'I belong to me': What happens in Middle America when the pools, churches, and bars all close

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FAYETTE COUNTY, Pa. — Between Fayette Avenue and the Monongahela River in Fayette City used to be the local swimming pool. The old sign for Crystal Pool, with a Coca-Cola advertisement atop, still looms over the lot, which is now a junkyard.

“Back growing up in the area,” says John, the 33-year-old clerk at Vargo’s newsstand, “It was a big hangout spot. When I was a teenager, that’s what we did.”

Shutting down is what things do in Fayette City.

Vargo’s is just about the only business open on the dilapidated downtown. Right across Main Street, the Fayette City Community Center rots, vacant, with broken windows. This three-story, once beautiful, brick building was “a recreation hub for family activities, most memorably plays,” according to the Uniontown Herald Standard.

“There ain’t nothing anymore in this valley,” Jason, a customer at Vargo’s tells me. “Nowhere. Monessen’s shot. Charleroi’s shot. There used to be a lot of bars, too. They all closed down. And all the clubs.”

Tom & Vic’s, the bar on Main St., is sometimes open, but usually not. “You can’t drink and drive anymore,” complains Jason. That probably counts as a positive development, but the vacant houses right along the river and Main Street means there’s insufficient clientele within walking distance. The owners are trying to sell, but can’t find buyers.

The First Methodist Church shut down this year after Easter. Holy Spirit Catholic Church shuttered in 2008.

Fayette City Community Center The Fayette City Community Center in Pennsylvania

The Monongahela Valley, south of Pittsburgh, lost its steel mills decades ago, but just as crucially, it’s also lost its swim clubs, bars, and churches.

Down in Uniontown, the county seat, a 6-foot-something man named Al, looking a solid 225 pounds, and sporting tattoos that include a 6-inch-tall cross on his bicep, was getting his regular fix of caramel ice cream at Vinny’s Drive Inn one night this summer. “There’s not a lot to do here,” he said. You hear that a lot.

Cassie is a bartender at Smitty’s, also on the outskirts of Uniontown. She’s expecting her second kid. “We don’t have anything here,” she says. “The skating rinks closed down, and there’s like two decent parks around here, the rest are all crap.”

This is particularly acute for parents. “Friday night, you wanna do a family thing — what are you going to do? In Uniontown, there’s not something to do.”

“When I was little, on 119 there used to be an ice cream truck,” says Ann, a prison employee enjoying lunch at Smitty’s. “They used to have food, they had ice cream, there was an arcade, there was batting cages …. In the back, you had go-karts … There was more to do.”

Local amenities are absolutely essential to raising kids. If you live near parks, museums, libraries, playgrounds, skating rinks, diners, or a church, you may take it for granted. In economically struggling places, one frequently ignored malady is the lack of places where neighbors can get together and do things, or give their kids stuff to do.

Raising kids in places like Uniontown and Fayette City is hard. Cassie insists it’s a good place to raise a family, but with lots of ifs.

If you want to keep your kid away from stuff, you can,” she says. “But then there’s parents who just go play, go do whatever, and they just let their kids run around outside, and they find the other kids whose parents might be on drugs and that kid knew what sex was when he was in Kindergarten,” she says, shaking her head “If you just don’t allow it, it’s fine.”

That sounds exhausting, but it’s the reality of parenthood in places overrun with drugs, whether rural, urban, or suburban. And so raising a family is much more difficult for the working class than for those in wealthier, more highly educated neighborhoods. Hence the retreat from marriage in the working class.

Crystal City A desolate pool in southern Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t always this way. Uniontown is hilly, and the streets are lined with attractive but often fading middle-class homes. Talk to people who grew up there 30 years ago, and they tell of an idyllic childhood. You can stand on a front porch on Millview Avenue, and look over 50 front or back yards, and imagine boys and girls riding their bikes, tossing baseballs, playing tag, and shouting to their friends a block or two away.

But today, there’s no such scene in Uniontown. The sidewalks on a beautiful summer afternoon are quiet. Some of the homes are burnt out. A mail carrier and the pitbull she’s hiding from are the only pedestrians on Millview. Most of the houses have front porches, but only one is bustling at 1 p.m. on a Saturday.

The porch is occupied by three men and two women who are “just getting up from last night.” One guy, who goes by “E” has a black eye from the night before. A man in his 60s, who goes by T, is getting his hair trimmed by Jason.

E says Uniontown is “Good if you want to get shot, get stabbed, or get high.” Every drug imaginable is here, they all say, plus more. “We got everything. You want a trick with a bitch, we got that too.”

What is there to do? “We make our own thing,” Jason explains. He’s got quite the freelancer mentality. He says he could have a job if he wanted to, but “I work for me.” What does he do? “I do what I do — you know what I’m saying?”

Are you part of anything bigger, I ask Jason. A boxing gym, a church, a school? “I belong to me. Jesus Christ of Latter Day Jason. That’s what I belong to.”

E complains that Fayette County “doesn’t want you to thrive.” That’s his explanation for why Uniontown is doing so much worse than Pittsburgh, which also suffered from the steel industry’s collapse.

Surely, a place where young men and women belong only to themselves and are left to make their own thing, and where parents need to police their kids or risk losing them to drugs and underage sex, is not a place where thriving is easy.

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