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Striving to survive beyond urban elites' horizons

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

BERWICK, Pa.

Even the most casual visitor might believe this northeastern Pennsylvania town, with its array of diners, restaurants, unique shops, offices and a movie theater, is thriving.

If a small town can appear to be on the threshold of perfection, Berwick straddles close to that.

But, truth to tell, the unofficial motto around here is “We aren't broken” — long pause — “yet.”

Crime is disproportionately high for a town of 11,000 residents. Sexual assault, robbery and a rampant drug trade plague the community — and it's a generational problem: Many of the arrests are third-generation relatives continuing a family tradition of living on the edge of society.

The local methamphetamine problem has gotten so bad that the town is often referred to as “Methwick.”

In large part, the high crime can be attributed to a high ratio of poverty and public assistance. Section 8 housing is booming, as are free school lunches — two big indicators of a high poverty level; the average income hovers around $24,000 a year.

Once upon a time, Berwick was a boomtown. It all started in 1840, when Mordecai Jackson's foundry began manufacturing plow castings and farm equipment. By the time he took William Hartman Woodin as his partner nine years later, the company had expanded into railcars and eventually employed 250 townsmen.

Woodin's son, also named William Hartman Woodin, eventually became the company's president and also served as U.S. Treasury secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Jackson's son served as vice president of the company and as a second lieutenant in the Civil War for Company H of the 84th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry; he survived some of the heaviest fighting of the war and was twice imprisoned at the Confederates' infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Va. His stunning mansion still stands pristinely along U.S. 11.

From 1940 until 1944, employees at Berwick Foundry built thousands of the famous M3 Stuart tanks (named for Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart) for the Army, the Marines and America's wartime allies; production ended in 1961.

All of that is gone.

Today, PPL, an electric utility and nuclear power plant, and Berwick Offray, a manufacturer of ribbons and bows, are the town's major employers, along with iconic Wise Potato Chip Co., known for such salty snacks as Cheez Doodles, Ridgies and Dipsy Doodles.

“There is also a women's clothing manufacturer and DeLuxe Homes, which produces prefabricated housing,” said borough manager Robert Hivish, a 29-year-old optimist who sees Berwick coming around.

He stresses a strong community that is trying to fight the generational poverty and government dependence threatening the town's lifeblood; he points to the Friday-night football games of the famed Berwick “Dawgs,” who have won an impressive six state championships and three times have been ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today.

Residents of urban areas such as New York or Washington, who rarely leave the confines of their museums, art galleries or wired coffee shops, don't understand this part of America or its struggles.

Beginning in November, a wonderful thing happens here that helps to hold this community together, an event that would never happen in Manhattan or Dupont Circle. It's called the Berwick Christmas Boulevard — a mile-long stretch of Market Street awash in festive lights and holiday displays set up by merchants and community organizations. The tradition, started by local Jaycees in 1947, is part of the soul of the community.

“Santa Claus is present and serves Berwick's famous Wise Potato Chips and wishes ‘Merry Christmas' to everyone who drives past him,” explained borough manager Hivish. And if courts or federal officials “ever try to force or put a stop to that here, there would be an uprising.”

Berwick is not gone yet. Residents, merchants, community leaders and the police chief are striving to help it to survive.

Driving toward the edge of town, you pass Spencer's Salvage, a fancy name for a junkyard; its charm is misunderstood by folks who don't appreciate the joy of rows and rows of dented cars whose possibilities in a recyclable afterlife are endless.

It reminds you that Berwick, too, has endless possibilities, despite its dents and setbacks.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com)

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