Extraordinarily ordinary

I can see my polling place from here

There are a couple of things that make Pennsylvanians unique among Americans. The first: we tend to stay put. If we do leave, we tend to come back, if only after retirement. Both sets of my grandparents, for example, relocated to New Jersey for their jobs, but moved back to Pennsylvania after they retired.

The paramount theme in analyzing the mobility of Pennsylvanians is their reluctance to move, however long or short the distance. Such relative immobility is most sharply illustrated by the fact that 84.5% of the state’s residents in 1980 were born in Pennsylvania, a figure well above the comparable values for other states. Such uniqueness persists as we examine movements within the state, local moves within a neighborhood, city, or county and moves from county to county within Pennsylvania. Such attachment to home and locality is not attributable to the usual economic factors, since it seems to prevail during economically slack periods as well as in more fortunate times. The only logical explanation would seem to lie in the nature of the regional culture, in some traditional inclinations, whether conscious or not, to remain amidst familiar surroundings.
–Wilbur Zelinsky, “Human Patterns,” in The Atlas of Pennsylvania (Temple University Press, 1989), p. 131

Getz Shop

Coupled with a strong attachment to our local area is a very weak sense of regional identity. I sometimes like to put on a Pennsylvania jingoism for sheer comic effect: nobody ever gets all puffed up about being from the Keystone State the way they might if they were from, say, the Lone Star State. Zelinksy again:

In an analysis of terms of locational and cultural significance appearing in the names of various enterprises listed in telephone directories for 276 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada, I discovered that nowhere within metropolitan North America is there a weaker sense of regional identity than in the cities of western Pennsylvania and adjoining portions of neighboring states. Furthermore, in the eastern half of the state the situation is not much better. …

How do we account for this apparent lack of self-knowledge or interest, so different from the insistent awareness of Southernness or New Englandness elsewhere? The failure to appreciate the regional personality of the PCA [Pennsylvania Cultural Area] (aside from its barns and Mennonites) stems largely, I suspect, from its sheer middleness. … [M]uch that was to become national and ‘mainstream’ later is found in the PCA, too prosaic and too normal to stir up comment.
–Wilbur Zelinsky, “Cultural Geography,” in A Geography of Pennsylvania, ed. by E. Willard Miller (Penn State Press, 1995), p. 151

landscape with Burger King

In other words, we are unique in our lack of a sense of uniqueness. It’s kind of hard to pin us down — and we’re just fine with that.

It is seldom possible to make a statement about Pennsylvania that holds true of the whole state — and many observers have simply thrown up their hands in frustration. There is a good deal of evidence, however, that its inhabitants like it that way. Pennsylvania’s mosaic of varied, complex landscapes offers its residents an extraordinary range of environmental choices within a very short distance.
–Pierce Lewis, “The Pennsylvania Mosaic,” in The Atlas of Pennsylvania, p. 7

spring fields 2

Yep.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

11 Comments


  1. Fascinating! There’s a sense that some of our older values of home, community, roots and history are still intact in your state. I wonder how it compares to other parts in the Western world outside US – wouldn’t that be a great research project?!

    Another thought – are there many immigrants coming in? If not, that could be another explanation…

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  2. marja-leena – Thanks for the comment. I am sure there are some parts of Europe, and many parts of the Global South, where people are much like Pennsylvanians in their rootedness and strong valuation of community and extended family networks. Pennsylvania had many waves of immigrants, but the most influential layers were the the original Quakers; the Scotch-Irish; the Germans; and the Italian and Slavic immiagrants in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Today, we have large numbers of Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants, on a par with other northeastern states. But the basic cultural patterns seem to have been set quite early, and I suspect the Scotch-Irish and Germans had the biggest influence over-all.

    Some of this may have resulted from a sort of geographical self-sorting mechanism. Huge numbers of European immigrants came through Philadelphia – as many as Ellis Island – and headed west through the state. It’s easy to imagine those who were most easily contented deciding to settle in Pennsylvania, while their restless siblings forged on in search of greener pastures. So, aside from the Scotch-Irish, who were hell-raisers, maybe we ended up with a lot of people who were just motivated enough to get on a boat, but weren’t terribly restless otherwise. And of course we got a lot of persecuted religious minorities due to the famous Quaker tolerance, most notably the Amish and Mennonites.

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  3. I would guess that most people who have lived in a lot of different places (like me) yearn very, very much for the life in place described here. When I was boy, we moved from Colorado to Arkansas. Unlike the Pennsylvanian lack of regional identity, the Ozark Arkansans who were our new neighbors had a often xenophobic attachment to their own, leaving little space for newcomers. Then in Arizona (where we lived most recently), almost everyone was from somewhere else; this was coupled with a pronouned openness to new arrivals (except undocumented immgirants or Californians!). It would be neat to see different parts of the U.S. graphed with x being mobility and y being regional identity.

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  4. We do have a certain strain of xenophobia here, but it’s not dominant. The main thing that might drive an intellectual like yourself a little crazy if you lived in central or western Pennsylvania would be the widespread anti-intellectualism. But if you want to get away from that and still live in the country, New England and parts of the upper Midwest are probably your only options.

    Hostility toward new arrivals wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it translated into effective political action against the forces driving so-called development. But in most places in the rural U.S., people are extremely wary about enacting any kind of restrictive zoning, and their dislike of the way the way familar landscapes are changed and destroyed by real estate speculators turns into a seething resentment toward the people occupying all those new subdivisions.

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  5. David Hackett Fischer’s book, “Albion’s Seed” has an interesting analysis of Pennsylvania’s regional culture–he traces it to the influence of the founding Quakers, and portrays it in quite a positive light.

    His section on Appalachia is light on evidence and heavy on nineteenth-century “local color” mistaken for evidence, but the other three regional analyses seem more sound. Unfortunately, his “Scotch-Irish/Appalachian” region is the most cited section, supporting the “Red State/Redneck” stereotypes we rural people so enjoy.

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  6. Sounds interesting. It does seem as if many of our patterns were established quite early, by the first waves of immigrants. How else to explain the fact that so many of de Tocqueville’s and Dickens’ observations still seem accurate?

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  7. One reason for the lack of strong regional identity is the arbitrary nature of state borders, which often don’t follow geographic bioregional borders.

    Taking my home state of Missouri as an example, the northern third of the state has more in common with southern Iowa and western Illinois, while southern Illinois, southwest Missouri, and northwest Arkansas can be thought of as “the Ozarks”. The bootheel SE corner of the state is part of the cotton-growing South.

    I rode a motorcycle through Pennsylvania a couple of summers ago. Afterwards I felt like I had been through at least three states!

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  8. BTW I meant to also say that I loved your photos illustrating the post! The gradations of mist-filtered colors in that last one are wonderful.

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  9. Larry – Yes, that’s doubtless true about state boundaries. But the study mentioned above looked not just at state identifiers but even larger regional ones, as well – Midwest, Great Lakes, New England, etc. Most Pennsylvania residents, and some folks in neighboring parts of Ohio, New York and Ontario, had no regional sense of identity at all.

    Glad you liked the photos! The last one was shot from our mountain looking across at the next ridge five miles away with a telephoto, whence the haze. The middle one shows the end of our mountain from Tyrone.

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  10. I’m a NW Pennsylvania native (McKean County, more specifically the Bradford/Smethport area) now living in northern Ohio. Your blog – and your mother’s blog – help to nourish the part of me which has never truly separated from the hills of home.

    I absolutely agree with you about the lack of strong state identity in most Pennsylvanians as opposed to other states, including Ohio. I believe that geography – specifically, our beautiful and rugged terrain – has also played a strong part, especially in the early days of the state’s history. “My” area of the state was not even settled till about 1820 – 1830, which is probably later than any other part of the state. The Scotch-Irish & Germans who settled other parts of western PA didn’t show up till about 15-20 years after the Yankees from New England (via upstate NY) opened up the land. (I descend from those earliest settlers on my maternal grandmother’s side).

    I grew up in an area of the state that is actually still considered part of the Buffalo media market. I never saw any Pennsylvania TV station till our area was finally wired for cable in the mid-70s. Bradford is two hours from any Pennsylvania interstate (U.S. Route 219 will become all four-lane in oh, say, the year 2120). These factors are enough all by themselves to discourage a strong sense of state identity.

    As to the “rootedness” of Pennsylvanians, my stepfather’s family -good Germans all, with a sprinking of French ancestry – arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 18th century and moved to Clarion County by 1840. And altho the family now numbers in the high hundreds, I only know of one (my half-brother) who lives outside Western Pennsylvania. In fact, most of this close-knit family lives no more than two counties away from the Clarion area. They’re about to hold their 60th annual reunion, by the way. I have my reunion T-shirt ready to go.

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  11. Cheri – Thanks for a very interesting comment. It’s good to know our blogs are helping provide a sense of connection for Pennsylvanian “ex-pats” like yourself.

    We certainly shouldn’t minimalize the importance of rugged terrain in focusing people’s attention on the local area above all else. I think this holds true down through the Appalachians, too, where regional identity has always been definied by outsiders (and usually in a not very complementary fashion).

    My father’s mother’s people are Yankee farmers, too, from that same Connecticut settlement period, albeit farther east, in Luzerne and Wyoming Counties. And they have also maintained a robust family reunion tradition. We have photos from their reunions in the 1940s, so I guess it’s been around 60 years for them, too.

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