Sunbury, PA: Narratives of Continuity & Decline in Central Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Rust Belt

Narrative 1: “They call it Scum-bury”

I’m Dan and I’m in my 40s. I’m a pastor here. My wife is Hispanic, but I’m Anglo – Pennsylvania Dutch (my last name is German). I have three boys, all grown now. Our oldest is married and in his later 20s; my two others are in college.

I grew up here in Sunbury. My connectedness with the community goes all the way back. I went to school here, and both of my parents and one of my brothers and his family have a Sunbury address. I have a couple of nephews that live in Sunbury. So a lot of the family is still local if not right in Sunbury. So I don’t have a choice but to call it my hometown. <laughter>

Being in ministry, I had my family move several times over the years. When I was involved in my ministry it took me away from the area, so I haven’t always been here in the thick of it. When I moved back 9 years ago, we found a house out in the county at the crossroads of Sunbury, Danville, and Shamokin school districts. But it was still close to the Sunbury situation. We just bought a home across the river this past November.

From what I understand Sunbury is swirling in the bottom of the barrel. Through the church’s daycare center we see the effects of the economy. Parents are forced to pull their kids out because of job losses, and because our daycare uses county and state moneys for lower income families, we have a pulse on what’s happening on a state level. And Sunbury isn’t as good a place to live as it once was…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 2: “There’s Nothing Left”

It was 1993 when we moved up here. Me and my wife were born and raised right outside Philadelphia. My son’s born here so I’m a Sunburian now. My family still lives down there. I’ve had cousins move up here and stay a few years then head back. My family’s like, “you’re living in the boonies.”

Our area in Philly was starting to get bad with drugs and violence. We were like, “What in the world?” One of my cousins moved up here for a job. His boss called me personally and said, “I need a driver. You come highly recommended.” I was like, “I’m working right now. I have a wife and a lease.” He said, “You get up here. I’ll pay your lease and give you’s a place to stay.”

So here I came. 16 years ago Sunbury was a really nice town. Me and my wife could go for a walk at 2 in the morning. You can’t do that now. Education and home values are going down. People aren’t upkeeping their stuff and there are more robberies. They’re shipping people in from everywhere who aren’t the right people. They’re living on welfare. If you have problems, don’t ship them to another town because they’re going to start problems all over…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 3: “I wish there was a way to pick this up and move it”

My name is Bill. I cut hair and run the café next door. I can’t say Sunbury is an awful place to live. David and I have a B&B on the second floor, and our bedrooms are on the third. David is from here. He can remember before he left it had already headed downhill. As soon as he finished college he was gone from here.

David and I were a couple. I met David in D.C., and after a year and a half we figured out we were just good friends. We remained roommates. I had another relationship for 6 years and he met someone after we moved here.

I never wanted to live in D.C., but David was working with American Airlines there. I was getting ready to go to flight attendant training, but then 9-11 happened and everybody got laid off. David moved to Dallas in October. In early December he called. “I don’t know anybody. It’s lonely. Come check it out.” I moved. We were uptown with all the restaurants. Dallas is a pretty cool city.

But eventually, David got homesick and his dad passed away. We talked about coming back to this area. My big mouth said, “Well, if you want to be close to your family…” Sunbury…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 4: “Sunbury has a perception problem”

I’m Jenny. I was born in Sunbury Hospital and I lived in Sunbury for 26 years. I don’t live here right now, but I work for Sunbury Revitalization, Inc. I live in Lewisburg now. We have to live over there because my husband works for Union County. But if somebody asks me where I’m from, I say Sunbury.

One time I was in State College and somebody asked where I was from. I said, “Lewisburg, an hour and a half away.” And he was like, “It’s not an hour and a half to Lewisburg.” I was like, “Oh, that’s right, it’s an hour and a half to Sunbury.” My reference for everything is Sunbury. My grandmother still lives here, my parents live here – all my family is local.

Sunbury is a good place to live – very much so. I had a great time growing up here. It’s walkable – in five minutes you can be downtown from most places in town. We have that huge recreational complex on North 4th Street, but there are still a lot of neighborhood parks. I wish we could get young folks to come in, more young families, people just starting out professionally. They can’t afford the homes across the river, but they can come to Sunbury and get a really nice $70,000 home…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 5: “It’s a very nice town … It hasn’t been that bad”

I’m James. I’m 38, and an Hispanic male.  I live in Sunbury.  My wife, she’s never really left this area.  We have two kids in 5th & 1st grade.

I was born in New Jersey, and I was raised in Florida, but I’ve been here ever since the early 90s.  I started at a small Bible institute outside of Sunbury when I was 18.  I was there for a few years. It was a post-secondary educational institute. They offered a diploma in the Bible with a minor in human services. I had some Biblical study there, and then I kind of sprouted my wings, if you will, and went to undergraduate school in Massachusetts.

I actually met my wife in 1991, while at the Bible institute.  But then we kind of reconvened through mutual acquaintances and started dating in 96/97 and then got married in 99. I decided after I finished undergrad in 97 to just stay here in the area, rather than to move back down to Florida. By then I was in my mid-20s – I’m 38 now. I just decided to make this my home…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 6: “For some reason the people who live here can’t see it that way”

I’m Pauline and I’ve always lived here. I have a husband and my kids have been out of school for a while. Jenny is 29 and Linda is 24. All my family lives in Sunbury.

No, we’ve never considered moving; we’re too close to family. The only time I was away was when I went to beauty school in Williamsport, but then I’d come home weekends. It didn’t work out. I was allergic to perms and hair colors.

I’ve worked at the pharmacy 33 years. It’s 5 to 10 minutes away so I usually always walk. We’ve been owned by many companies. What I make after 33 years really stinks. If I moved I would probably be making a couple of dollars more, but I like what I do and I get a lot of vacation.

I think people give Sunbury a bad rap. We’re still a small town and we have a lot to offer: the YMCA, the gardens, the river… There’s ice-skating in the winter months and you have the state park… We have a real nice pool. There are places for children: right around the corner is a beautiful playground with a water park. They didn’t have that when my kids were growing up.

People have stopped taking pride in Sunbury. I think we have a very nice town…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 7: “We liked it pretty much the way it was”

I’m Emily. I’m white, Polish-American, and I just turned 65. Harry, my husband, is 60. He’s African American and Indian – Native American. I have a daughter who’s grown, but Harry, he never had kids. He has four cats. <laughter> His family lives back in New Jersey. Well, he has a brother in Connecticut and his father’s in Florida. Before moving to Sunbury, I lived downriver on the outskirts of Heardon. In the 1990s I got divorced and moved to Sunbury.

Actually, I consider nearby Trevorton to be my hometown because that’s where I was raised. I lived there up until I first got married and moved to Hearndon. Trevorton was the head of the coal region because there was a coal mine at the end of town. There’s nothing like that here. Harry and I, we’ve been married 10 years. He’s been here about 15 years. He came because he had a friend who lived here.

Sunbury is not what it used to be. It has gone downhill. Crime has gotten worse. When I first moved here I felt safer. There was some crime and drugs then, but not bad. There was a double murder two years ago and another last year. It’s been 2 years already, 2 and a half years and still hasn’t come to trial. There was a murder this year not too far away from here: a cop killed his wife…  <<keep reading>>


Narrative 8: “Now when you drive through you don’t see anybody”

My name is Sean. I’m 27 and I was born here. My immediate family lives here, but my friends, not so much anymore. They’re all Norrie- and Selinsgrove-bound. I have a few in Harrisburg I keep in touch with. I would love to move. The sooner the better, but my wife can’t leave the state without our children’s father’s permission.

We have four kids and we finally got them into a good school. A year before that our oldest boy got kicked out of kindergarten because of his attitude. He has anger problems. I’m his step dad and his dad’s not here. Before me he was the man of the house, and he’s the oldest kid in the class so he wants to be the boss. Our oldest daughter is starting middle school this year, but everyone else will be in elementary.

I went to school in Sunbury. I’m not a big fan of the schools. I feel like I should have been held back a year and they pretty much pushed me through just to get the numbers. And now that we have kids…  <<keep reading>>