Bella Fontana

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

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.