Friday, March 12, 2010

Easton: Stronger Suits.


Posted by: Gavin J. Vincent

I've always thought that Easton Pennsylvania was a peculiar place. An oddity at the edge of the state wrapped in a curious blanket of colorful histories and slightly off kilter pasts. It seems especially odd when Easton's rough hewn charm is compared to the sleepier, stuffier townships that surround it. Easton as a community both defies description and evokes odd reactions from people in surrounding areas. "You live in Easton? Why?" I've learned not to take this sort of reaction too personally, but I've never fully understood why Easton has such an image problem. (Its something I might make time to ponder in later blogs) In this entry, I'd rather talk one of Easton's strongest suits.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about the city of Easton, which stands out drastically in comparison to some of the other places I’ve lived is the city’s unassuming approach to diversity. My family arrived in this part of the North East after pulling up roots in a Mayberry-esque West Virginia suburb with about as much multiculturalism as being one of two black families could afford it. I moved
through my youth there gradually more aware of differences, and arrived here a boy keen to how our experiences in this American life could differ wildly based on them. Easton in the early nineties to the eyes of a green, bashful boy seemed wild yet not entirely unwelcoming. It seemed imperfect and slightly dangerous and yet somehow more real than the places I’d been.

In hindsight I know the jobless rates and subsequent crime of the early 1990s had been far less than kind to the Lehigh Valley, and with Easton’s unemployment rates typically climbing higher than national averages, it is unsurprising that the time period had been hard on its residents. So there I stood, wide eyed and intimidated by the pluck and swagger of the place, and quickly became aware of and heartened by something else Easton offered so casually. Diversity.

` It’s a very rare thing to live in a place-even in a world where an African American can aspire to the highest office of the land- where neighborhoods boast an ethnic population that deviates beyond a collection of one type of people. Ethnic enclaves or class based territories that keep us separate and marginal are still the norm in much of American society, and while Easton has its less diverse suburbs, the overall experience of this area is decidedly multicultural. Easton, over the years has developed a very different sort of neighborhood structure, one that either intentionally or otherwise fostered in the nonchalance in which people interact, court and mingle about this city. Race seems like less a binding, rigid concept within the confines of this city, feels like an incidental aspect of character more than a telling determinant of caste here. In surrounding areas and beyond people stay safely behind their good fences and warily regard the xenophobic other. This is less the case in Easton. The ethnic makeup of my neighborhood alone ranges from Caucasian to Dominican and all points inbetween, and it seems a matter none of my neighbors feel is peculiar. Biracial couples share stories about their long ago courtships with an air of casualness here you don’t get in some areas in the rural South. In Easton it often feels that people are considered by their character first. Since I was a child, Easton has always struck me as a collection of clever histories and colorful backgrounds, and everyplace I’ve lived since pales in comparison when it comes to that; Easton is peopled with hard living, charismatic individuals who honor diversity, and welcome equality in ways other communities don’t approach. These childhood observations have long stayed with me as I’ve been out in the world, and Easton, though misunderstood and undervalued by those outside it has always had a special place in my heart because of it. As the third most ethnically diverse city in Pennsylvania perhaps its that we don’t stop to consider the ethnic and racial differences as much as less integrated communities because its something long time residents have had plenty of time to grow into. As contact with other racial or ethnic minority groups becomes more frequent, the perceived differences tend to go away, making peoples who were once taboo or alien individuals, neighbors and friends. It’s an effect that I see on a larger scale when wandering the streets here. People are people, for all of their quirks and foibles, and their racial characteristics may matter less than other things. Its for this breezy casualness when it comes to integration and diversity that I first came to appreciate Easton. Its for these reasons I’m still pleased to call it home.

That said, what are some of the things you value about Easton? What quirky things make this city unique that non-Eastonians don't "get"?


Anonymous said...

Nice piece. And true.

Another great thing: Easton is bite size - not sprawling. Its a city with the dimensions of a village. So it is at once more urban, for reasons you name, and yet it is more rural. Best of both worlds!

Dennis R. Lieb said...

You hit the nail on the head with the casualness aspects of Easton's community make-up. Other things I highly value about the physical character:

Definitive edges and a well perceived center.

Regular, interconnected street grid allowing for choice of routes and easy getting around with just enough variation (diagonal streets at Wood & Walnut Avenues) to add visual interest

Some truly unique terminated vistas...example: the view north to the cemetary gates and south to the victorian home from each end of Seventh Street

Variations in topography (hill town)and hydrological features (Bushkill Creek, Delaware & Lehigh Rivers that provide scenic vistas without leaving the city.

One social aspect greatly undervalued by those not familiar with Easton is that high school football games are still played in a West Ward stadium, creating the opportunity for many students, parents and citizens to walk to games in the heart of the city and interact one-on-one about everything from the weather to business opportunites. This should never be allowed to change...are you listening EASD?


Sandra Walters Weiss said... thing to say KUDOS and thank God some folks get it. I am curious to see what happens as Spring approaches and people take to the streets.
Thank you for the links,they provided excellent information that clearly demonstrated what you were saying. With Spring just around the corner I am curious to see how this plays out.Thank you for casting a different view!

Sandra Walters Weiss said...

Oops forgot. Gavin that was one of the finest explanations of my neighborhood as I or one of my neighbors could not have written it better. What is great is that this diversity is what is the foundation and history of our City,and that pride is so often forgotten by the more negative aspects.I choose to see this glass as half full.Thanks

noel jones said...

Nice post G_Whiz--one of my favorite things about Easton and especially the West Ward is the diversity here. It is really hard for many people who have lived in New York City a long time to move out of the City, even when they're finally over the cramped, expensive housing and crowded streets and subways, to live in a place that offers none of the diversity that New York offers. When I discovered I could afford to live in an historic Victorian home in a neighborhood where I could see black, Latino, Middle-Eastern and Asian families around me, I jumped at the chance to move.

I think that part of the reason for that diversity is Easton's history of permissiveness--it has always been more easy going here--from its days as a key hub for loading covered wagons before embarking on journeys out West (which brought all kinds of people here), to the speak-easies of the prohibition area that New Yorkers snuck away to, to the easily integrated elementary classrooms of the Governor Wolf School in the early 50s without incident, and before the rest of the country.

Other things I love about Easton:

--That's it's a 90 min bus ride from New York, and the bus station is walking distance from my neighborhood
--The terrain--the rivers and creek bordering our compact, hilly city
--The pro-arts aspect of the community and government
--The distinct seasons--having grown up in Alaska, I really appreciate living in a place where the four seasons are distinct, and where even though I live in a small city, there is enough nature around me that I get to be aware of those changes in a way that I couldn't so easily in New York
--Being able to have a yard! Unheard of in New York (City).
--Having farms nearby where we can get super-fresh produce, and a farmers market downtown, walking distance from home.
--The character of all our historic buildings--I love living in a city that doesn't look like a collection of strip malls.
--Last but not least, the pace, the ease in which I'm able to get together with friends and neighbors spontaneously here--I love it that people love to hang out in their homes here, and enjoy long conversations--these are things that I had to learn to do without in New York. Everyone is too busy hustling just to keep it together there. It's much more relaxing here, even when life is at its busiest.

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

I have lived in San Diego, Montreal, Buffalo, Madison, Chicago, New York. In all of these cities, I've only seen blacks and whites sitting on stoops together, talking, in one place -- Easton's West Ward. A big reason why I love this place.

Sandra Walters Weiss said...

Call me the rose colored optimist but this diversity has always been a huge part of the success of neighborhoods and a foundation of history of the City. I walk out my door and can greet my Latino neighbors in their native tongue.I get the best sweet potato pie from the African American couple I have know for 20 years in the downstairs apartment and I get greeted by a group of neighborhood kids every time they see me, they come charging at me for hugs.A group of late teens early twenties stop by at least once a week to watch a movie,in fact it has become a weekly tradition in our house.Slowly as the weather turns nicer I am seeing more and more people out talking and breaking those barriers and Centennial Park on a nice day has a group playing pick up basketball while Moms & Dads push the young one's in carriages and on the swings.And to top it all off I hear the sweet sound of Legacy Ministries bells that always have me humming. Now bring on Spring and a few crocuses and we have a little bit of heaven on Ferry the West Ward!

Marty said...

Hey Dennis, I lived on Spring Garden not far from the middle school and let me tell you those games are a curse to the people that live in the area. The parking is already terrible and to come home from work to find no parking for blocks around is awful. And then the parking authority comes around at 6 the next morning and tickets you for "parking too close to the corner" instead of being there for the game when they can really generate some revenue. There is trash strewn about after a game and things more likely to be missing from your property. I am glad that I moved from that area. Besides that, we spent millions of dollars on a field at the high school where no games are played. Go figure that out.You want social aspects- everybody grab a blanket and sit on the hill at Easton High School and watch a game!

g_whiz said...

Great responses everyone! I think Mr. Leib makes an interesting point about the relative ease of the street grid being an asset. There seems to be a slight difference of opinion about whether or not the Easton Football games are loved by all, though. And for what its worth Mr. Jones' point about the negative reprocussions of game nights on the neighborhood are likely valid. And Sandra, that sense of community is enviable and to be commended. Thanks for sharing.