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Hello out there!

Before “The Office,” Scranton helped fuel the Industrial Revolution

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By Chris Kelly


SCRANTON, Pennsylvania — Greetings from Scranton, graveyard of Gilded Age robber barons, cradle of organized labor and birthplace of the scrappy septuagenarian in the White House.

Pennsylvania’s only class 2A city is most widely known as home to the Scranton branch of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, but Scranton is a real place with real people and real problems. Really.

#ScrantonIsReal became a hashtag of honor in Our Stiff Neck of the Woods after a far-flung fan of “The Office” tweeted aloud about whether the city actually exists or was merely dreamed up as a pathetic setting for Pam and Jim Halpert’s Rust Belt romance.

Scrantonians are accustomed to seeing our city mischaracterized, but to have its very existence questioned was a slap none of us saw coming. We’ve been the Center of the Political Universe for the past five presidential election cycles. Every four years, the parachute press drops in to take the temperature of postindustrial blue-collar America in a “hardscrabble former coal town.”

The phrase makes us itchy. Coal built Scranton, but the last meaningful load of anthracite left here in the ’60s and took with it the prosperity it generated in the early 20th Century. 

Scranton built America. The Industrial Revolution was fueled by coal mined here. The nation expanded on iron rails forged here. Organized labor was born here. The statue of legendary labor leader and United Mine Workers President Johnny Mitchell and the bitter legacy of environmental and economic exploitation testify to the eternal costs of extraction-based industry.

We don’t dig coal here anymore, but many of us walk around with anthracite chips on our shoulders. 

When the coal barons left us for dead, other vultures went to work on the carcass. 

Public corruption became our lone growth industry. The city’s last mayor — a Democrat — and our last pair of Republican county commissioners went to prison for bribery and extortion. The Scranton School District is under perpetual investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

Two former state attorneys general hailed from Scranton. Both went to prison on public corruption convictions. 

Major potential employers routinely cite public corruption as a reason they won’t invest here despite a massive potential workforce and widespread access to major highways, rail lines, and an international airport.

Recruitment won’t be helped by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s disastrous approval of a near 50-year expansion of Keystone Sanitary Landfill, a misplaced mountain of mostly out-of-state trash that can be seen and smelled for miles around and will one day be visible from space.

But things are looking up. We recently elected our first mayor who is also a working mom. She is Harvard educated, a past employee of the Obama administration and, most importantly, Not From Here. She came to power with no strings attached and no debts to old guard operators. Also, she has the president’s cell phone number, and his predecessor’s, too.  

We also elected another working mom who is also the first openly gay member of Scranton City Council and a Latina to a school board that will likely gain its first Black director come November. 

However glacially, Scranton has been changing for decades. Its government is finally catching up.

Scranton is real. Are you?

Chris Kelly  is a columnist, assistant metro editor and writing coach at The Times-Tribune in Scranton.  Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly. Contact him at kellysworld@timesshamrock.com; or look for Chris Kelly, The Times-Tribune on Facebook.

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