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Kelly Nuxoll

Kelly Nuxoll

Posted: October 22, 2008 12:54 PM

PA Steel Town Undecideds Torn: Hardpressed But Wary of Government Assistance


JOHNSTOWN, PA-- Since a supporter at a Palin rally here waved a stuffed monkey with an Obama headband, and the county's own congressman declared "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area," Johnstown, PA has become a symbol for the simmering racism that is coming to a boil in the last days of the election and threatening to spill into the voting booth.

But when I asked residents about Johnstown, most begin not with the rally of October 11, but with May 31, 1889, when a dam broke and a wave six stories high crashed into the town.

The Johnstown Flood, which killed over 2,000 people, not only fixed the town in the American imagination, but also served as a morality tale. The dam sat on the private retreat of wealthy businessmen, including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Fricke, who made their fortunes on the backs of many of the steel workers who lived in Johnstown. The steel magnates had neglected repairs on the dam, and the town residents had ignored the rising waters year after year. By the time the rain started to fall in the spring of 1889, the habits of the haves and have-nots were too well-established to avoid catastrophe.

For over a century, Johnstown, like much of Pennsylvania, was a center of manufacturing, flourishing under Bethlehem Steel. Generations worked side-by-side in the mills, and the laborers--predominantly German, Welch, Irish, Slovac, Croatian, and Czech--settled into multi-family Victorian homes.

The natural beauty of the valley only contributes to the sense of an American pastoral. Trees grow thick up the mountainside, and the trestles of the bridges are stuck firmly in the mud. Rachel Paul, 52, who has returned to her hometown from Boston to make calls for Obama, said, "Something about this place gets into your heart."

Yet, in the last twenty years, the population has dropped from over 100,000 to under 25,000 as young people have left for college or to find work. The five Catholic churches on the edge of town have had to close for lack of congregations and a shortage of priests. After years of laying off workers, Bethlehem Steel finally closed in 1992. In its place, the health care industry and defense contractors have moved in, bringing with them strangers and high-skill jobs that have edged out some long-time residents.

A surprising number of them are undecided. In an election where the candidates offer strikingly different policies, personalities, and approaches, it's hard to imagine that one could be too badly torn.

Race is often used to explain the high rate of undecideds--and residents admit there is some merit to the claim, although they object to characterizing all or even most people in the area that way.

Paul, the returned Bostoner, described the choice as something harder to put one's finger on than merely the color of a candidate's skin. Instead, she observed, it is a choice between self-sufficiency and collaboration.

In a town that had historically succeeded by digging in, making the most of its natural resources, and relying on family and close-knit communities, the interdependent worldview that Obama represents could be seen as a betrayal. Moreover, embracing a more porous society means creating relationships with a diverse set of people, whose values one may not share. Either way, one has to compromise something--which is worse, allegiance to a defunct past or confidence in an uncertain future?

Until November 4, undecided voters sit paralyzed at the bottom of the valley, able neither to change nor to stay the same.