"Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information." - Edward Murrow
Collapsed walls, over-grown walkways, trash littered yards, smashed windows and dilapidated homes. These images display a ghostly neighborhood suffering from years of desertion and thoughtless mistakes. The tenants have long departed from this wasteland, blindly unaware of their own self-destructive tendencies. To them their exodus means nothing and their bond with the place is shattered, similar to the broken glass they left behind. Yet, their stories still dwell within the walls, leaving us with lessons to learn.
Blair County has a very rich past--ranging from colonial history to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Altoona became the hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad's (PRR) maintenance and manufacturing activities, growing the town with it. However, like other Rust Belt cities, the area fell upon hard times, as the railroad's stature diminished. To better understand the current plight, it is helpful to not only understand how Altoona was created but how it evolved during its history.
Jared Frederick, a Penn State Altoona History instructor, believes the beginning of Altoona's collapse started post-World War II. "The rise of the automobile, the interstate highway system and air travel brought the decline of passenger rail service. This eventually brought a dramatic deterioration to the PRR and the community it built," he says.
A 1954 business directory listed over 100 businesses and churches located from 11th to 15th Streets. Today, less than a dozen of them still exist. As the railway and trolley services continued to wane throughout the late 1950s into the 1960s, so too did the thriving downtown. It had not only been the center for retail business, but also for food wholesalers supplied by the railroad.
"Compounded with other nationwide trends, Altoona saw an increase in urban sprawl beyond the city's traditional borders," Frederick says. The creation of suburban strip malls such as the Pleasant Valley Shopping Center in 1960 and The Logan Valley Mall in 1965 pulled many retailers out of the downtown. Simultaneous with the PRR's death in 1968, vast redevelopment projects demolished hundreds of buildings with devastating long term ramifications. This destruction caused many citizens to become apathetic to the preservation of the community's historic buildings. The flattening of these notable landmarks seemed like a good idea at the time, partially driven by widespread deterioration and the call for progress.
Historic preservation and adaptive reuse doesn't come easily under any circumstance. Beyond the negligence and apathy, other challenges can sometimes thwart those efforts. "The older the building, the more difficult it may be to adapt it to contemporary use," says Michael Allison, a local restorer and preservationist. Yet, Allison also notes that stores and show rooms with a lot of open space built into their original floor plan can be more easily and cost effectively adapted.
The community's attitude toward old buildings has contributed to the struggles. "I don't think that preservation was of great importance to decision makers of the past," says Pat Miller, the vice president for the Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation (ABCD). "Our historic buildings had fallen into a state of disrepair and the economic benefits of restoration did not seem worthwhile," he says.
According to the United States Census Bureau, almost half of the city's buildings were built before 1940. These older homes tend to have blight issues if not taken care of properly. Additionally, nearly 2,000 of the city's 20,931 current structures are vacant, most of which have fallen into disrepair, becoming completely uninhabitable. Unable to prevent this descent, the city is drawn into cumbersome legal battles that frequently end with demolition instead of rehabilitation.
Ultimately, this regressive urban development continued gnawing at the city's industries and jobs, driving both businesses and people into the suburbs. This worsened during the de-industrialization of the 1970s. The economic trends that caused many Pennsylvania cities to falter continued throughout the 1980s as manufacturing and business districts spiraled downward. In Altoona, the last of the vibrant downtown stores such as Gable's and Kaufman's closed. Outside the city limits, cookie-cutter box stores continued to rise in the rural fields of Blair County. Altoona tried twice to reinvent its downtown during the next thirty years only to be confounded by economic, social and transportation issues. Some sporadic successes occurred but a sustained resurgence was elusive until Penn State and the health care industry made investments downtown.
Though the railroad still maintains a significant presence, its economic influence has dwindled. Only 15% of the jobs in the city are now considered to be in the production and transportation sector. Almost a quarter are in the service sector and another quarter in sales and office occupations. Though some of this seems like bad news, a transformation seems to be taking place. The "meds and eds" growth has moved "educational services, health care and social assistance" to the top of the census bureau's industry list for the city, surpassing retail by 12%.
Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico believes, despite the struggles, Altoona isn't doing so bad, at least compared to other mid-sized urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest. "Sometimes we, as locals, get tunnel vision and only see what problems we have, as if nobody else has them," he says.
Pacifico cites the $325 million annual economic impact of tourism and the prospects of a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone that will provide tax breaks to new businesses. He also thinks blight can be reduced by a land banking effort. This will allow the city to take possession of tax delinquent properties that are often seized by speculators who ignore property maintenance.
ABCD's Pat Miller shares Pacifico's optimism and believes that a restoration of pride in the community is a good place to start. "Pick up a little, pull weeds, cut grass and take care of sidewalks. Little things like this can make a huge difference. We must create a vision that all communities buy into--like making Blair County the 'litter free capital of the country,'" he says.
Ultimately, community aesthetics affect the tourism sector greatly. People tend to not just live and work, but vacation and recreate more at scenically pleasant places that have unique landmarks and attractions. Visitation and spending in a region decreases when suburban sprawl and urban decay ensues. It also impacts jobs, the business climate and general livability of a community. This loss of vibrancy and opportunity pushes Millennials to look elsewhere for jobs, recreation and residence.
Blair County Historical Society Executive Director Joseph DeFrancesco believes a broad based coalition is vital to the city's resurgence. Rather than concede the loss of younger people, he encourages them to work with community members to revive the county. "Millennials can change that. A vacant building is not a building that should be condemned; it is a building that is waiting for someone to come along with a vision and the ability to make something good," he says. "You should not see it as a dying town, you should see it as a town waiting for a new birth."
History Instructor Jared Frederick encourages everyone to stay hopeful. "Altoona finds itself at a tipping point in regard to its future. It will never be the town it historically once was, however, there is room for much optimism," he says. "Education, medicine and tourism are essential components for success. Above all, local government must nurture downtown revitalization, as it should once again become the heart of the community."