If you look up my hometown on the web, the first photos you will see of the town are of this courthouse. It’s not because the courthouse defines the town, or the county, or in any way represents the vibe of the town. It’s because it’s the nicest building in the town. It is stately, an historical and architectural landmark, and with its solid sandstone structure it tells the visitor that this is a town that takes pride in its history – even if the courthouse is one of the last historical buildings – in a town that was founded in 1803 – left standing.
I grew up in this town – back then, in the 60s-mid-70s – it was more politically liberal with a population about two or three times larger than it has now. There were two industrial mills that supported most of the families who lived here, Armco Steel and Pullman Standard. It was the closing of Pullman Standard in the early 80s that started the downward slide of the town. My graduation class had around a 1000 graduates, this year the high school sent off around 425 to their futures. It was a great place to grow up back then. It was also a great place to put into the rearview mirror after high school graduation.
As a kid, we were given thought experiments, conjuring up images of what our town might look like in the far future of next century – the century we are in now. I always pictured the town to be the same, but better. Shinier. I always thought that the town would progress with science and technology, move along into our Jetsons and Star Trek future. I thought that in the very least, it would be a suburb of Pittsburgh, or at least a commuter town. That maybe the old Woolworths, with its lunch counter, would transform into a modern stylish shopping establishment with multiple floors added onto it, instead of the asphalt parking lot it became. But it’s now 2022 and there is no sign of that future here. Butler is still a country bumpkin, speckled with drug addicts and empty store fronts.
I spent a couple of days exploring the old Main Street while I was back home on family business. It has probably been almost thirty years since I spent any real time here. As I repeated many of my steps that I took as a kid, trying to remember what this or that empty storefront used to be, and being surprised at the number of stores that were still in business – like the Book Nook, Cummings, where we used to go for real cherry cokes, the Penn Theater that no one has the stamina to reopen or the heart to tear down, and Miller’s Shoes – I wondered if the town ever was what I remembered it to be. Crowded on weekends with shoppers by day, and cars cruising Main Street by night. Hot summer nights hanging out in front of The Hut, waiting for friends to show up, or going to the Tuesday night neighborhood nights held at the town’s neighborhood elementary school playgrounds. It was a life full of friends and family, some who still live here.
I still have hope the town will pull itself up by its bootstraps and make something of itself. Because I’m an outsider now, that’s very condescending of me to say. It’s a valid observation though. It is what it is.