Hometown

I’ve been thinking a bit about my hometown, Masontown, Pennsylvania, lately. Once a bustling, wealthy, hyperactive boom town in the heart of Pennsylvania’s bituminous coalfields, it’s barely struggling to survive now that the boom is long-since over. Once-grand buildings get boarded up or town down, people continue to leave or to hunker down even more as things steadily decline. It’s really sad. I lived there almost all of my time on earth until I was 18, and while the decline was already underway then – the 1960s through late ’70s – it was a much more vibrant place then than it is now. There were so many great memories, and memorable people, and formative moments that I’ll always take away from that place. There were also lots of negatives, to be sure; so many that despite the warm memories I knew that my life and future lay elsewhere. Not only is it true that you can never go back, despite my fondness for the place I never really wanted to, either. Still, it’s very sad to see the town as it is today. It’s been in the news lately because the Hatfield Ferry coal-burning power plant that sits adjacent to the town along the Monongahela River and which has been a major employer since I was a kid, has been slated for closing in October. A number of years ago, Greenpeace broke into the place and climbed one of its huge smokestacks and unfurled a big banner on it – at the time, it was maybe the dirtiest, most polluting power plant in the country.

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I grew up in the shadow of these smokestacks. And I blame a persistent cough that I’ve had most of my life on the crap that belched out of them and dumped onto all of us below. So from a health and environmental standpoint, the closing is a good thing. But the economic effect of this decision is devastating to the town – just another in a long line of economic hits to a depleted and demoralized area. It really is a human tragedy, one with no easy answers and few if any that are clear-cut right or wrong.

I was actually hired to design a new city hall for the town a few years back – renovating a vacant drugstore at the main intersection in town to accommodate the new use. I was driving through what’s left of downtown early one sunny morning, with its picket fence appearance of remaining buildings interspersed with vacant lots where buildings used to be but which now remain only in my memories. The decline of the place, and the lost aspirations and hope that the empty lots and the empty wallets represented really struck me that morning. As I drove by, the following poem came to mind almost verbatim, almost immediately. It only took a few mental tweaks and was done by the time I’d reached my destination and could right it down. So…

Hometown

A mishmash of
vacant lots and buildings
where once a town had been.

Harsh beams of sun
where tall brick and mortar
once cast happy shadows –

a gap-toothed taunt
of dead men’s long-dead plans,
mocking the life that was.

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