Wilkes-Barré and the Shadow of a Dark Future

by Shay O’Reilly

As our van hopped over the Delaware Water Gap, the Wyoming Valley spread out before us, houses glinting white in the bright January morning. The communities in the valley are a set of little municipalities. For every 100,000 people, there are 28 governments — tiny towns, all brought together by the deep veins of anthracite coal that, after a long struggle, made them rich for a time.

On the swooping two-lane road into Wilkes-Barre, we passed homes in various stages of disrepair and decay: from gleaming fresh lawns to crooked, boarded windows. There were fewer new houses than old ones, and most of the older houses were peeling at least. Dead leaves drifted in the empty main square, a couple of people crossing hurriedly in the winter cold; wooden debris piled high in an empty lot near Main Street.

Wilkes-Barre local Frank Sindaco told us later that the town wasn’t as hard-hit as its neighbors, that the lingering coal and newer industry had kept its community more stable than those around it. Still the empty storefronts and “for sale” signs on houses spoke of a community struggling for decades against the economic forces that ransacked the rest of the country.

First Presbyterian church was a majestic red sandstone building, its translucent stained glass covered in a fine metal mesh. We moved our belongings into the church, and met Frank Sindaco there. Frank, a Wilkes-Barre native, had seen the town’s struggle, and its recent crisis; he was a volunteer with Put People First PA, an organization we’d heard about from Nijmie the day before. He took us on a whirlwind tour of the city’s history.

 

The long-abandoned Hubert Breaker in Luzerne County, PA.

First there was the coal. The coal breaking plant reared up from the hills like a giant tooth. Up close today, its broken windows look like a rotting shroud; the plant, long abandoned, may soon be the site of a coal miner’s memorial. The coal companies owned everything at first, Frank said, including people: “To the people that owned these mines, human lives were dispensable.” Later organizing by the United Mine Workers released the miners from quasi-slavery. Major strikes rocked the region, and the UMW’s victories in Northeastern Pennsylvania became the cornerstone of the union’s spread.

But anthracite mining declined in the Wyoming Valley around the World Wars, after the reserves were exhausted and the cost of extraction became too high. Farming declined, too, although the industrial boom and expansion hitting the entire nation affected Wilkes-Barre, too, with manufacturing common.

When automation and globalization condemned manufacturing to a slow death, the communities declined too. The death of manufacturing and industrial work meant the weakening of unions and other community groups run by common people. Standing in an empty lot, Frank described the cycle now so familiar to many Americans: lost jobs lead to lost homes lead to a smaller tax base leads to service cuts lead to lost jobs.

Growing up in Wilkes-Barre in the 1980s, Frank did not know what homelessness was. But the 1990s crisis in the old industrial areas brought it home. With the old blue-collar organizations’ decline, only the Chamber of Commerce and the politicians had the strength to put forward a vision for Wilkes-Barre — and, as happened all over the country, they decided that the real problem was a lack of development. A rising tide would lift all boats.

We traveled to the result of their policies, past the ever-expanding casino: A big-box development area, with a Target, WalMart, and other cheap (and not-so-cheap) chain stores. They were the result, Frank said, of a “keystone opportunity zone” — a bribe to large chains to let them occupy the land, rent-free, for the first ten years.

The development organizations saw people suffering and offered service-sector jobs with little security, low wages, and few benefits. They also created a cheerleading campaign for the town, figuring that the real cause of the economic struggles was the people’s “hopeless negativity.”

As these policies unfolded, a new industry came into the area: natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing.

We drove half an hour out of Wilkes-Barre, through hills and farmland instead of modest homes. A sharp turn up a steep road brought us to the corner of Kim’s land. Below us was a gleaming industrial facility lacquered deep green: a natural gas processing plant, part of the fracking machine that’s come to Pennsylvania. That plant refined the raw product of fracking, with impurities — including methane and benzene — removed. Two towers released the shimmering waste into the air.

The natural gas refinery, built on leased land right across the county line in Monroe Co., PA.

 

Kim, a farmer who raises horses, and Scott, a filmmaker documenting the spread of fracking in the region, talked to us on the asphalt road. The plant had come after a neighbor leased fracking company PVR his land, they said, and with it came a host of troubles. The constant movement of the refinery caused houses around to constantly vibrate, raising concerns about structural damage; valves have broken several times, releasing spurts of gas into the air and sounds like a jet engine. “If two blow, it’s so loud you can’t hear yourself think,” Kim said.

If the plant somehow caught fire, neighbors would have an estimated 14 minutes to salvage their belongings and families before the inferno melted their homes. One woman who lived close to the plant woke up one morning with a rash; her water tested positive for arsenic. At the refinery hearing, a PVR representative told families that their children with asthma would not be effected, and that the emissions would be pure methane — a blatant lie. But advocates like Scott who did not live in the county were not allowed to testify.

Neighbors are filing a lawsuit claiming the plant is a nuisance, but beyond that they have little recourse. Natural gas companies prey on economic need, convincing farmers to lease them land without a thought to the future environmental consequences. They also target communities in economic shambles with promises of jobs. “There is money and there is jobs, but never as much as they say there is,” Scott told us. “It’s all for the corporate executives in other states. It’s not for us.”

“You have to take care of your land,” Kim said, shaking her head. “If your land is contaminated, and your water is contaminated, you can’t feed anybody. Every farmer knows that.”

The refinery is unmanned. As Union student Karenna Schiff pointed out on the van ride back to the church, it is literally inhuman: A machine steadily extracting value from the land, uncaring for the imperiled lives around it.

The gas-rich Marcellus shale will be exhausted in 40 years, and Frank predicted another coal situation: “Industry comes in, sucks everything out, destroys everything, and leaves people behind.” Decaying monuments to coal stand across Northeastern Pennsylvania, and there is fear among the farmers and the organizers that fracking’s legacy will be more permanent.

Wilkes-Barre is in crisis, caught in another cycle of declining city income and joblessness; new and unaffordable “eco-friendly” developments stood empty at the edge of downtown, near the recently-privatized hospital. Whole sections of the city have lost fire coverage after the city closed fire stations to save money. And the only answers put forth by the city government are more capitulation to corporate interests, and more free-market solutions that put profit ahead of people.

In fact, the rise of mechanization untethers profits from the people who used to produce them. Kim goes to bed tonight with her house shaking from the machine at the bottom of the hill, no human worker observing as it extracts value from the flesh of the earth. Townships now lobby corporations (and not vice versa) for relocation, losing tax dollars in the process and hurting local businesses.

It reminds me of an essay in Jacobin magazine by Peter Frase just a few years ago about the future of our political economy: whether we would have scarcity or abundance, hierarchy or mutuality. Frase describes the most disturbing option, scarcity and hierarchy, as “exterminism,” “communism for the few”: as the majority of the population becomes no longer useful for the elites, they withdraw to enclaves of plenty (guarded by ever-more-elaborate protections) while the rest starve.

In some ways a shadow of this darkest future (and Frase admits it is Platonic, abstract) already exists, although not in totality: Like the coal companies stripping the anthracite veins, the multinational corporations use up cities like Wilkes-Barre, and then both leave. For now consumers are still useful, although the diminishing purchasing power of post-immiseration consumers will force businesses to evolve. At that point, if we get there, poverty will have already spread and deepened.

Frase’s tortured vision of exterminism, a terror that haunts me as I settle in for the night in the Presbyterian church, would mean the triumph of evil. Our theological reflection tonight revealed numerous perspectives but one underlying truth: we all believe that God does not support injustice, and that human beings are gifted with both the responsibility and free will to struggle against it. This, as Rev. Liz Theoharis points out, is historically a rare and revolutionary belief.

The story of Wilkes-Barre is not one of despair. There is a solid determined hope, one that echoes through history in miners and reformers. People like Frank Sindaco, who gave us a tour he gave so many people before us, are organizing, building a coalition of the poor, people who are best able to lay claim to a better future. Their story does not end when coal, or industry, or fracking, leaves. On this trip we will see the grim shadows of American society, but (I have been promised) we will also see glory in the people striving. The purpose of this course is, after all, to understand both the task ahead of us and how people rise to face it.

We will learn about that tomorrow.

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