Posts Tagged 'NEPA'

Pennsylvania Snapshot

This is the Pennsylvania I’ve seen through my camera lens in recent years. Is it the Pennsylvania you know?

All across PA. 2011 through 2012

All across PA. 2011 through 2012

A tough nut to crack

True crime is one of the most popular sections of the bookstore where I’ve been working in Wilkes-Barre. The book I Heard You Paint Houses about Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran can be found in at least three locations throughout the store, and still people ask for it at the info. desk.

I know that scintillating crime shows on are widely popular but (anecdotally) the craving for these true crime novels seems to be greater here in Northeastern PA than elsewhere. Why are they so popular? Is there something about them that resonates with the NEPA identity? There’s definitely self-awareness in the region about rampant corruption cronyism (yet another way that being here reminds me of India!), and links to the mafia are more commonly referenced when discussing community or political problems than anywhere else I’ve lived. Here’s an example of a recognized case of corruption for which there’s no accountability: the government has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovating the vacant Hotel Sterling downtown, and absolutely no changes have been made to the site.

Or, to give a nationally known example, there’s the kids-for-cash scandal. Just two weeks ago a U.S. district judge sentenced former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella for receiving money from Robert Mericle, a builder of juvenile detention facilities, in exchange for harsh sentences handed out to juvenile offenders.

Does this atmosphere have to do with the popularity of true crime literature? The category contains stories of teenagers killing their grandmothers, partners murdering spouses, children disappearing and being discovered 18 years later after a lifetime of rape. It disturbs me just to read the teasers on the covers when I have to re-shelve them, and I can’t imagine why people want to read this stuff. But then, they see similar stories in the news everyday: a grave robber arrested, a deputy sheriff fired after being charged with assault and burglary, a couple arrested for sexual abuse of their foster son, and so on.

As an anthropologist, I want to make connections and analyses about the threads of identity and culture that I’ve observed in conversations and the general feel of this place, but I really haven’t been here long enough to make any conclusions. And I certainly haven’t done enough talking to people about these subjects to have those conclusions be well informed.

In both Hyderabad and Wilkes-Barre I’ve found myself missing the way Palestinians so eagerly tell visitors about various aspects of their culture. Without that opening, and without a particular “research” topic to investigate (I’m not an academic, after all), it’s more difficult to get to know a place and its people, as well as to formulate deeper questions. It’s also difficult to know how to ask questions when I’m not clearly marked as Other. Unlike in Palestine, to the people I meet in the Wyoming Valley, I may not be a local, but I’m not a foreigner either. Yet my curiosity about ways of life and political and economic conditions remains.

The Silver Lining

The last week or so has been trying. The car I drive to work wouldn’t start on Saturday so I’ve been taking the bus and scrambling for rides during the many hours in which Luzerne County Transit Authority—much like Lancaster’s bus system—does not run. It’s frustrating to face these challenges in a place where I have only one friend, though Tim has been immensely helpful and I’m grateful to him. I know the social stigma attached to getting government help for basic needs (a.k.a. welfare) is strong, but my recent anxiety made me realize how bad I feel asking for help from people I don’t know. (Trying to get a ride home from my new co-workers, for example). Is that just me or is it a larger societal taboo?

Anyway, though the sparse LCTA schedule means I have to leave an hour or two early to catch the number 18, “Shopper’s Delight” (yes, that’s really what the route is called) to the bookstore where I work, I am glad to know public transportation routes. And my experience on the 18 bus yesterday even made me glad that the car remained at the garage.

About a minute into our bus ride, a guy two seats away from me began speaking on his cell phone. After catching a few words, I whispered to Mitch, “he’s speaking Arabic!!!!” Perhaps accustomed to me gushing excitement over pharyngealization, he just nodded. Once Mitch left the bus to go to the grocery store, I tapped the Arabic speaker on the shoulder and asked, “tehki arabee?” (“do you speak Arabic?”). Of course he said yes, and a mutually excited conversation commenced.

I learned that my fellow bus rider was a 27-year-old MBA student named Mohammed. He had a down-to-earth demeanor and expressed a combination of delight and surprise upon learning I’d lived in Palestine. His family is originally from Hebron (al-Khalil in Arabic) but he grew up in Jordan and has never been to Palestine. It always highlights the injustice of the Israeli occupation to me when I, who has no cultural heritage in Palestine, am able to tell Palestinians who have never been there about their homeland.

When I said that the country is not like what you see on the news, Mohammed replied “you know about that?” After a year and a half of studying in Wilkes-Barre, I don’t think he’d met an American who was aware of the real situation lived by Palestinians under occupation, colonization, and apartheid. He had plenty of questions for me (a nice turning of the tables!) and was impressed that I have shared what I know about the West Bank through photo exhibits and talking to high school classes. That gave me a strong reminder to start finding avenues for such work in NEPA. We spoke only a little in Arabic, but we did exchange contact information with a promise that he’d help me practice Arabic.

Many things about my life would be different if I hadn’t started learning about Palestine at a college internship in 2007, but it’s pretty incredible to think that just four years ago I wouldn’t have recognized Arabic being spoken next to me, had no reason to speak to a stranger on the bus, and just continued about my life as I already knew it while a whole realm of existence I didn’t know about operated by my side.

I may not have mastered Arabic in the last four years but I do have an entirely new social language with which to communicate. Living abroad opens up dozens of worlds to enter while you are there, but the ways that learning about a new culture changes how you navigate your native culture may be the most beautiful.

Friday 5: Wilkes-Barre Photos

So far, my activities in Wilkes-Barre have a limited geographic range. The usual places to run errands, sometimes Kirby Park or a walk by the river, and the small number of businesses with wi-fi in public square. And more recently, up to the Arena Hub, a highway shopping area that features the large chain bookstore that I started a part-time job at this week. (Though technically that’s in Wilkes-Barre Township). I’ve also developed a running path for the days that I’m motivated to exercise. Today I took photos of some of the things I see on that path, which takes me downhill on the street where Mitch and I live on and uphill on a parallel street.

Wilkes-Barre is seated in the Wyoming Valley, and thus low-rising Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians are visible as the distant background for most views. These mountains were once mined extensively for Anthracite coal—which accounts for the patch-town style development of the area. Mining in the region declined as companies moved into the bituminous coal region, but the Knox Mine Disaster of 1959 spelled the true end of the industry here. When the roof of a Knox Coal Company mine collapsed, water from the Susquehanna flooded the area mine corridors and killed 12 workers.

I could go on but most of my knowledge about the economic history of Wilkes-Barre is second-hand from Mitch, who researches and retains a lot of this stuff. I absorb only bits of it. But! He gave a Wilkes-Barre economic reality tour to a bus-full of community organizers earlier this month, and would be willing to do it for others. On to the photos! Not all of them were taken on my running path. Or even Wilkes-Barre proper.

1. Houses come in a variety of shapes and sizes in Wilkes-Barre, but I’ve been particularly struck by the tall and thin structure of many homes in my neighborhood.

Tall, thin house

Wilkes-Barre; July 2011

2. Church bazaars are a popular summer activity in the area. They involve music, games, and lots of eating. Especially Polish food, like potato pancakes. This woman is selling Instant Bingo cards, and also wearing some as earrings.

Volunteer with Instant Bingo earrings

St. Nicholas Church Bazaar, Wilkes-Barre; July 2011

3. Gas drilling isn’t happening in Luzerne County but we are downriver from Bradford County, the site of the largest fine given to a gas company in PA. The pictured gas pipeline is a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

Natural Gas Pipeline

Plains Township; July 2011

4. The Huber coalbreaker is the last standing coal breaker in the area.

Huber Coalbreaker

Ashley; July 2011

5. No shortage of American flags in Wilkes-Barre. Usually, if someone has one on their property, they have at least five.

Proud Americans

Wilkes-Barre; July 2011

Rogue Blogging

I’ve been posting to this blog since I landed in Palestine early last year.* I’m often baffled by time, but the space between then and now seems particularly short for all of the life experiences it encompasses. I never had a particular vision for this blog, but it has certainly grown with me—sometimes reflecting my entrenchment in the spheres of journalism and politics, sometimes offering space to ponder my approach and effectiveness at teaching; other times documenting basic human observations, as anthropologists are wont to do. In recent months, the posts have meandered through differing terrains as I myself navigate a new life in Pennsylvania, the state where I grew up. More particularly, I recently moved to Wilkes-Barre, in Northeast PA (hereafter referred to as NEPA).

It’s a bit harder to write anthropologically when set in my own culture (perhaps I need to re-read Kirin Narayan’s famous article on native anthropology), especially since I’m not currently doing on-the-ground work in any field. Nevertheless, I’m excited that I’ve had more time to explore the virtual land of the blogosphere. I’m diving deeper into book blogs, and I’ve written a few of my own YA reviews for Canonball. This week I discovered a group called BAND, the Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees, which hosts a monthly discussion relation to the nonfiction genre. I’ve decided to join their July discussion, led by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness. The question is “What’s your favorite type of nonfiction?”

Check back tomorrow for my response. There’s a surprise: my answer is not anthropology!




*Technically my first post was September 14, 2009, but I don’t know what it says since I edited it for a new beginning in February 2010.


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