In defense of Johnstown and a rebuttal of the Politico article

Jem Spectar and Ray Wrabley

posted November 14, 2017


Dr. Jem Spectar, president of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, and Dr. Ray Wrabley is a professor of political science and chairman of social sciences at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, co-authored this op-ed piece, which was published in The Tribune-Democrat on Nov. 13, 2017.


This past Wednesday, Politico, an influential news site based in Washington, D.C., and New York, published an article by reporter Michael Kruse titled “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.”

The portrait it painted of our city triggered widespread reaction nationally and locally.

We decided it was important to respond to a national audience to provide some context to the problems and challenges faced by Johnstown and the many other ‘Johnstowns’ across the country. We also believe it is important to look beyond the hand-wringing and finger-pointing of the moment and start new conversations around bold solutions that can benefit our and other communities like ours. We reached out to Politico because we thought the quick hit from their reporter had provided national and international readers a distorted picture of Johnstown, and we felt it was incumbent on them to provide space for context, if not a rebuttal.

Politico has not been responsive, so we are sharing our response in our hometown newspaper of record, The Tribune-Democrat, whose roots reach back to Johnstown’s days as a leading innovator in steel production and whose reporters have chronicled the economic booms and hard times, the catastrophes and resilience of Johnstown for over 150 years.

Kruse’s article graphically portrays the real pain, despair and loss experienced by our once thriving coal and steel community, and by most accounts has touched many a raw nerve and exposed one too many Achilles heels. While acknowledging the national attention he has brought to the ills plaguing our city, we contend the article also should have included a much broader perspective about our region, including spotlighting many promising developments and transformational changes underway in areas such as new technologies, health care, defense and education. Rather than looking at the plight of Johnstown in isolation, we contend that the better approach also is to focus attention on the broader context of the nationwide crisis facing severely or critically distressed communities (other Johnstowns, if you will). We contend that far from being an outlier, we are enmeshed in a national crisis accentuated by – among other things – policies that tend to favor accelerated globalization and related trade agreements without necessary and appropriate programs to contain or mitigate their impacts.

• • •

While globalization and technological innovation have been a bonanza to many Americans, the adverse impacts of these seismic changes have been especially severe in certain areas, fueling the decline, decay and despair that is enveloping once-thriving communities and contributing to the economic dislocation, social fragmentation, loss of solidarity and the pervading sense of a permanent recession for far too many. To counter these ills, we propose that among other things, our country should embark on significant, and yes, “bigly,” transformational infrastructure investments with special emphasis on communities like Johnstown, to create more well-paying jobs for our people, stimulate economic growth and create a more hopeful longer-term economic trajectory. There is dire urgency: Johnstown and similarly distressed rural communities are but canaries in the coal mine, screaming a la Munch at the ballot box, calling for an awakening of the conscience of our nation, summoning our better angels to work together to usher in another chapter of American Greatness!

• • •

The portrait painted by Kruse captured much of the zeitgeist, exposing a tale of woe and wounds distressingly familiar to locals and visitors alike.

The hemorrhage of three major floods combined with the “carnage” of a decades-long decline in manufacturing jobs slashed the city’s population by more than two-thirds; ensuing unemployment and underemployment fueled increasing poverty, ill-health and other stressors, embittering many and in some cases overpowering human nature’s better angels.

Weekly tolls of opioid overdoses and other substance abuse do not even begin to capture the full weight of wreckage wrought, heartbreaks, broken families, mourning loved ones – not to mention the loss of economic productivity.

The abandoned homes Kruse writes about often morph into blighted properties that cast a pall over once proud neighborhoods, providing haven to miscreants, reducing property values, driving away businesses, scaring off homeowners and demoralizing all. To top it all, local government leaders at all levels energetically struggle to combat this virulent cocktail of ills with dwindling state and federal resources, further compounded as the local tax base erodes (due to a diminishing population) while costs mount. 

Yet, Johnstown is so much more, beginning with the indomitable spirit, gritty resilience and great work ethic of its people; the basic decency, kindness and kinship of all its peoples, the myriad cultures, ethnicities and traditions that ennoble this historic piece of the American mosaic: E Pluribus Unum, Out of the Many One Johnstown (just as inscribed on every nickel)! The proud spirit of all its people is woven in red, white and blue, with an extraordinarily deep sense of patriotism that has led places like Johnstown to contribute disproportionately to the heroic 1 percent that shoulder the burden of the common defense, often sacrificing life and limb in the process. One visit to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (so ably led by Richard Burkett) would have exposed Mr. Kruse to the richness of the cultural heritage as well as the city’s historic contributions to America’s industrial might, thanks to the brawn of steelworkers and coal miners, as well as inventors like Arthur Moxham.

Powered by a spirit of resilience that has been tested like Job, this buoyant city has emerged from not one but three great floods, has weathered the loss of critical industries and has been fighting to beat back the ravages of rampaging globalization and tectonic technological transformations. Our city is not perfect to be sure but, like our Union, many people of good faith and goodwill are doing good work to make it more perfect.

• • •

While Kruse seemed to find so many of the warts in his all too brief sojourn, we think that he missed so many great vital signs of life that animate this place we all love to call home.

In addition to Bill Polacek’s JWF, Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC), led by the dynamic Ed Sheehan, employs nearly 600 people and has emerged as a national leader in advanced manufacturing, a pioneer of new technologies, many helping to power our national defense.

Our growing health sector received a huge boost recently when the world-class Windber Research Institute, under Tom Kurtz’s visionary leadership, partnered with Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the renowned billionaire physician, to develop new therapies to cure cancer.

Conemaugh Hospital struck a major partnership with Duke LifePoint and is working with the Jefferson Center to improve population health.

Homegrown tech start-ups are incubating successfully with one such outfit, Problem Solutions, led by the resourceful Mike Hruska, becoming internationally recognized for leading-edge software development.

Foreign investment capital is flowing into Johnstown as companies from Sweden, Norway and Italy, among others, operate manufacturing or technology companies in Johnstown.

Many of these endeavors are facilitated and supported by an energetic collaboration of community leaders from all walks of life and championed by consortia such as JARI, the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Johnstown Regional Partnership, under the leadership of the indefatigable Mark Pasquerilla. In addition, an energetic nonprofit sector led by the 1889 Foundation, United Way, ACRP, as well as numerous philanthropic and grassroots initiatives, are facilitating positive change.

• • •

The Johnstown region also is home to several institutions of higher education that are collectively transforming the landscape and (re)shaping the future of the region. For example, the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown has emerged as the regional leader educating for success in the real world due to the distinctive combination of relevant and current academic programs, immensely talented faculty, dedicated staff and a dynamic student body of about 3,000 promising students – not to mention over 20,000 alumni transforming our world!

A vital knowledge center and leading contributor to the region’s development, the university has responded to the needs of our constituencies by launching an array of new innovative programs including engineering, nursing, business and information sciences.

Along with its students and about 500 faculty and staff drawn from across the globe, the university contributes to a “brain gain” for Johnstown as its people work, intern, shop and recreate at businesses in the region. To cope with the growing need for talent to exploit the great opportunities of the Marcellus and Utica shales, UPJ recently expanded its engineering programs, added a highly sought-after chemical engineering degree and has made huge investments to transform its facilities.

Fueled by a robust commitment to real world action, the university through its CODE for Commonwealth and Country initiative is working to increase coding opportunities for K-12 students in the region as critical component of its mission to prepare our people the digital economy of the 21st century.

Other higher educational institutions transforming the region include St. Francis University and Mount Aloysius College with robust programs in the health care sector and Pennsylvania Highlands Community College with its emphasis on strengthening our local workforce. Together, these institutions in the Greater Johnstown area graduate hundreds of students annually, thereby fostering regional economic growth.

• • •

One of the greatest, if least known, treasures of the region is the natural landscapes and their potential to become even bigger tourist magnets in the future. In fact, the combination of outdoor recreational amenities and easy access to the arts, along with short work commutes, contributed to Johnstown’s high ranking among small towns nationally in a Quality of Life Survey completed recently by Pitt-Johnstown marketing faculty members John McGrath and Skip Glenn. While relics of its industrial heyday still define the city’s landscape, Johnstown is shedding its Rust Belt skin and emerging anew as an all-seasons mountain town.

Public and private partners coordinated by the Stonycreek-Conemaugh River Improvement Project have restored the rivers previously poisoned by acid mine seepage and heavy metals.

Each spring over a thousand kayakers converge on Johnstown for the Stonycreek Rendezvous to race and play on the rivers, swap gear and paddle the Class III and IV rapids in the Stonycreek Canyon, one of the longest continuous sets of rapids in the East.

From dry ground, hikers along the Jim Mayer Riverswalk Trail on the banks of the Stonycreek see the river and its abundant bird life and wildflowers close-up, and take pictures of the picturesque Buttermilk Falls on Johnstown’s urban trail that is part of the system of rail trails “with attitude” that weave across the Alleghenies.

Vision 2025, a grassroots citizen initiative supported by local businesses and philanthropic agencies like the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, led by Mike Kane, are carrying this momentum forward by linking environmental rehabilitation to economic development.

• • •

Each June, the roar of motorcycles echoes through Johnstown as hundreds of thousands of bikers and revelers from around the U.S. pour into town for Thunder in the Valley’s days of rides, parades, music and shopping scattered across downtown from the Central Park Gazebo and historic Bandshell (rescued through the indefatigable Mary Borkow’s civic grassroots action) to the historic 100-year-old Beaux Arts train station and People’s Natural Gas Park near the Cambria Iron National Historic Landmark at the junction of the Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers.

• • •

The hills of the Laurel Highlands are alive and throbbing with the sounds and sights of the arts.

The Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center on UPJ’s campus has been the premier regional cultural destination for

26 years, offering a wide array of performances from full-scale Broadway touring companies, music from the symphony to popular music artists, classical ballet to modern and international dance, and internationally known jazz artists.

In the Cambria City neighborhood, which once buzzed with immigrant families who each Sunday filled the Irish, German, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak and Polish churches that are found on almost every block, award-winning Certified Executive Chef Thomas Chulick and Denise Thompson support local farmers and foragers and serve a creative, continental cuisine at the stylish Back Door Cafe.

At Bottle Works, pioneered by champions of the arts including Rosemary Pawloski and Jeanne Gleason, resident artist, exhibit, create, teach and sell in the converted warehouse of the old Tulip Bottling Company – a venue that also hosts concerts, classes and ethnic dinners.

A block over, punk bands, blues bands and bluegrass pickers play live for music aficionados or hole up in the recording studio at Venue of Merging Arts, a converted church built in 1911 as St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church.

Late in the summer, the roar of motorcycles is replaced by the vibes and rhythms of blues, zydeco, soul and rock at the AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival. On hot August nights, music fans, craft beer in hand, stroll from stage to stage in the shadows of the mills and with trains clanging by, and cheer Greg Allman, Dr. John, Grace Potter, Boz Scaggs, Jason and the Scorchers and dozens of other nationally renowned performers.

On Johnstown’s Central Park, Jeremy and Jen Shearer serve up a creative and artsy cuisine, a huge selection of craft beers and live jazz, folk and blues in the intimate living room-like setting at Press Bistro. They will open Stone Bridge Brewery next door in late 2017.

Diners can stroll across Central Park to Harrigan’s Cafe and Wine Deck, where globetrotting Executive Chef Christopher Snee brings his skilled touch to the fresh Mediterranean menu, and wine drinkers choose from an extensive Wine Spectator award-winning selection.

Down the street at The Vault patrons are indulged with a full repertoire of salon services in a unique and fashionable setting.

Yes, Mr. Kruse, there are connoisseurs of haute cuisine in Johnstown, and they can find venues great and small that will stand their ground against many fancy big-city eateries.

• • •

Today’s Johnstown is not as much an outlier as portrayed by the Politico article. Whatever challenges Kruse observed are certainly not because of some inherent weaknesses in its people or because of unwillingness to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. On the contrary, like Detroit, Scranton, Youngstown, to name a few, today’s Johnstown is the result of the long-term neglect by the federal government of many but not exclusively former Rust Belt cities.

In addition, once-thriving rural and urban areas have been hard hit due to the ravages of globalization as many policies in areas such as trade and monetary policy have favored larger transnational conglomerates, often at the expense of domestic industries.

Of course, social scientists quarrel about the weight to be given to economic, cultural, social and other factors in explaining the social ills of distressed communities, but we believe that an unparalleled confluence of global economic and technological developments have hammered these communities especially hard.

Governmental resource infusions can make a huge difference. Parenthetically, it is difficult to imagine what the situation today would be like without the heroic efforts of the great U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha to help direct resources to our area!

• • •

While trade agreements and increased global trade may have broad national (and international) economic benefits, they also have costs that have been concentrated in the industries that once sustained the Rust Belt manufacturing towns.

The same is true of the revolution in automation and technology that have made U.S. manufacturers more globally competitive while reducing their U.S. workforces.

Supply chains are increasingly integrated, making it difficult to determine what is “made in America,” but it is clear that cheap Chinese steel, Chinese currency manipulation, and low wage and lax regulatory environments abroad have exacerbated job losses at home.

U.S. policies that hitched the economic prosperity wagon to a housing boom and Wall Street financiers failed to cushion the blows being delivered in the increasingly hollowed-out industrial centers.

In this context, the rise of Trump celebrated in many places across the Rust Belt was at least in part the physical manifestation of an aching cry for help, a collective Munchian scream of the so-called deplorables and woebegones. The people, as is their right, made an appeal to their government, they demanded more respect, they expressed their indignation towards some elites who too often legislate and lord over people that they never meet in so-called fly-over country; well-intentioned elites who often forgot the aphorism about the best laid plans of mice and men.

To be sure, we are not urging heedless protectionism here, nor are we saying that these trade agreements were necessarily ill advised. We are surely not arguing that they be abrogated willy-nilly.

However, we need to draw attention to the externalities or collateral impacts of these trade and monetary policies as well as other impacts of globalization.

More importantly, we are arguing that federal and state governments should develop and expand policies and programs designed to mitigate the impact of these changes.

• • •

Rather than being an outlier or some exotic special case, Johnstown may in fact be the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a harbinger of the fate that awaits other parts of the country when public policy decisions and governmental choices are insufficiently attentive to seismic social, political and economic transformations that are exacting a toll.

For example, it is projected that millions more jobs will be lost as automation and artificial intelligence combine in the next two decades.

What happens to these displaced peoples? It is projected that major ecological shocks will occur from climate change including the prospect of many coastal cities experiencing catastrophic floods rendering large portions of them unlivable.

There seem to be one too many Katrinas and Puerto Ricos in store, not to mention the prospect of looming disasters precipitated by fault lines such as the San Andreas. Attention to such vicissitudes should remind our fellow Americans outside the Johnstowns of our nation that natural and unnatural disasters could imperil even the strongest and most prosperous communities.

It could well be that the manufacturing job losses suffered by Johnstown, or Youngstown for that matter, would be a drop in the bucket when juxtaposed with the coming perils unleashed by automation and artificial intelligence.

In this regard, we see the current struggles of the once great city of Johnstown in its ongoing fight for resurgence as both allegorically and heuristically useful: We are the proverbial canaries auguring from the coal mine about what could happen elsewhere.

• • •

We think that Kruse’s article should serve as a cautionary tale, a wakeup call to our fellow Americans from sea to shining sea to join us in supporting a bold and transformational domestic policy agenda for American greatness that ensures that their own communities never have to endure Johnstown’s plight.

In this regard, we are calling for a monumental program of national rebuilding to revitalize our cities with an emphasis on America’s infrastructure.

We are calling on our public officials, business leaders and nonprofit organizations to work together to advance a set of legislative proposals and executive actions aimed at reviving our critically distressed communities by stimulating economic activity through significant infrastructure as well as investments in human capital. At a minimum, the nation must find the will and wherewithal to invest at least $4 trillion in a wide range of infrastructure initiatives, including roads, bridges, airports, transportation systems, the electrical grid, energy, schools and a wide range of infrastructure critical to national security. Likewise, huge investments are required to strengthen American education, from pre-K through 16, with emphasis on STEM disciplines and interdisciplinary problem solving and critical thinking skills.

At the same time that we are calling for significant investments in medical science research including ambitious efforts to end the scourge of cancer, Alzheimer’s and other leading-edge research that will improve quality of life for an aging population.

With the looming threat of greater automation, significant investments also are required to retrain displaced workers and unemployed workers who seek to return to the workforce.

Without robust investments to rebuild America, problems in severely distressed cities would continue their viral spread, bleeding through borders and boundaries, diminishing the general welfare, disturbing domestic tranquility, weakening the fabric of the nation and imperiling the global pre-eminence of the United States in the 21st century.

Rebuilding our nation, like putting Humpty Dumpty together again, will surely not be easy. Nonetheless, to paraphrase JFK, we are Americans, we do hard things; we do the seemingly impossible; we do such things because, well, we are indeed exceptional people.

Moreover, when it comes to nation building, we Americans have very significant experience with accomplishments to boot. We have spent hundreds of billions to rebuild broken or failed states, beginning with the Marshall Program that revived postwar Europe and Japan to the more recent bailout of Mexico.

It is time for some charity to head home, even as we must continue to tend to our global obligations as the sole superpower. We think $4 trillion in infrastructure spending (with a significant allocation to distressed cities) would generate concrete (pardon the pun) long-term benefits, including well-paying jobs for the American people, stimulate economic growth, restore lost dignity and pride, and of course, transform our national landscape.

Furthermore, private capital is likely to follow a large infusion of public funds, creating a multiplier effect.

While seemingly an astronomical figure, particularly following a period of significant budget retrenchment and national disinvestment, many estimate even more resources would be required to address all our long-term needs.

In addition, far from standing still, several competitor nations are nipping at our heels in the marathon to lead the future. For example, the Chinese are likely to invest even more and, we suspect, are probably thinking about building on their ginormous advances in super high speed rail by hyperlooping all their major cities in a few years. Moreover, earlier generations led by presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower took bold steps to mitigate the harsh impacts of the Depression, to set up the national highway system among other transformative projects. This was how the 20th century was won; people who had nothing to fear but fear itself built a hegemonic hyper-power that went on to lead the world towards democracy, freedom, open markets and universal human rights.

This is our time, our moment to work to together with a sense of urgency, to do the hard and seemingly incredible things necessary to transform our nation.

Imagine, for a moment, that we are able to connect all parts of the country with super high-speed rail or the Hyperloop so that Johnstowners can travel to find work in Pittsburgh, Baltimore or New York in 15 minutes! It is time for the nation that kicked off the jet age, undertook the first moon walk and launched the twin interstellar Voyager crafts to start cooking with its super-special secret sauce once again.

Working together, we would avoid the catastrophes of Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, maximize our collective wealth and “secure the blessings of liberty (and prosperity) to ourselves and our posterity.”

The key is to go forward together. Rather than point fingers or blame one another for the boat taking on water, let us rise to the great challenges of our time – not by attempting anything anywhere near as heroic as storming beaches of Normandy, but by simply joining in common cause and solidarity at a moment of great exigency.

Time is running out. The people having effectively “petitioned” their government with demands for respect, dignity and fairness are hungry for a change, now!

It is time to undertake a monumental nation-building project that would help end the seemingly permanent recession that has wrought great harm on cities like Johnstown, including fraying their social fabric.

Failure to take bold and decisive steps to rebuild our nation and stanch the decay would mean whatever is happening to America’s Johnstowns might be just the beginning. Coming soon to a theater near you, as they say.

Inaction and petty-thinking in the face of this grave exigency is unwise.

The canaries gasping for breath deep in the dark mines of all the Johnstowns of America should waken the conscience of the nation and move all to act in solidarity for our common good.

It is time to band together around our long-term shared interests, to leave the wounds of the past behind, and ever so resiliently, rebuild our nation together.

Take note, Mr. Kruse, morning is near the horizon; Johnstown is rising.