Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Friday, October 21, 2005

Beauty of a hill town can hide danger

A driver parks on a hill and forgets to set the hand brake. The car slips out of park and rolls down the hill.

A homeowner mows the steep bank in back of his house and the mower tips over on him.

A 10-foot retaining wall on Stoney Batter collapses soon after it is installed.

Hills have their charm, but there are hazards that go with the territory.

When the founders of Bellefonte laid out the town, they followed the grid pattern of William Penn's Philadelphia, never mind that their neatly planned streets would be imposed on the uneven terrain of the Appalachian hills.

So today, if you try to go up Ridge Street in a heavy rain you might end up spinning your wheels. Or if you descend South Allegheny Street in a snowstorm, you may leave a series of S-shaped tire tracks behind you.

In Hugh Manchester's The Big Spring column that appeared in the Centre Daily Times on March 20, 1993, he documents another hazard encountered by earlier residents. He describes Bellefonte as a "combination Lake Placid, Sun Valley and St. Moritz" with a bobsled run unsurpassed by any winter Olympics. A great ride would start at the top of Reservoir Hill, turn left at the Diamond onto West High and continue to Half Moon Hill.

But over the years there were four major sledding accidents, the worst at Allegheny and Linn streets, where the cutter lost its guide rope, threw its occupants in all directions and then was hit by another sled.

Any hill town devises systems for walkers to negotiate its steep inclines. Pittsburgh, for instance, has 712 sets of steps, according to Bob Regan, author of "The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City."

Bellefonte has steps in the sidewalk, one set going up East Lamb Street by the Hastings Mansion, another on South Allegheny heading up Reservoir Hill.

Another way the town accommodates itself to its topography is the building of retaining walls of stone, concrete or wood. But upkeep becomes a problem when a concrete wall buckles and leaves hunks of masonry on the ground or when stones fall out of alignment or mortar deteriorates.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," poet Robert Frost wrote in "Mending Wall," For him, it might be frozen ground swell, hunters or even elves that leave gaps in his boundary wall of boulders. Here it is more likely the force of gravity that makes maintaining walls, terraces and steps an uphill battle.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Mysteries surround left-behind belongings

An orange traffic cone is a simple object signifying caution. It is not funny.

Nor is the statue of Andrew Gregg Curtin in front of the courthouse.

But put the traffic cone on the head of the statue, as someone did last summer, and the result is incongruity spiked with humor.

Sneakers thrown over a telephone wire may be a common urban sight, but recently I noticed what may be the first pair in this town. Some online sources say they are a gang symbol, but I haven't heard gangs mentioned in Bellefonte since the day I walked home from the gym wearing my red bandanna "do-rag" and a kid asked, "Are you in a gang?"

Some objects, like the torn flag and smashed pumpkin on cemetery ground, shock like a slap in the face. Others, like the human features curiously impressed onto a tree on Allegheny at Burrows, amuse.

Then there are the items dropped along the way, signaling their presence by the loss they imply: a hubcap propped on a lawn, a black glove stuck on an iron fence railing, a child's pink sneaker on the sidewalk.

Clothing has its own category. Last Christmas season, a young man and his girlfriend went into a shop downtown. He was wearing a skirt. On a cold winter morning, a woman in line at the post office wore a bare top and no jacket.

On a vacation stop at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last month, the waitresses in a Thai restaurant wore brightly colored jackets and long, narrow skirts. Darting and hovering, they reminded me of dragonflies. I could not figure how they moved so fast until I noticed they were all wearing high-tech, black athletic shoes.

Sometimes, like the Monday after move-in day in State College, I feel as if I am somewhere in Africa tracking the spoor of wild game. Trying to remember where I parked my car, I mentally retrace my steps, beyond the alley of chicken bones and pizza boxes, along the trail of beer cans and paper plates, past the gold-metallic flip-flops in the street of broken glass.

Before she left Bellefonte to live with her daughter, Mrs. Lewis Harvey donated the pith helmet and bush jackets from her safari days to our theater group. As I follow the trail of red Swedish fish in front of Bi-Lo or speculate about who left an XXL blue Gap hoodie in the street in front of the library, I become for a moment another hunter like Mrs. Harvey, studying the landscape for clues.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A prophet saved Bellefonte, but couldn't protect New Orleans

Peirce Lewis, Penn State professor of geography emeritus, is mostly known around Bellefonte for his longtime interest in our town. He has conducted countless local tours and published a detailed analysis, "Small Town in Pennsylvania," available in the Pennsylvania room of the Centre Country Library.

But it was not Professor Lewis' work on local geography that created a mild media flurry during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times, the Washington Post and Newsday quoted him as an expert on the history of New Orleans.

The 2003 edition of his book "New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape" predicted the damages that would result when a major hurricane hit the city. His final chapter ends with the words, "What is known is that the city is in great danger, and that common sense would dictate extreme measures to avert it."

Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was granted the gift of prophecy, but no one believed her predictions. Even though she knew that disaster was approaching the Trojans, she could do nothing to prevent it.

Other writers have written about the vulnerability of New Orleans, but Lewis included in his description the crushing poverty that eventually hampered efforts to evacuate the city's stranded citizens.

In the same way that Lewis showed the dark side of New Orleans behind its glittery surface, "Small Town in Pennsylvania," published in 1972 by the Association of American Geographers, shows a Bellefonte struggling with economic and population decline against a historic setting almost as old as the Constitution.

Although he recognizes the resilience of its residents during hard times, Lewis also notes the "pessimism which overlies the town like a soggy blanket," and warns that if we cannot find room for small towns, "our nation will be the poorer for it."

Shortly after the publication of this work, preservation efforts started the town on a course of renewal that continues to this day. Some people thought the old brick building on Dunlap Street should be torn down, but the Gamble Mill, now a restaurant and art gallery, stands as a symbol of what a determined group can accomplish when they see their surroundings threatened.

Talleyrand Park, Bellefonte Museum for Centre County, Garman Opera House, the Match Factory and the Brockerhoff Hotel are among the restorations that have all come about after the publication of Lewis' loving but realistic look at the town.

Consequence or coincidence? Either way, this time the warnings of a prophet were heeded.