Erie, Saegertown and Our Fear of Change

I was recently back in Saegertown. My home town. I’m never down there anymore. Ever since my parents moved to Meadville a few years ago, I’ve had absolutely no reason to return. Like many small-town kids, I grew up wishing for the day that I would be able to leave that town forever.

I saw Saegertown as small and unimportant. A town filled with people who only aspired to be small and unimportant. I saw adults spending their entire lives hanging out with the same people, going to the same places and talking about the same things and knew it had been that way for them since childhood. A place where nothing ever changed, and I craved that change.

A sign welcoming visitors to Saegertown located at the roundabout where Route 6 meets Route 19.

That’s why it felt so strange being back in town. I had recently reconnected with a former teacher of mine on Twitter to discuss podcasting and content creating. She is the faculty advisor to the Panther Press, the school newspaper, and was looking to help her students make a foray into podcasting. Fortunately, I was the best local podcaster with Saegertown ties that they could find on short notice.

I arrived in town a few hours early. Not known for my punctionality, I had decided it would be better to grab lunch down there to make sure I was on time for once. My choices were limited to Subway, a couple of local pizza joints, and the surprisingly decent wings at the local grocery store if they were available that day. I figured I’d probably recognize some people who would see my face as familiar, but couldnt place me. I expected to walk into Saegertown circa 2000.

Instead, I realized that Saegertown has changed immensly since I took my diploma home in June of 2000. Sure, it still looks relatively the same driving through, but I didn’t know anyone. Many of those familiar businesses had different owners and different names. An empty field where we would play football as kids was now a bank. Houses where we bothered parents with sleepovers and Tecmo Bowl tournaments were now remodelded and occupied by new families. Most importantly, two roundabouts have replaced the two major intersections in town.

On the south side of town, the roundabout eliminated a vacant building that used to be a bread store. On the north side of town, the roundabout displaced six families and leveled the houses. One of those houses was my childhood home. Taking that roundabout will always feel strange for me. The setting for birthdays, holidays, backyard kickball tournaments and my entire childhood was leveled for the sake of improved traffic flow. Someone driving through for the first time would never know the house was there at some point.

While walking through my former yard and surveying the area, I looked up at the telephone poles and I couldn’t help but to laugh. They never fixed that line. It had been like that since the mid 90’s.

My brother and I invented a game where points were rewarded for punting a soccer ball over these lines. At the top, there was a small grouping for four lines that ran together. If you’re aware of the area I reference and ever wondered about the size of the gap between those wires, I can tell you that it’s exactly the size of a soccer ball. One of us (I’m the one writing and so I will blame my brother) absolutely blasted a punt straight up in the air. Instead of clearing the lines, the soccer ball became lodged inside of them. In an attempt to retrieve our ball, my brother an I tried to knock it down by throwing baseballs up at the soccer ball. Hoping to hit the ball, I missed and hit one of the hooks that held the lines into place. The bottom line fell out and a terrible metallic noise reverbed throughout the block. Certain that we just caused a major disruption to the power grid, we ran inside and prepared for what we feared to be an inevitable onslaught from the police.

The lines hanging over my former back yard. Yes, this was my fault.

I always assumed they would have fixed that when they put in the roundabout. Now it serves as the only proof that I was ever here. I had spent much of my life trying to escape Saegertown only to return and realize that my Saegertown was gone. Nostalgic for a place I wanted to leave. Shocked by change from a place that never changes.

It was foolish of me to believe that things would be the same down there. I had spent the last 19 years tirelessly working to improve myself. Why would I expect that no one else would do the same? I realized I had mentally put this entire place into a time capsule. I wouldn’t go up to someone I hadn’t seen since high school and expect them to still be wearing JNCOs and listening to Limp Bizkit, so why was I surprised that time also changed the town? That’s when I realized that I’m a hypocrite.

In Erie, I celebrate change. Tearing down some long-abandoned building and replacing it with a modern mixed-use structure is a win for me. To see Hamot and Erie Insurance invest heavily into their facilities while changing the face of downtown is something I find to be exciting. I roll my eyes at Erie nostalgia groups on Facebook who lament the fact that there used to be a Big Boy on the corner of 38th and Peach that was replaced by a Walgreens. That Big Boy has been closed for years and I sometimes shop at that Walgreens. Why would anyone prefer the ruins of a kitchy-but-forgettable chain restaurant? It makes sense now.

Erie’s future is our future. It’s my future. Erie’s past is not my past. My past is currently cutting down on accidents at a formerly dangerous intersection 40 minutes south of Erie. It’s easy to dismiss nostalgia when it’s not your nostalgia. Residents of Erie remember a time when industy was thriving. When the streets were safe and neighbors were friendly. They see current-day Erie as a crime-ridden dystopia bereft of gainful employment. The truth lies in the middle.

A city will always have problems. Erie had problems long before development of Upper Peach. Long before Hammermill closed their doors. Long before the ill-fated Transitway Mall project. The population has continuously declined for decades. Many that wish for the return of better days weren’t actually alive to witness them. Still, they remember the Erie of their youth. They’ve watched that beloved Erie transform into something they no longer recognize. Those that move away return to find their childhood memories have been distorted. The old factory is now a parking lot and the old Big Boy is now a Walgreens.

Returning to Saegertown allowed me to understand Erie. We’ve been conditioned to view change as a negative. Change takes the jobs away. Change renders us obsolete. The country changed and left us behind. They give us disparaging names like The Rust Belt and treated us like Third World America. A populace that dismisses those who promise progress as snake salesmen only to support a snake oil salesman that promises a return to the past. I didn’t understand why they thought that way until I missed a Saegertown that no longer existed.

Unfortunately, we can’t return to the past. The world has changed, and we have to be willing to change with the world. Luckily, we have some smart and ambitious people in Erie that are trying to do their part to change our future.

From the local entrepeneur to massive tax initiatives aimed at redevelopment, Erie is attempting to change. I know that can be scary, but we don’t have a choice. We’ve tried daydreaming about the past and it didn’t work. We told our brightest young minds about our robust manufacturing presence in decades past, but we did nothing to make those minds part of our future. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate the young minds that stayed as they work to make a difference.

The alma mater of Brent Liberty.

When I went into my old high school, I was surprised to see that very little had changed. My former teacher still had her classroom in the same spot with many of the same decorations still on the wall from my tenure at SHS. I was lucky enough to meet some bright kids who were interested in podcasting and journalism. Some of them were entertained by my speech. Some were bored. Most were probably looking forward to getting out of school for the day. All of them went home that night to their version of my town and assumed it would never change.

After the speech, I was invited back to continue helping them with podcasting in the future. I accepted yet another invitation from a school and town that I had left behind years ago. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a greater legacy there than a hanging wire over a roundabout. All I know is that I’ve never seen traffic flow better through Saegertown.

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