To the extent that Harrisburg has a reputation throughout Pennsylvania, its known as the home of the state’s oversized legislature and intractable politics. It is known to cross-state travelers as a drive-past, fly-over, sleep-through (Amtrak) city. To less curious Harrisburg-area residents, its thought of as a crime-filled hell hole they would hardly drive through. To Donald “Chicken” Trump, Harrisburg is a “war zone.”
But the reality is – as I discovered over the course of many months working, exploring, and dining in Harrisburg – Pennsylvania’s capital and 11th most populous city is, actually, really awesome.
In this non-comprehensive account, I’ll note the city’s architecture and scenic surroundings, its outstanding small-business Third Places, its abundance of locally-sourced humane food eateries, and some of the benefits of life in a small city (albeit, a small city with frequent high-speed rail access and decent economic opportunities).
Of course Harrisburg – like virtually every city on earth – is laden with problems. The most significant and obvious of which are racial segregation and the fact that almost half of the city’s residents are impoverished. But because these facts are par for American cities, and because they’re hardly inherent features, they shouldn’t be counted against Harrisburg.
How I got to know The Burg
My window into life in Pennsylvania’s capital was opened on two occasions. The first was weekly commuting to Harrisburg over nine months in 2013-2014 while I was a Pittsburgh resident. (The joys of regular-ism on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and the amazing utility of folding bicycles are subjects for another post.) During this stint I got a feel for the city and became a regular at Home 231 and the Midtown Scholar, and a reader of The Burg (Harrisburg’s “city paper”.)
More recently, a SEPTA colleague and myself stayed in Harrisburg for a two week PennDOT course (NBIS bridge inspection certification). My current stint is revealing a different angle on the city because I’m (bike) commuting to a different location, and because multiple new and positive developments took place in the past two years (discussed later).
Natural & Architectural Beauty
Harrisburg (and its suburbs) are surrounded by the lush greenery of central Pennsylvania. The elongated peaks of the Appalachian Mountains are within view of downtown and other vantage points. (The Appalachian Trail crosses the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg.)
A defining feature of the city’s geography is the wide, shallow Susquehanna River. Harrisburg’s easy-to-use bridges and stately waterfront architecture are a function of the apparent non-navigability of the Susquehanna as a shipping waterway.
Although its possible to walk across the river in spots, at least seven bridges cross the Susquehanna close to or within the city. Ranging from 100+ year old stone arches to 1950’s steel crossings to a modern segmental concrete box girder (the Turnpike), these bridges share similar characteristics (many short spans, and deck elevations on-level with landed roadways, railways, walkways).
The effects of this are: a pleasing visual motif, ease of walking or biking across, and less disruption to neighborhoods (except, of course, for the I-81 and I-83 highway bridges which feature divisive approaches and do not serve people on foot).
The industrial disutility of the Susquehanna also made for an attractive waterfront. Despite the Harrisburg area’s rich industrial past, little of it appears to have occurred on the Susquehanna, as evidenced by vintage architecture and old-growth trees lining Front Street and the riverfront park. (Industry appears to have been concentrated along the railroad yards behind the historic city, and the remnants of the Pennsylvania Canal, and in Steelton, south of Harrisburg.)
Passing through the linear park – covering nearly five miles of the Susquehanna riverfront – is a well-used recreational pathway. This is a segment of the Capital Area Greenbelt, a 20-mile loop through and around Harrisburg. Significant portions of the greenbelt are biking/walking trails. Other parts use low-traffic neighborhood streets. (A few areas remain awkward and dangerous.) Navigating the trail is easy due to abundant directional signage.
Complimenting Harrisburg’s natural scenery is the city’s rich and diverse historic architecture. Perhaps because Harrisburg never expanded at the rate of Philadelphia, there’s less repetition among the housing stock. Varied and interesting homes and buildings, as well as successive eras of city growth can be appreciated by walking on Green Street from downtown (to the wall that is I-81).
There is of course the grand government architecture of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex, and the historic and cosmic streetscapes projecting west and east (respectively) from the Capitol building. (For now, we’ll overlook the significant volume of downtown buildings serving no other purpose than to store motor vehicles.)
Amazing Third Places
I’m enamored with the quality of Harrisburg’s eateries, café, coffee shops, bars, and other Third Places (a term coined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place).
My favorite joint is the Midtown Scholar, an extensive bookstore-café fronting 3rd Street (in the Midtown neighborhood). Housed in an old timber industrial building, the establishment’s main room serves as a community multi-purpose venue for all kinds of events. The collection, housed mostly in the basement and spilling out onto the street, includes endless vintage volumes, locally-specific titles, and much else. Crucially, the Scholar is open until 9 PM weeknights. (It’s tough to find any café with decent evening hours in Center City Philly or anywhere in Pittsburgh.) As far as I can tell, neither city contains a Third Place quite like the Midtown Scholar.
Then there’s Little Amps Coffee Roasters, a straightforward, thoughtful coffee shop with down-to-earth baristas and delicious coffee. Spawning out of their original location in the charming Uptown neighborhood, they also occupy the corner of 2nd and State Street near the Capitol. At Little Amps is where (as an out-of-towner) I was readily clued into local goings on including 3rd In The Burg (monthly Friday art crawls), and good live music at HMAC.
Upon my return to Harrisburg this month, there were new places and things to do, partly because I had a colleague with whom to enjoy the city (and the Greenbelt trail), and because a few very positive developments had taken place.
These happy new components of Harrisburg’s Third Place prowess include Little Amps Coffee Roasters’ new Strawberry Square location, the new Sawyer’s beer garden on 2nd Street downtown, and the massive expansion of Midtown Arts Center (HMAC) music venue into a huge bar with a front porch on 3rd Street.
But most significant is The Millworks in Midtown. Recommended by multiple people, Millworks is a combination brewery / rooftop bar / locally-sourced restaurant / art gallery and studio. (They began serving their own beer last Tuesday.) I don’t know of an equal in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
Other places I frequented and/or appreciated during my Harrisburg escapades are too many to discuss (but are listed here for effect).
- Home 231 – my favorite farm-to-table dinner spot near the Capitol
- Passage to India – “best Indian food in central PA” in Shipoke neighborhood
- Sinbaad – Indian/Pakistani food (now closed, unfortunately)
- Alvaro Bread & Pastry Shop – Italian bakery/eatery in Uptown
- Appalachian Brewing Company on Cameron Street
- Yellow Bird Café – wonderful eatery / coffee shop in Midtown
- El Sol – really good Mexican food downtown
- Cork and Fork – yet another good farm-to-table spot near the Captiol
- Dalicia Bakery & Coffee Shop – brand new, in Midtown
- Broad Street Market – proportional equivalent of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal
- Harrisburg Senators – minor league baseball team with ballpark on City Island
- Wildwood Lake Park along the old Mainline canal
- The National Civil War Museum in Reservoir Park
- Harrisburg Pennsylvania (Amtrak) Station – historic and well-served train station
Small City with Big Advantages
From my perspective, having lived in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Harrisburg would be a great place to live. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh deservedly get more attention (both being large metropoles) but not everyone who’s interested in city life is enthused about big city life.
What Harrisburg lacks in the way of big city amenities (principally, multiplicity of choice), it makes up for in affordability, access to the outdoors, excellent Third Places, and a depth of public life that is possible only within a small-to-midsize community of people.
Indeed, Harrisburg enjoys unique and meaningful advantages over similarly-sized central Pennsylvania cities (like Wilkes-Barre, State College) including the economic and political opportunities relating to State government, and frequent, comfortable, high-speed (by US standards) trains to Philadelphia and New York. (Within the United States, this level of inter-city rail service is a rarity.)
So – if you’re itching for a local, low-cost getaway in which to explore civics, history, urbanism, and the outdoors; or if you’re in search of a great small city to call home with good opportunities (and easy access to big cities), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is more than worth a closer look.