An American City Reinvents Itself

Posted on Friday, July 29, 2022
by AMAC Newsline

AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman

The Bayfront of Erie, Pennsylvania

In recent years, economic and cultural changes in the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern U.S. cities known as the “Rust Belt” have led to a seismic shift in the American political landscape. After decades in which these cities – which include places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Gary, Milwaukee, Scranton, Youngstown, Akron, Cincinnati and other urban centers – have seen a dramatic decline in both population and economic activity, some are now experiencing a resurgence, redefining their place in the American story. To understand this phenomenon, it is helpful to have a case study of one city that is at the epicenter of this economic, cultural, and social revolution.

There is perhaps no better example than Erie, Pennsylvania, which after experiencing decades of downturn is reinventing itself. Like many other Rust Belt cities, Erie lost population not only to its suburbs, but also saw large numbers moving to other regions and states, especially to South, Southwest, and Far West states where there were new job opportunities and warmer climates. Erie’s once mighty manufacturing hubs were displaced by global trade competition and the rise of new technologies and industries.

At its peak in the 1960’s, Erie had more than 130,000 residents, and was home to several large factories, including General Electric Transportation (diesel locomotives), Hammermill Paper, Kaiser Aluminum, Erie Forge & Steel, Bucyrus Erie, American Sterilizer, Marx Toys, many plastics manufacturers, and more — and was a global leader in production of locomotives, fine paper, meters, nuts and bolts, other machine parts, plastics, steam shovels, medical equipment and other industrial goods.

Today, most of the plants are empty, torn down or repurposed. The city’s population is now under 100,000, and the county’s population overall has declined. Unemployment has soared, and an unfortunate epithet “Dreary Erie, the Mistake on the Lake” was seeming to come true.

But Erie has some notable natural resources that other rust belt cities lack, including its location as Pennsylvania’s only port on the Great Lakes. Equidistant from Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, within 500 miles of a large portion of the U.S. population, and connected to it by several major thruways, rail and bus lines, and an international Seaway port and airport, the city is ideally located. A remarkable natural peninsula called Presque Isle forms a large protective bay facing the city, and a state park comprised of many miles of sandy beaches draws millions of visitors each year. For more than 200 years, Erie has been a major port and shipbuilding center — including its historic distinction as the site where a U.S. fleet was built, and from where it sailed to the legendary victory over the British in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie, led by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Past the narrow strip of lake plain, Erie County includes productive farmland supporting a variety of crops, including corn and fruits. The northeastern part of the county has vineyards and grape farms where a substantial share of U.S. grape juice is produced. The wine production from several local vineyards has grown dramatically in the past few decades.

Erie’s peninsula always was a major tourist draw in the warmer months, but in recent years there has been a great effort to make the city a year-round visitor center. The historic but aging city docks/port area has been transformed into a tourist and convention center, with several new hotels, a large convention meeting facility, museums (including the home location for Perry’s flagship, the Niagara), fishing and tourist boats, and a variety of new restaurants, shops and private yacht docks. At the entrance to Presque Isle, the old amusement park has been enlarged and upgraded, and now boasts one of the nation’s most highly rated roller coasters. Next to it is the Tom Ridge Environmental Center (named after Erie’s most well-known political figure), a year-round educational and tourist center. The site of important events in early U.S. history, Erie is now a city filled with museums, including what remains of Ft. Presque Isle (built in 1751) which played a part in the Revolutionary War, and the site in nearby Waterford of Ft. Le Boeuf, where a young George Washington came in 1754 to negotiate with the French who then controlled the area.

Erie has also seen significant development as a healthcare center for the region. Its three original major hospitals, Hamot, St. Vincent, and a regional VA facility, have been greatly expanded not only in the number of beds, but in medical service options, including cancer care, heart surgery, many other medical specialties, and rehabilitation. Erie hospitals draw their patients from throughout the adjacent region in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York – and Ontario which borders it to the north. In 1992, the Lake Erie College of Medicine (LECOM) was founded, and is now the largest medical school in the U.S. with classroom, training, and hospital facilities throughout the city.

The third area of Erie’s transformation has been in higher education. Only Edinboro Normal School (a teacher’s college) in the nearby exurb of Edinboro provided higher education in Erie County at the end of the 19th century, but new colleges soon opened, including Gannon, Villa Maria, Behrend (part of Penn State) and Mercyhurst. Villa Maria has closed, but the other three, as did Edinboro, have become universities as their campuses and enrollments grew. A new community college is also scheduled to open soon. A number of technical schools provide local classes and professional training. Offering a variety of baccalaureate, masters, and doctoral degrees, Erie area higher education draws students and faculty from around the nation and abroad. Currently, many of these schools are seeing some lower enrollments and financial pressures, as is true across the country, but they also seem resilient and hopeful for future growth.

Finally, Erie has recently become the new home for many refugees from Europe and Asia in a conscious effort to make up for the population loss as a consequence of rust belt emigration from the city. Founded largely by English, Irish and German emigrants, Erie has seen waves of Italian, Polish, black, Russian, Scandinavian, Hispanic, and Jewish settlers — and the recent citizens now give the city’s rich ethnic heritage new dimensions.

While the city’s former major manufacturing companies are gone, one large company that has grown is Erie Insurance. Founded by the Hirt family in 1925, it is now a Fortune 500 company, and a major presence in downtown Erie, providing new office space and facilities for its growing number of employees, now numbering 6000. Thomas Hagen, last of the Hirt family members in company management, has also been a leader in Erie’s cultural life, and in preserving Erie’s historic buildings and institutions.

Erie continues to provide a rich cultural life, with several professional and amateur theaters, a philharmonic orchestra, ballet and modern dance companies, and art museums and galleries. The world-famous Chautauqua Institution is located nearby and many Erieites attend its programs regularly. Erie also has a variety of professional sports teams, including Class A baseball, ice hockey, football, and basketball.

In the post-pandemic economy, all U.S. cities face continuing challenges. Erie is no different, but it is working hard to make a transformation, employing its resources and ingenuity. I no longer live there, but it’s my hometown, so I hope the reader will allow me some praise of the city’s struggle to survive and prosper once again.