Johnstown, Pa., leads nation in people who stayed put

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- In a nation of movers, a country filled with people who routinely pack up the moving van and start over someplace new, this old industrial city stands proudly apart.

Despite the collapse of the steel industry, the closing of the coal mines and the terror of those legendary floods, Johnstown leads the nation in the percentage of citizens who have lived in the same house for 30 years or more.

Not just the same town. The same house. Since the Eisenhower administration.

"Even during the hard times, people opted to stick it out and stay here," said William Findley, who compiles unemployment data for the Pennsylvania labor department's Bureau of Research and Statistics in Johnstown. "They're tenacious."

He's a statistic himself: He's 53 and has lived in the same house for 35 years.

Nationally, the 1990 U.S. census found only 8 percent of Americans have lived in the same house since at least 1959. But in Johnstown, a city of about 28,000 set on the Conemaugh River, 23.5 percent of the citizens reported that kind of stability.

Why do Johnstowners stay put? The beauty of the steep blue-green Allegheny Mountains, residents say. The small-town friendliness. The low crime rate. The unhurried pace.

"They were born here. They decided to stay here. The quality of life is here," said Michelle Hornick, marketing director of Johnstown's Chamber of Commerce. "It's as simple as that."

"It's that four-letter word: home," said Bill Felix, who spent 19 years working in banking from Singapore to Los Angeles before returning to Johnstown 23 years ago to open the Candy Store on Market Street.

And why the same house?

Strong family ties rooted in ethnic traditions, people say. Children living in the same house they grew up in, then staying to care for elderly parents and eventually taking over the homestead themselves. And in those families where children move away, retirees don't bother moving to a smaller home.

Several other regions in Pennsylvania or bordering on it also boast high percentages of what the census bureau calls "stayers" -- as opposed to "movers."

Gordon De Jong, a sociology professor who directs Pennsylvania State University's graduate program in demographics, said that all those regions share certain characteristics.

Tend to be older

They tend to be older, industrial regions whose economies suffered over the past two decades, Mr. De Jong said. Their young people tend to move out in search of jobs. Their older people tend to stay.

Had there been an influx of new people, there would be a demand for new housing. New people in new houses would offset the concentration of old people living in old houses, said Robert Bonnette of the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The key to having high proportions of stayers is having an area that is attracting very few people," Mr. De Jong said. "Very few people are moving to Johnstown."

Surrounding townships boast gracious turn-of-the-century homes, originally built for steel company executives, and bright new developments built to provide houses for suburban families.

In old Johnstown, however, the homes tend to be two-story wooden frame houses that march up the hills from the downtown river shore.

The region has its problems. Johnstown's unemployment rate is higher than the state average and the average income is lower.

The steel industry's consolidation has meant that some residents now work at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant during the week and go back to their long-held Johnstown homes on weekends.

The area is shrinking as the birthrate falls and fails to attract enough new residents to balance the loss of the younger generation.

"If you look at things like quality of life, those factors would rank very high in Johnstown. What you often get in places like this is a maximization of aspects of life that revolve around community."

That's what holds John and Dorothy Gunter, who have lived in the same home in Westmont Township, high on a hillside overlooking downtown, for 29 years.

He is 76, a retired department-store executive, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce. She is 75, a former schoolteacher. "We're at a place in our lives where we could live anywhere we want," Mr. Gunter said. "But we don't want to live anyplace else."

Lengthy friendships

They were eating at the Sunnehanna Country Club, looking out on golfers playing on grounds blooming with rhododendron. Friends arrived at the next table and waved.

"You saw that man come in," Mr. Gunter said. "He and I have been friends for 40 years."

"How many?" Mrs. Gunter asked.

"Thirty?" Mr. Gunter offered.

"Fifty," she said.

He looked satisfied. "I don't care to move away from that," Mr. Gunter said.

Richard Mayer, former publisher of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, said he assumed he'd be working for a New York City bank when he graduated from Lehigh University many years ago. "They offered more than you can make in Johnstown. But for half the salary, you can live better in Johnstown."

And so he came home. His office in the newspaper building looks out on a green city square. The department store around the corner closed after a 1977 flood, and several downtown storefronts bear "for rent" signs.

But what American center city hasn't struggled as shoppers flock to suburban malls? he asked.

Mr. Mayer arrives most mornings at 7 a.m. "If I come at 8, I get into a traffic jam, which means I have to wait for two traffic lights."

His son is in the Air Force. One daughter is a lawyer practicing in New York. The other went to college and, like her father, came home. Pamela J. Mayer now is the newspaper's publisher.

A few blocks away, in his candy store, Mr. Felix said he traveled the world, "had everything under the sun, a summer home on the [New Jersey] shore. And one day I thought, 'Damn it, I'm homesick.' "

He left behind a high salary to sell penny candy. "But now I can go outside and look at the hillside whenever I want to. I walk to work. In the spring, I can watch that hillside turning green. In the fall, oh, it's beautiful."

He acknowledges there are no bright lights in this city, but so what? "A lot of people say there's nothing to do. Well, that's pretty damn stupid." He follows the local hockey and baseball teams and enjoys his neighbors.

But in greater Johnstown, things are changing. In Richland, Donald C. Pepe, the township's manager, oversees a suburb of 13,000 that includes new industrial parks, the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and two malls.

New homes are going up so quickly that Richland is among the fastest growing townships in the state, Mr. Pepe said. By the next census, those new homes could bring down the percentage of Johnstowners who stay in the same old home.

Mr. Pepe says people who moved away from the area are moving back as new high-tech industries open. "There's a comfort level. People want to come back to raise their kids the way they were raised," Mr. Pepe said.

Other cities across the country also boast their scenic beauty, their low crime rates, their friendly people, Mr. Pepe said.

But somehow, in Johnstown, the elements converged to put the city at the top of the census list of stayers.

"If I could bottle it and sell it," Mr. Pepe said, "I'd make a fortune."

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