s decline had a big impact on Jacobs.
“Jane became very aware of how city economies work. Even as a teenager. Because she saw the decline of the coal industry. And the industry was affected by less demand. And she saw the city was too dependent on coal. So once coal was no longer sought after, the city just started to leach young people. And Jane was among the many that left because of that.”
Jacobs moved away to New York City where she successfully pursued her career as a writer. And over the years, Scranton was a topic she continued to write about. During World War II, Jacobs wrote a nationally acclaimed piece for a trade journal called Iron Age about Scranton’s weak economy.
“She used her writing skills to draw attention to the problem. And to try to bring industry, wartime industry to Scranton. Because of her efforts, the Murray Plant, Murray Corporation Plant came to Scranton and employed a huge number of people manufacturing bomber wings for airplanes in World War II.”
Later on in her career, Jacobs produced many influential works, including the 1961 groundbreaking book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
“’Death and Life’ was a plea to people to appreciate what was good about cities. And not to tear them down, wholesale. If you read it carefully and think about it, you can certainly see that Scranton is undergirding the book. In her later books, if you read carefully you’ll find many examples that she uses are of Scranton,” said Lang. “’Death and Life’ does not have the word Scranton in it that I haven’t been able to find. But the subsequent books do. And I think as she got older, she thought more and more about Scranton … she referred to it as her hometown.”
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: Al Banks and Charlie Kaier
Reporters: Eleanor Klibanoff and Lindsay Lazarski
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin