I knew growing up that I wasn’t meant for where I lived. It wasn’t a feeling of arrogance, but of self preservation, a feeling that was instilled into me- through nature and nurture. The message was in the subtle hints, along with the eye-opening realities that accompanied them. No one talked about our town in the present, it was always in the past tense. “This town used to have such a strong sense of community.” “This was a perfect place to raise a family.” The only talk of the present included- “This town is a black hole.” I grew up knowing I had been born a generation too late. The glory days had come and gone and there was nothing left for me. The stories were still there- the photos, the old reel to reels too. Each a testament to a way of life I’d never be a part of. My parents’ stories of riding their bikes in town, of walking to school, of their autonomy at a young age, of the community we all yearn for- these were all replaced with boarded-up buildings and places we couldn’t go alone, or at all. My parents grew up 4 miles apart from each other in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a steel town on the Ohio River. It’s where they’ve remained, even after the mill laid off my dad on December 13th, 1985 (he still remembered the day- a Friday- Friday the 13th), and even after the hospital shut its doors without notice on my mom and her fellow RN’s in 2008. The city’s story, the city THEY grew up in, had ended- yet we remained. I never understood. Aliquippa was where my great grandparents immigrated to for a better life, where my grandparents lived until they passed, where I was taught to be afraid, and where I knew I’d leave as soon as I could.
I was brought up in the rural outskirts of a dead mill town- a rustbelt ghost. My parents moved out to the “boonies” to raise me and my sister. We had no “town” to speak of, no Main Street, no square, nowhere to congregate. What’s the phrase…”If you don’t have a place to protest do you even have a town?” We lived in a SPACE- but it wasn’t a PLACE. There was nothing that connected us to the people. It was a scatter of houses, without a common connection- no PLACE. I know they meant for a better life for us, one for themselves too, after witnessing the decline of Aliquippa, but what is “better”? For all the love I had in my family, in our home, we had no chance to love where we lived because we lacked community. This is something I could not even comprehend as a child or young adult, all I knew was that I wanted to ride my bike or walk to a friends house but couldn’t. How I envied my cousins who lived in West Aliquippa and rode their bikes EVERYWHERE. But not here- there were no sidewalk for me; no paved berms, no parks, and 45 mph speed limits on our rural route ensured my mother I’d be flattened by a coal truck or most certainly kidnapped- probably both.
Once in middle school my longing for a bicycle gang evolved into just wanting a girl gang. But when you lived 20 minutes away from your classmates, from the school, from the mall, from the poolhall, from EVERYTHING (ok, not everything, MOM!), it seems like the end of the world. However, teen angst aside, I knew the life my parents had given us fit their needs, but not mine. It was isolating, it was inconvenient, and it did nothing to connect me to my place. I had no desire to stay because I had no roots. By the end of my teenage years I’d yet to experience community. Aliquippa was less a part of me than ever, my mom’s parents moved off the “Avenue” and our beloved library was off limits after a classmate’s mother was murdered out front. My best friends were not going to college and were already dealing with addiction. I was at a precipice and I knew it- I was leaving. So I left.
Flash forward to four years later and against all my best laid plans- I’m on my way home. I left college a bit earlier than anticipated and just a few credits shy of that degree- a decision I still lament at times. I left behind my aspiration of being a full-time artist, my path to grad school, my friends, my professors, and the only bit of freedom I’d ever had. But along with academic endeavors, I’d also left behind the first bit of community I’d ever experienced in this small college town. I left this all behind to start a new life as a mom (plot twist!). I needed my family for support, but I knew my return would never be permanent. I wanted a different story for my kids. I wanted a town that lives in the present. I wanted to say “This town HAS such a strong sense of community” and “This IS the perfect place to raise a family”. I want for my children what my grandparents gave my parents. Those “good old days”- the sense that you belong to your town as much as you belong to your family. These are the things I sought out because I know that HOW you grow up can change who you are as much as WHERE you grow up.
It all goes back to the feelings I had as a little girl that I had no name for. The feeling that something was missing. I thought it was living too far from town that I hated- but now I know that it was living without a town and without COMMUNITY. I want my kids to have a community they care about, and one that cares about them. I want autonomy for my kids. I want them to go knocking on their friends’ doors asking “Is Hannah home?”, “Can Parker come and play?” I want them to walk to school, walk to get ice cream, walk to the park, and walk the damn dog. I want to look outside and find a dozen neighborhood kids playing in my yard. I want to say “Be back before dark”, and feel safe doing so. I want them to know that they can trust the people that live here because it really does take a f*cking village. I want my kids to have the kinds of stories my parents had about their childhood, and now they do.
I knew being a mom would change my life, I understood that my kids would change everything for ME, but it took me re-evaluating my life choices to know that I am changing my children’s lives. I am changing THEM, in ways that will take years for them to understand- and even then they may never realize, but they will grow up having a PLACE to call home; having the connections, the acceptance, the diversity, the inclusion, and a place to ride their bikes.
Loving where we live should not be this hard. Connecting to your place should not be a struggle. No one should grow up knowing they have nothing to stay for. No one should grow up without roots. Community is what all humans crave. Community comes from people, from our relationships, from our daily crossing of paths- strengthened by every interaction. This is not a new idea- this is old urbanism. A return to how community was “before”.
It took becoming a mother for me to understand why I loved the stories of the “old” Aliquippa. It took growing up without a community to truly appreciate its worth and value in my life. It took finding a walkable school district to know just how much responsibility that can teach my teens. And it took exchanging trust with my neighborhood to know that my 8 year old can leave me a note on the kitchen island that says “Went to see a friend. Love, Luke.” to know that those are the memories I am helping my children collect.
– Amber Siegler