Many of my most successful colleagues often complain about the lack of creativity and imagination among their graduate students. Years of reading the same topics – the Civil War, World War 2, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement – rehashed endlessly along an infinite variety of timelines and thematic approaches create an ennui that robs the intellect of its vitality. To find an original topic with sufficient primary resources to support the development of a book-length work is an extraordinary accomplishment in itself. One of the keys that animated my first major research project was the recognition that other scholars focused on large, urban centers to the exclusion of communities like Norristown, Upper Darby, and Lansdale. Even more egregiously, the rural expanses of most states were completely ignored. The constant compounding error of scholarly disinterest combined with the most profound bias in research (a lack of previous studies) to limit a more complete understanding of the United States and the world. A recent issue of The Journal of Urban History praises Suburban Erasure for breaking this approach to the past, especially in the context of rapid economic development in New Jersey over the twentieth century. An ambitious group of students in Pennsylvania could duplicate this method here.
Political operatives have often referred to the communities between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as the “Pennsylvania T.” Erie, Harrisburg, and Wilkes-Barre form the largest communities in this imagined structure, but the hundreds of smaller towns hold their own special importance. Where places like Morristown, Freehold, Rancocas, and Glassboro represented a series of specific changes in the ways suburbs grew in New Jersey, Pennsylvania counties like Chester, Berks, Westmoreland, Luzerne, and Crawford counties will be the growing regions of the twenty-first century. Despite the impressive wealth that the major metropolitan areas in the state have generated over the last two centuries, demographic growth will inspire greater residential and commercial investment beyond the boundaries of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and their suburbs. Only a fundamental readjustment in federal financial lending guidelines has any chance to slow the steady creep of sprawl beyond Lower Providence and Royersford.
In a profound way, this pattern also operates on a national scale. Nearly all of the major metropolitan development in the United States lies on a major body of water. The Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts are the sites of almost-three quarters of the nation’s total assets. If you include the Great Lakes, then the percentage rises to nearly ninety percent. This concentration is only exceeded by the amount of media and research attention these areas have received over the last century. From this perspective, the absence of work on a national “rural corridor” becomes glaring. Small communities from the borders that Montana and Idaho share with Canada, moving southeast across the continent until one reaches the Florida panhandle, comprise a region that harkens back to the ideals of self-reliance in a rugged countryside that most still associate with the nineteenth century. Last week’s announcement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development takes essential steps to helping most Americans create more inclusive and prosperous communities. Yet, the core of socially isolated, rural poverty will not be affected by these reforms. Even important private initiatives like “The Geography of Poverty” project (presented by NBC News) overlook this region. Local historian Michael Tolle’s work on Montgomery County opens the door for valuable new insights to correct these errors. A coalition of interested citizens could follow in his footsteps and create a Truth and Reconciliation commission to document and explore the facets of history too long hidden from public view. Fewer than twelve would be necessary to begin the work. Who has the courage to volunteer?
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (www.icmetrogrowth.com), teaches economic history at Monmouth University (www.monmouth.edu), and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (email@example.com).