Talking about Tamaqua
Comprehensive community development is a diverse field, with a wide range of communities, programs and people who are leading the way. In this new occasional series, our Loreal Mallett is talking with practitioners from around the country to hear about their work and how they approach the job of operating a comprehensive community initiative.
Micah Gursky is the director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership in the borough of Tamaqua in rural eastern Pennsylvania. He works full-time as development director for St. Luke’s Miners Memorial Hospital, a small community hospital with about 45 beds in the nearby borough of Coaldale.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Tamaqua, and, when I returned from college, I wanted to make a difference in a place that’s very important to me, my hometown.
I started in 1995 with working with the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership, not because it was the thing to do but because we were so desperate. Tamaqua has, over many decades, lost more than half of its population, has a chronically high unemployment rate, and we have a lot of issues. So comprehensive community development was really not by choice. We sort of had to do everything.
I can relate to that. In my community in Chicago, my grandmother has been a resident for 45 years, and I grew up there in a time when it still wasn’t too bad. But now I have no desire to move back to that community.
Yep, I hear you. The old timers talk about the good old days in Tamaqua, and I can tell you I don’t remember any good old days.
It’s a very gritty, genuine place, but it’s clearly seen better days. But we’ve been making some great strides. And one thing that really makes me proud is that there’s a whole generation in Tamaqua now that has seen nothing but improvements.
I have three kids that I’m raising in the community, so it’s personal for me, too.
I should also say that although I now live in a small suburb of Chicago called Justice, I am still very much vested in that community, and I want to see it return to what it once was, or better.
You know, when you do work in challenging communities, you have to be realistic about it. You can’t think that you’re going to be all things to all people. There are a lot of people who don’t want to live in a small town like Tamaqua, but there are a lot of people who do. So you have to be realistic about what your community really can offer and its challenges. You can’t just be a Chamber of Commerce-type that just pretends that everything’s wonderful, and you're attractive to everybody.
Do you feel like there are new, exciting ideas or theories for change that are being discussed and used in community development right now?
I think this concept of Sustainable Communities—this comprehensive community development—is still a new idea. Most of the people who I work with in other communities, they do great work in a very narrow band. They partner from time to time, but they’re very focused on a particular area of their community: a recreation focus, or economic development, or Main Street, or housing.
The most exciting thing I’ve seen is when you tie all those issues together. It’s very hard to do, but it is extraordinarily powerful, because it’s the way our lives work.
The most exciting thing I’ve seen is when you tie all those together, and you genuinely work on them all at the same time in an integrated way. It’s very hard to do, but it is extraordinarily powerful, because it’s the way our lives work. We don’t separate our schools from our house from our job. It’s all part of our life, and comprehensive community development just acknowledges that, and says, "Look, if you’re gonna improve the community in a real, holistic way, you have to address all these issues simultaneously."
After having done it for many, many years, what we’re starting to realize is that there’s a lot of power in it. You can use those seemingly independent areas to build on each other and to improve each other. A neighborhood park becomes important to neighborhood housing, and vice versa. A new business downtown is economic development—and is also providing somebody who lives in the neighborhood with a place where they can work close to home. We deal with health care at the same time that we deal with historic preservation.
The Sustainable Communities concept is still exciting for me. As you can probably tell. [LAUGH]
I love to hear people talk passionately about what they do.
I have the benefit of being able to do what I love to do. I could be doing something else, but this is what I want to do. It’s not the best pay. It’s not the best hours. And it’s really hard as hell, but it’s so rewarding in its own way.
Back when we started our efforts, somebody drove through Tamaqua and they wrote an editorial that said Tamaqua was the dirtiest, ugliest town they ever saw. They hated driving through it, and they really couldn’t understand why anybody would want to live there.
Now when people drive through Tamaqua, they get a feeling of vitality, and that this town’s really trying to make something of itself.
What is the most frustrating or disappointing aspect of your job?
A lot of the things that impact my community—and anybody’s community—are super-issues that you have very little control over, like the global economy. So even if you do a really, really good job in your community, you could still be adversely affected by these mega-, super-, macro-issues. And that’s frustrating.
We’ve been dealing with this for 80 years. Our community was built around the coal mining industry, and it started to decline in the 1920s and '30s. It’s frustrating to not be able to just wave a magic wand and make those bigger problems go away.
In these times, do you feel pushed to your limits?
Not at all. It’s actually sad because I see the rest of the country going through what my community has gone through over the last 80 years. I wish communities like Tamaqua had a good story to tell with how we deal with it. I’m not saying we’re happy, but a bad economy is old hat for us.
Now that there are mega-issues not just affecting Tamaqua but the entire country, has that changed the way you’ve tackled these issues at home?
We have focused on making our community a nice place to live. That means you need to have good jobs, you need to have good educational opportunities, you need to have a nice physical environment, you need to have recreational amenities. And we’ve been able to impact those things.
And being a small community, we’ve been able to impact them in ways that some larger communities can’t. Even though we have the same issues, ours are on a smaller scale. So we can make a bigger impact.
Tamaqua’s a nice place to be. Not everybody would say that that was always true. By working in comprehensive community development and trying to impact change that affect real people’s lives, we’ve made it better. We have a good local economy, and we still have some good base of manufacturing and other jobs. We’re at the point now where we need to start telling more people about it because it has worked.
How big is Justice?
Okay. My entire municipality is 7,000 people. So we’re about the same size. One thing that’s interesting—the issues in cities and suburbs across the country, the issues are the same, in my experience.
We’ve toured other cities and small towns, and we’ve met with other people to try to learn from them. What we see is that people basically want the same thing: They want a nice home and nice schools for their kids. They want off-street parking if they can get it, and two bathrooms, and they want a neighborhood park, and they want to have some recreational opportunities and opportunities for their family.
They don’t want buildings falling apart. They don’t want crime, and they don’t want blight, and they don’t want their kids to be afraid to go to school.
People basically want the same thing. And, as a community, if you can provide that, you get to be a competitive place. This issue of rural issue versus urban is really a bunch of nonsense. These are people issues.
What we’ve tried to do in Tamaqua is build amenities, build educational opportunities, build job opportunities, and make a nice community around what we have.
Absolutely. To have a place in Chicago with the same amenities I have in Justice would cost double. Those quality-of-life differences mean I made a decision not to live in the city anymore. People want those quality-of-life points.
You gotta be able to have a mortgage that you can afford, and a job that can support you and your family, and have a little extra money to go out and do something fun with your family sometime.
There’s a tradeoff there. The job opportunities are more limited, and you’re geographically remote from urban areas. So what we’ve tried to do in Tamaqua is build amenities, build educational opportunities, build job opportunities, and make a nice community around what we have. That's one difference that Justice has or Tamaqua: Housing is affordable. When I bought my first house in Tamaqua, we paid $31,000 for it. It was a three-bedroom with two bathrooms and a garage.
If somebody wants life in the fast lane, they should go to Chicago or San Francisco or Philadelphia. Not Tamaqua. It’s like Popeye says, "I am what I am." Tamaqua’s a gritty old coal town, and we always will be.
But we’re a damn good gritty old coal town now.
Can you give specific examples of how the LISC Building Sustainable Communities initiative was able to make a difference in the community because it was comprehensive?
One of the most exciting things that has happened as part of our efforts in the community is there’s a new branch of a community college that located into Tamaqua.
We had no higher education opportunities at all in our community, and now we have a new branch campus of a community college. That’s comprehensive for a couple reasons.
One is certainly the educational opportunity that it provides. But the community college and the charitable foundation that helped them establish it—they literally put this campus right in the middle of our South Ward neighborhood, which was a neighborhood that we wanted to focus on.
It maybe more easily been put out in the middle of nowhere, but they specifically put it in the heart of the community, really close to our high school and really close to our neighborhood park, and within walking distance of the downtown. And they did it so that people could access it.
They used one of the old fire company’s buildings. And so the fire company had to move, just next door, and they were able to expand. And so now also it becomes a public safety improvement.
By itself it would be an educational piece, and a big one, a big improvement from no educational opportunities. But when you put it into the neighborhood, you now have that multiplier effect, where now you’re impacting the homes around it and the neighborhood around it, and it becomes a neighborhood improvement, a quality-of-life improvement.
People see that the community development is being done in a purposeful and thoughtful and impactful manner, and they want to be part of that. It’s really cool.
Once that campus was established, we had a philanthropist come forward and help them renovate a building into a student center. And the foundation that helped build the college actually provides scholarships for local high school students to attend the college for two years for free.
So this is really dramatically impacting peoples’ lives by giving them access to education that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
And then what happened was, after that another philanthropist came along and said, "Well, if you graduate from the community college, we’ll pay for your third and fourth year at a four-year college."
And so it compounds itself. People see that the community development is being done in a purposeful and thoughtful and impactful manner, and they want to be part of that. It’s really cool. [LAUGH]
This is motivating.
Well you’re welcome to come to Tamaqua and get pumped up, if you want. I’d be glad to show you around.
I’ll tell you what, Loreal, there’s nothing special about the people in Tamaqua. We are just like everybody else, but, if you think [the state capital] Harrisburg’s gonna do it, or Washington’s gonna do it, or even City Hall—they’re not gonna come in and do it for you.
They could be partners, they could help you, but you'd better know what the hell you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And you better be able to produce, ‘cause otherwise they’re not going to want to partner with you. But if you have your act together, they’ll gladly help you.
I wish every community would get working on improving themselves. Nobody wants to live in a community where nobody cares or where people are disenchanted and disenfranchised and not engaged and they’ve lost hope.
It’s not a zero-sum game. Just because Tamaqua’s improving doesn’t mean that another community can’t improve.
In something I read about Chicago recently, they mentioned that community borders are porous. Whatever good is going on in your community doesn’t have to stop, and if it’s something negative, it won’t stop at your community border.
Just like blight is contagious, so is revitalization. So is taking pride. I always love the people who are on the block and they their yard is immaculate and they take care of their house. I have so much respect for them, because they know that, if you do it, their neighbors are more likely to do it, and so on and so on.
We focus too much on the opposite, which is when people abandon a building or don’t take care of it, and the neighbor does the same thing.
What is your vision of what you think the community development field should be striving for in the future?
Being less focused on funding opportunities, and what money’s coming down the pike next, and being more focused on what does your community need.
What are your goals? What do you want your community to be in ten years?
Instead of having your actions dictated by the next funding source, you mold the funding source to what you want your actions to be. Community development needs to be prepared for when the well runs dry. What do you do if there’s no money? Do you pack it up and go home?
I can tell you in Tamaqua, based on what we’ve done over years, even if we had no money, we would still have volunteers out there doing litter pick-ups, and we would still have volunteers out there helping with the playgrounds and making improvements with the recreation facilities, and we’d still have volunteers out there trying to economic development and Main Street revitalization.
How else do you envision community development in the future, if it develops and evolves the way you think it should?
It will become more place-based. And I think it will become more local. I’ve seen these regional efforts and these super-regional efforts, and, for many years, I scratched my head, saying why are all these people wanting to do regional things, when their backyard’s falling apart? [LAUGH]
Just like Washington’s not gonna take care of your problems, your region isn’t gonna come in and take care of your problems either, you know? You gotta take care of your own neighborhood.
Posted in Tamaqua, PA, Notes from the Field