Commentary Funny and/or Strange Journal

Why Cities Fail: New Brighton/Rochester, PA

It was almost a good day Sunday–we looked up friends from Pittsburgh and met them at the Beaver County Maple Festival (story and pictures to follow–maybe) and had a great time.  On the way home, fat on stacks of buckwheat pancakes and fresh, warm maple syrup, we decided to check out some terra incognita by driving down along the Beaver River and heading home–eastward–via the town of New Brighton and on the Zelienople, PA.  Now, I can’t tell you how much it pleases me to have a town called Zelienople that is closer to my house than it is to the Parthenon.  Of course, I live right up the road from Homer City, PA–which is named after the Greek poet, not the Simpsons patriarch, so I should be more jaded.

New Brighton seems to be connected to another town, Rochester, perhaps with the river creating the the difference, but it wasn’t easy to figure out–we saw a bunch of signs that said we were in one or the other, and signs in what we took to be Rochester for places like “Brighton Terrace” and “Brighton Garden” or whatever, but wherever the hell we were it looked much more promising than a lot of the old industrial towns that line Westsylvania’s bountiful, clean, recovered rivers–they’re clearly put some effort into the downtown, with newer sidewalks, nice facades on the stores, and decorative fences–think wrought iron–where old buildings had obviously died that hid the empty space but allowed one to look through towards the river.


The trouble came when we tried to get out of the damned place.  We needed to get from Point A to Point B, but our paper road map lacked the detail we needed, and as far as a navigation system, well, I’ll be damned if I’ll let a machine tell me where to go.  My friend Ken has one–his wife calls it “the other woman”–but matrix-610x344not me.  I’ve seen The Matrix.  It’s a slippery slope, you know?  One minute you’re trying to get Siri to say something stupid, the next she’s got you sucking gruel and living in a tank of goo, charging her batteries.

So, we had to follow the signs, which led us on the insane path outlined above (blue) that led us to turn left, then right, the left, cross the river, turn left again, do a 180 turn on a ramp, cross the river again on a second bridge one block downsteam from the first bridge, and so on.  With apologies for language, it was simply the most fucked-up traffic routing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The path shown in black would have been the most direct–but no chance on that.

At one point, where the red and blue lines split, we were actually one block from where we wanted to be, but no–we had to cross the river, go under an underpass, do a 180, merge onto a second bridge.  The purple line indicates where they could have sent us–from either side of that line one can easily look across down the block and see where one had been 6 minutes ago (yes, these routes were liberally scattered with traffic lights).  Agh!

One of my favorite books of all time is Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent–it’s about this geeky, intellectual, hilarious guy who spends a year driving around the country making fun of people–especially himself–and just about everything else.  You’ll want to buy this book right away–in fact, just take a moment right now…..

Bryson would have loved this non-sensical SNAFU-ery–there’s either an underlying political reason for the route (cities wanting traffic to go through both of their communities?  but for what?  subsidies?  bragging rights?  speed traps?) or maybe it was the only way they could pay for the second, newer, uglier, more modern bridge–of the local officials just said screw it and let the PennDOT engineers (may they burn in hell) design the traffic flow from their cushy offices in some Harrisburg industrial park.  Or maybe it was just a really, really incredible practical joke?

Either way, if I’m an investor or businesswoman (look at me and my gender equity, kiddos) and I come to this town I’m immediately thinking about what’s going to happen to all the trucks coming and going from my factory all day–or all the large German luxury cars coming and going from my white collar-whatever office.  Trucks could vanish forever.  Smarmy executives could leave for 4-hour golf course lunches and never show up at the club.  Either way, I’m out of there.

And I’m not going back myself until Siri puts one of those big kung fu plugs in the back of my head.

Simon says, er, I mean, Siri says, “Go straight.” Yes. Siri says, “Don’t cross the bridge…”