The city was molten; it was free-flowing promise. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, residents of Wheeling, West Virginia found opportunity in its surrounding coal mines, iron foundries, breweries, and glass and cigar factories. Many of these residents felt a deep sense of pride in living in this place of makers and an early, important gateway to the expanding West. As far as 78-year-old resident Ed Gorczyca and his contemporaries are concerned, this is the city that still lingers in their minds—a Wheeling that their grandparents and parents helped to prosper and that remained vibrant through their own youth before the steady decline took hold.
Over Gorczyca's lifetime, the collapse of the Upper Ohio Valley manufacturing base fueled an exodus of working-age people and the city's population declined by half, dropping from its peak of 61,659 people at the 1930 census to fewer than 28,000 today. Demographers at West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research predict that it will be difficult to overcome the slide. As of fall 2015, viable long-term employment opportunities remain in short supply, while out-of-town transient workers following a regional natural gas boom have helped drive up rental prices in the city.
In spite of the present challenges to its recovery, some positive signs of renewal are also emerging in the city for the first time in years. Wheeling natives and relative newcomers have been working on founding new city partnerships and grassroots organizations to rebuild Wheeling physically, economically, and spiritually. They are growing food in what has been considered a food desert and they are providing community to the marginalized. A collective reassessment of the city's identity is taking place, yielding both eulogies for what is missing and hope for what might be restored or created.
What calls to people in Wheeling today? Is it the song of dusk enveloping the grand old bridge? Is it the warm, proud theater where Frankenstein used to appear glowing on celluloid at the midnight show? It could indeed be something already lost to time, that elusive specter of the now vacant department store's holiday model trains making their rounds or some other loved thing that may somehow return to town. Or it could be the stubborn sense of promise that was held between these hills for someone's parents, the promise that built this city and survived a precipitous fall, a promise that says you could write the next chapter of Wheeling's story.
Also by Keith Rutowski —
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