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. We’re not a big city but there is a big city mentality. Back when Sunbury was a small town, we didn’t have gang problem; it was underdeveloped, kind of quaint, influenced by the farming communities around. But now Sunbury has an awful lot of people who are city transplants. In an attempt to get out of the city, people little by little brought their troubled teens or others here only to bring what’s going on in Philly. It’s different for those still growing up outside of town, but kids right here in the heart of town are having a lot more influence from people with a different cultural mentality.

Sunbury has drastically changed, demographically – maybe for worse in some people’s opinions, maybe not. A lot of Sunbury’s minorities are folks who have come from the inner city. When I was in high school we didn’t have any Hispanics and we had one Black family. Over the course of 30 years, different families came here, wound up staying and brought in quite a bit of that minority element. You see, what happens with Hispanic and Black cultures – and I’ll say this with safety because my wife’s a Hispanic – is a couple families come from the inner city, then start saying, “It’s so nice out here. My brother or uncle needs a fresh start.” And so the Hispanic population has grown over the past 20 years simply because people said we got out of the city.

It’s not uncommon to listen to people talk about how the house down the block is a drug house with tons of people coming and going. They have no clue who they live near, but they’re confident enough to tell you the drug house is right there. They themselves are long time natives who have lived in their homes for 30 or 40 years. So there’s a lot of, “I don’t know who my neighbor is, but I know what goes on in my neighborhood.”

There’s a ministry that many people swear up and down had a big influence on how that happened. It was set up on the outskirts of town as a faith-based rehab to give people a fresh start. But what happened over the course of 37 years was a lot of people fresh out of the program stayed for its sister program, a kids’ Bible training institute. People maybe not very far removed from their life of drugs, alcohol or other things – who still have that baggage –came into that program out of Philly, New York City, or other places like them.

With a scowl on their face, a lot of people will say it’s their fault that Sunbury has the problems that it has today. I would be willing to concede the Bible institute had a significant role in developing the presence of minority cultures. The way cultures thrive and pull from one another, it had to start somewhere. In those days there was still so much prejudice and racism that you wouldn’t just up your minority family and move in. You see what I’m saying? One thing has led to another. But I’m not going to say that a well-meaning ministry started it all; I can’t go down that road. I don’t think you can blame them for some of the subsequent problems as a minority culture started to spring up. But I acknowledge it was connected.

When I was growing up, Shikellemy school district was held in pretty high regard. If you went anywhere else in the state and someone asked you what school you went to, they knew who you were. I’m not positive what contributed to it. It was the early years after Sunbury schools combined with schools across the river and the population base became triple-A sized. There was a different social and economic influence than there is now, a stronger family base and more of a small town feel. It certainly had more of a tax base to draw from and more resources.

I’m not so quick to say that it was necessarily exceptional back then. But I’m confident the standards of excellence have just blown apart. As far as standardized testing, Shikellemy has come below failing level the last couple of years, and my understanding is if it happens one more time the state will come in and run the district themselves.

My wife directs our daycare here. She has a dual certification in special and elementary education, and she’s been working on her masters. There are school-aged kids who come to our program before and after school, and she sees a number struggling. We spend quite a bit of time working with them on their homework, and in her professional experience she’ll say, “They ought to know this by now. They ought to be reading and this one’s not even reading.” Or they don’t even have a grasp on spelling. Things are just not up to snuff here in the schools.

I think Sunbury hasn’t kept up because when you start having city kids come to backwoods Sunbury you don’t know what to do with them. Educators and administrators haven’t tried to educate city kids differently and that’s something my wife was trying to communicate while she was substituting in the district. My wife is from inner-city Hoboken, New Jersey. She worked for 8 years in the Jersey City education system and knows what it’s like to try to get through the hardest kids.

If Sunbury has a future it has to focus on those who go through its education system and wind up staying here. That’s fundamental. It doesn’t take long to skip over a generation of kids. Whatever is necessary to do that, I don’t know. But it has to be a priority.

Sunbury is still a viable option, but economically and educationally, there’s a depressed aspect that doesn’t have any draw to people who aren’t already from here. If you grew up here, you can still find the things that have always been familiar and comfortable to you. But Sunbury has had such a bad rap in recent years that it’s dumped on as Scumbury. That’s how the surrounding communities and others think of it: They call it Scumbury.

There has to be something to affect the caliber of people who are choosing to buy homes here. Even if someone works in Sunbury, many people don’t live here. They’ll have their kids and homes across the river and they’ll commute. There has to be something to bring people here.

I think revitalization efforts are having a minimal effect. Giving little facelifts to Market Street or sprucing up the park on the square – things coming out of the City Council – are just like a Band-Aid on a cancerous tumor. I don’t think that’s getting to the heart of the issues. We’re not going to give people more reasons to bring their business to downtown Sunbury simply because some façade have changed. There’s a lot more to getting Sunbury revitalized.

Sunbury should do whatever is necessary to boost the economy from a business perspective, or draw people and money here. We’ve got a couple of factory job situations that if you manage to get a position and stick with it for the long haul you may move up in the ranks or be somebody’s supervisor. But as far as jobs that require degrees, Sunbury doesn’t have much outside of education and the hospital.

A lot of Sunbury’s hometown mom-and-pop businesses have opened up only to close back down because of the strip across the river. When you let things like Walmart or Lowes into the community, it becomes very difficult for smaller Sunbury stores to thrive. Once upon a time, Sunbury’s local building center was all the area had. Everybody knew the family that ran it. But it’s not a business that can compete with Lowes. Sunbury’s challenge is to get enterprises to even be interested in this side of the river.

The needs the church is trying to feed are not purely spiritual; we’re trying to meet social or economic needs as well. I serve as president of Sunbury Ministerium, a gathering of pastors in Sunbury, and most of us are interested in how we can cooporate with city officials to make a difference. We have some shared concerns, church and state. Crime, low income families… they show up on the doorsteps of the church just as readily as they show up on the courthouse steps saying can somebody address the problems I have.

People believe there’s still a lot of potential here. There is a lot of potential for growth. There are a lot of nice people – people who are community and family minded. It’s just difficult when Sunbury is so mixed with people who aren’t trusting or willing to deal with suspicion or fear, or who worry about the people who moved in across the street.

I think that Sunbury has been in decline for a long time, but I think decline has a lot of people in a wake-up call mode: We’ve got to pool our resources, get our minds together, do what we need to do to make sure this thing isn’t a total flush.