For most of my life, my only goal was to get out of rural Pennsylvania. Like most students, I thought that this part of the world was stifling, oppressive and unbelievably small. I am from Bradford, PA, a town two hours away and very similar to Meadville — though the two towns are not without their differences. I am getting ahead of myself.
When I came to college, all of my new friends were from large cities, or, more accurately, the suburbs ringing said cities. Their distaste for their new home for the next four years was apparent. I watched as those around me struggled to settle into their new community, instead choosing to stay in the campus bubble or take pilgrimages home for the “civilization” that Meadville so lacked: Whole Foods, Target and Chick-Fil-A.
I understood their need to escape to the concrete-and-chain-store buildup of modern American suburban sprawl. I, too, missed things from home: the Kinzua Bridge, Red House Lake, Napoli’s Pizza and the Custer City Drive-In. What I could not stand were the constant attacks and condescension directed toward this area.
I began to not only love where I came from but also fiercely defend it. Maybe it was the implied stereotypes that swirl around campus about all Meadville citizens being illiterate, toothless, vitriolic hicks who know nothing beyond beer and pickup trucks. Maybe it was the overt declarations by almost everybody around me that Meadville, along with any place like it, was merely a faceless, nameless resting place only worth two lines in a future autobiography. I became fed up quickly, and I still am.
Rural Pennsylvania — rural America in general, really — is passed over. It is forgotten and deeply misunderstood. It is treated like the gray, ugly-yet-necessary mortar between the luminous bricks of cities. People come to Meadville or Bradford or wherever with this attitude and bend over backwards to confirm it. They study our communities in the way that one might study an anthill or a bee hive and, in my mind, report back to home office like they are in “Twin Peaks” or “The X Files”: “Just as I suspected — they’re all bumbling Gomer Pyle types with Walmart taste and a gun habit. They worship a foreign God named Dollar General and get their kicks rolling around in dirt.” We need to be seen for who we really are — not specimens or statistics, but contributing members of our community and nation.
The fact of the matter is that Meadville is not nearly as bad as most of my fellow students make it out to be. This may be a product of their backgrounds — it is, after all, a lot smaller than most are used to. However, it is also a product of refusal to engage. Sometimes I wonder how many students have actually walked down Chestnut Street on a Saturday or talked to a Meadville resident not currently employed by Allegheny. I wonder how many have actually bothered to get to know this town as opposed to spending four years shuttling between the campus, Sheetz and Walmart.
I wrote earlier that there are certain differences between Meadville and Bradford. I, too, am a product of my background, but in the opposite direction. Whereas most look at Meadville and only see a lack, I see an abundance. The truth is in the numbers: there are around 4,000 more people in Meadville than in Bradford and the median property value is nearly twice as high. Meadville has a poverty rate of 19.4% while Bradford’s is 30%. Compared to Pittsburgh’s rate of 11.2%, it is clear that neither place is thriving. Compared to each other, though, Meadville is relatively prosperous.
I did not need to look up these statistics — they were evident to me from the get-go. Meadville’s community seemed busier than my own. It still does. There are more small businesses downtown and they stick around longer. In the Market House, I can buy spices and ingredients that I have never heard of before. There is a yoga studio and several sustainable boutiques. There is an impressive abundance of community theater and arts initiatives.
This is a community that, while disadvantaged and impoverished, is still being tended to. Yet, it is an easy target, like beating up the small kid on the playground, and this particular small kid is the victim of a series of systemic problems and injustices that left him this way. When you are friends with that kid’s even smaller and weaker younger brother like I am, it is hard to see either one ganged up on without intervening.
My point here is not to write a polemic against “cityfolk” or evoke pity with the “you think you have it bad?” trick. But, for a campus that professes to foster such an inclusive, progressive community, I find the venom directed at Meadville and its inhabitants to be, at best, extraordinarily out of character, and at worst, hypocritical. It is indicative of a much larger political problem that we must confront.
I have heard students here — generally leftists, usually from urban or suburban areas — speak passionately about ending American poverty and uplifting workers, improving education, increasing literacy and decreasing violence and drug use. Then, in the same breath, they will make a comment about how terrible it is to live in Meadville, somehow unable to make the connection between Meadville’s current state and the idealistic problem-solving they espouse.
Meadville is not a utopia. There are “-isms” and “-phobias” of every variety running rampant in this community, and that is inexcusable. But, being from a place very much like this, I cannot stomach the total condemnation. Rural America should not be left to rot, and Allegheny students’ general attitude toward the City of Meadville is only a microcosm of a much larger phenomenon on the left wherein politicians routinely ignore or dismiss rural populations as beyond help.
This is the area that voted for Trump — twice. It is all too easy to write it off as a lost cause and move on to the better, brighter places. But think about how much greater our nation could be if we focused — truly focused — on these areas that cried out for help the most. What would happen if we devoted real time, money and attention to places like Meadville? What would happen if we fostered understanding, shifting away from distanced observation from outsiders and toward engaged compassion? I, for one, think that this is not only the best way forward, it is the only way. It must begin right here, right now, at places like Allegheny, where we have the power to connect. All we need to do is try.