Last weekend, Harlan and I took a 45 minute road trip to the city of Altoona, PA. Altoona has had a fascinating and tragic history. Once considered a gem of central-western Pennsylvania, its industry died over the past 40 years – and then, so did the town.
Although I appreciate the community they have kept alive in Altoona, the city is depressing to visit. These days, all Altoona has going for it is the Logan Valley Mall, where Harlan and I witnessed a 15 year old girl sitting on the floor bawling outside the Old Navy. (She was about 7 months pregnant.)
Everywhere you turn, you can see phantoms of a lost past – from the decaying architecture to the flailing businesses. There’s a dueling air of desperation and resignation hovering over the entire place. I heard stories growing up about how Altoona was once a wonderful place to visit, but now all I see is a place that people dream of escaping and rarely do. There is little central identity to the town anymore. I realize this may sound horribly pretentious, but it’s a very different element from the feelings in poor, rural central Pennsylvania, where I grew up. When it comes down to it, Altoona is a place where the junior high school now has a day care.
But even so, there are still inspiring things to see in ‘Toona Town. We found some great architecture in a very old hardware store and, across the street, a huge abandoned factory of some sort. It’s the kind of place that would be gleefully turned into loft apartments in NYC or Philadelphia, but in Altoona, it remains what it is, decomposing into an eerie pile of rust and glass. It feels like “Eraserhead” in that space. I hope something can make that building work again.
We found a cool junk shop adorned with creative taxidermy, which is my favorite kind. Lots of bullfighter paintings and a boar head with star sunglasses….festive touch. We had the best gyros you’ll ever have in your life at Phonecia. And to be sure, the Catholic church at the top of the hill is gorgeous architecture I’d like to revisit. Altoona’s been battered and her personality probably forever scarred, but there are elements that shine through, despite everything. I’m interested in discovering more.