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. There’re also a lot of decent landlords that have reasonable rent.

But it’s a catch-22. Young folks want amenities: they want restaurants, they want a bar scene, they want nicer places to shop and things to do, and that’s not the mall and McDonald’s. It’s a catch-22 in that these people have to come before those businesses will come, but the businesses… you need one before you get the other.

Lewisburg is really nice; great downtown – obviously with the help of Bucknell. Younger people are a huge segment of the population – not actually of Lewisburg, but one of the townships. But everything they’ve got downtown, probably 50 to 75% of it, is thanks to Bucknell: either because of the students, faculty and family, or direct investment by the university.

The mall was hurtful to Sunbury, but downtown department stores aren’t coming back. Something else needs to replace them, and Sunbury has really struggled to figure that out. What’s down there serves the population that shops downtown to a large extent – the dollar store, Salvation Army… But people that have cars, for the most part, aren’t shopping what’s there now. They’re going across the river.

Younger people who have moved here recently don’t see Sunbury as a bad place. There are decent white-collar jobs around. We have two hospitals and two universities within a 15 minute drive. That’s not including what’s in Williamsport or Harrisburg, which are an hour’s commute or so. But manufacturing has been dying off.  The majority of people who live in Sunbury have lived here a really long time. They can remember there were downtown department stores, great shopping, and passenger trains that used to stop here. The department stores closed and passenger trains stopped coming to Sunbury in probably the mid-1970s, and the strip across the river started being built – it just sucked everything out. Combined, those things led to the decline of Sunbury. Since then, one factory after another has closed. But younger people don’t mind there isn’t a manufacturing job.

Sunbury has a perception problem. Outside Sunbury, people view us a certain way and that seeps into residents. For instance, the neighborhood I work with is generally safe. They had a recent wave of car vandalizations, there’s been gang and drug activity, but that’s relative – you’re not going to walk down the street and get robbed. There are drug houses, but the police know where they are and they’re working with that. If there’s a fight somewhere, it’s perceived that the entire city is unsafe.

The local newspaper has done nothing to help that. In 2008 we had a murder. It wasn’t random; it was boyfriend-girlfriend type stuff. That got front page headlines for a long time. Then on Mother’s Day they ran a big story rehashing everything: how she died, how she had kids. Within a month, somebody got shot on their porch over in Snyder County and that only got a story about two inches long. They didn’t even know who did it for a week, and it was like, come on… Stuff goes on in other communities and they don’t get the sensationalized coverage Sunbury gets.

Another problem is Sunbury’s the county seat. Even when crime happens in Shamokin or Milton, the trial or arraignment happens down here. The paper will read, “Drug Dealer Picked Up,” and the tagline says “Sunbury”. Sunbury gets hit constantly. It got to the point where a group of citizens went to the newspaper offices and had monthly meetings with them about their reporting. It gets to people when all they read is a bad story.

In the last 5 to 10 years, Sunbury’s had an influx of people from Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and Mexico and Puerto Rico. Some have always been in the area. But they all get lumped into drug dealers, gang members, and illegal immigrants. Probably 90% of these new people are legitimate US residents, aren’t involved in drugs, crime or gangs, and have moved here to make a better life for themselves. It’s a slower way of life, a cheaper way of life, and probably a safer place to raise kids.

If 95 to 100% of the people in your life are white, and suddenly your neighbor is black, that’s very different – especially when your perception of black people comes from Nancy Grace or Gangland. You’re not going to feel very comfortable. I don’t know how else to say it. Things are changing and it upsets a lot of people.

Sunbury has a big problem with resident apathy. People have been promised a lot of things for a long time. There isn’t always good communication with the public about why projects take so long and why decisions are made. People just give up after a while and they don’t want to be involved. They call and call about the nuisance house down the street and nothing gets done. I tell them, if all the people on your block are mad about that one house, why don’t you all show up at the City Council? If nothing happens, then each of you bring a friend. The newspaper and the radio station show up at those meetings. If 100 people show up about one particular issue, it’s going to get covered. People don’t always understand…  A large part of that is the local newspaper’s fault.

Sunbury has a high rental rate, and there is a growing situation of absentee landlords or landlords that don’t care. They’ll rent to anybody just to get the rent. The code office does what it can. A story we’ve heard is that they fine people, but when it goes before a magistrate people show up and say, “Here are all my bills. How do you expect me to pay this fine?” And then the judge is like, “Well, if you pay a dollar…” It gets to be ridiculous; you pay this tiny fine and it’ll be forgiven. So things get left. The whole thing needs fixed.

The code office is understaffed, overworked, and sometimes feel a lack of support from their bosses. There’s technically a blighted property ordinance. They tried to enforce it once and the owner threatened to sue so they backed off. There’s also a large perception that a lot of deteriorating housing is Section 8, but I don’t know. I’ve heard realtors tell Sunbury homeowners they shouldn’t put money into their home because they won’t get it back.

But then sometimes… There’s a woman I work with – she doesn’t have a lot but she really tries – and they cited her because her ferns were too high. Her ferns are too high but the house down the street is falling down and the people who live in it are druggies. There’s a lot of that. People feel the city goes after people they know will pay as opposed to going after people that don’t care.

It’s an older community so it’s automatically walkable, which is huge now. It’s one of the most affordable communities in the area. There was a huge Victorian mansion that sold for less than $200,000 in one of the neighborhoods I work with. You can’t get a basic single-family home across the river for $200,000. Most places have backyards. If you’re a young family all the schools are within the city, and there’s stuff for young kids to do. The playgrounds have supervisors in the summer, so there’re programs and things like that. Sunbury is a good place to live.