In The American Conservative, Hunter Derensis, a native of the rundown Rust Belt railroading town of Altoona, Pennsylvania explains that city’s turnaround. Derensis says that when President Trump referred to “American carnage,” it was with towns like Altoona in mind. Residents there voted overwhelmingly for Trump. He writes (abridged):
Just over a month ago, my hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania, was briefly in the national spotlight in the New York Times. Describing the tenth largest city in Pennsylvania as a place with “deep working-class roots, conservative social values and nearly all-white population,” the Times correctly characterized the city as an example of where Donald Trump received over 70 percent of its votes.
Altoona is an illustration of the industrial heartland’s decay; what President Trump referred to in his inauguration speech as “American carnage.” A city once envied for possessing one of the largest railroad repair and construction facilities in the world, its biggest claim to fame these days is being the corporate home of Sheetz, the convenience store.
Altoona was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad because of its location and the resources that were around the city. Everybody who lived in Altoona, after it was built up, were employees of the railroad,” explained Pacifico. While once one of the busiest transportation hubs in the Northeast, as technology changed, so did the city it was built on. “After the decline in the railroad, like most other cities that heavily relied on one industry, the population declined and Altoona, probably for a few decades, was stuck trying to find its new identity.”
That new identity included diversifying the local economy and moving away from the idea that the industrial base, like the age of the locomotive, was coming back. “I would say, while we’re still proud of the strong railroad heritage we have here and it being a major part of our history, I think now with UPMC [University of Pittsburgh Medical Center]’s presence here and Penn State growing that our identity is now an Eds & Meds type city.” Between sixty and eighty trains still run through Altoona’s tracks every day.
This new breath of life isn’t just affecting pedestrians, but the local business community as well. “We don’t have a lot of people living in the downtown area yet, so there’s really no reason for the businesses to want to be here other than being in downtown is cool again. And we’re seeing a lot more businesses that maybe would have looked out in the boulevard area…looking for buildings in downtown to relocate.”
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