Imago Dei Politics is pleased to introduce our “A Sense of Place” series. With this series we wish to both share and re-encounter our homes, our communities, and our stories. In a time of disembodiment and the dominance of the virtual, we seek to celebrate the personal and tangible. 

 

Steel Mill Along the Allegheny River

When writing about one’s home, it’s tempting to go too far in the direction of either romanticizing or denigrating.  Our place is a large part of our story, and everyone wants their story to be special.  We want our place to be either a vibrant or idyllic place that taught us what to value, or a drab and provincial (or worse) place that we overcame.

Natrona Heights, where I moved a year ago with my wife and daughter (and since welcomed our second daughter) is a place that has pulled me in both directions at various times in my life.  Growing up 30 minutes north of here (and an hour north of Pittsburgh), the Allegheny Valley, which Natrona Heights overlooks, represented everything I romanticized about Western Pennsylvania.  The river.  The mills.  Nothing fancy, just people living their lives, going to church and ethnic food festivals and high school football games.

Old Allegheny-Ludlum Steel Mill

Now that I live here (following stints in DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh), I must confess that some more fanciness would be nice. Shortly after we moved in, there was a headline in the local paper “New Dining Options Coming to Harrison Township.”  The new dining options that constituted headline news were a Sheetz (good for gas station food, for what that’s worth), Taco Bell, and Burger King.  There are some thriving local business, but the majority of the commerce is chain stores in strip malls, and what would pass for a main street is a busy corridor of fast food restaurants not conducive to walking.  Volunteering to pick up garbage on Earth Day, I was both heartened to see neighbors pitching in to beautify the area by picking up litter, and extremely disheartened by the amount of litter there was to pick up.
Most of the neighbors we have met have long ties in the community.  The first two people I met on our block told me they had lived on the street their entire lives. The house we bought was once home to a family of 11 children, several of whom still live nearby.  When I tell people I moved in across the street from the high school football stadium, they know what house I’m talking about and mention the former owners before I’m able to get more specific.  The stadium itself is a wonderfully lively place to live near during a Friday night home game.  Unfortunately, it is far less neighborly during Saturday youth football when the natural noise of the crowd and band is replaced by hard rock blaring from the PA system.

Steel Town Football

It is so far proving a pleasant place to raise a young family, but there is nothing I could say about it to make a stranger oooh or ahhh.  In many ways, this nondescriptness makes Natrona Heights the perfect introductory post for this series.  Many, if not most, of us live in places that are neither idyllic hamlet, bustling bohemian paradise, nor crumbling Appalachian holler.  There is a temptation to associate “localism” only with those localities that have something especially noteworthy about them, but all of us live in a particular place, and are shaped by those particularities whether we are aware of it or not.  The CVS down the block may be generic, but the stadium, the middle school, and the house with the fire pit that I pass along the way are not. The cashiers and the customers are my neighbors; the fact that they are also strangers is on me.
Localism would be easy if we all lived in the Shire.  But even in places littered with strip malls, there are PTAs and shade tree commissions to join, community gardens to plant, Little League teams to coach, front porches to talk from.  And where those things don’t exist, there are people with whom to bring them into existence — people that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. I have no illusions about this being incredibly hard work, harder in some places than others, with crushing structural forces making it harder by the day. But the longer we put off the work of reclaiming our neighborhoods, the harder the work will get.

Allegheny River, view from Natrona

Steel Mill Train Tracks

Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament

Natrona, PA

Natrona, PA

Natrona, PA

Christmas in Natrona Heights

Evening in the Steel Town’s Football Field

 

The Editorial Board of Imago Dei Politics invites you to share a story about a community dear or strange to you. If you would like to share a story, some photographs, or an essay with us, please email your submission to: editorialboard@imagodeipolitics.org