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Of Bubbles and Troubles

by on February 06, 2019 5:00 AM


Ten years ago, I knew people in California who walked away from their houses when their mortgage payments ballooned and they owed more to the bank than their property was worth. Friends asked me if such things were happening where I lived. Not that I knew of, I said. “You live in a bubble,” these housing bubble victims told me.

We who live in Happy Valley are often told that we live in a bubble. The label conveys envy and scorn, in equal measure. Thanks to those 46,000 students who pour in from around the globe every year, our economy is, if not recession-proof, less vulnerable to sharp downturns than other places’. Our businesses have a reliable source of customers, our workers are able to find jobs and our housing market retains its value when others are losing theirs.

The robustness of the local economy means there are fewer desperadoes among us, which means there is less crime, which makes us feel safer.

An enviable state of affairs, to be sure.  

Scorn comes into play because if you live in a place that isn’t struggling the way other places are struggling, you might come across as smug or clueless or even callous.

Or naïve: That paradise you think you’re living in is a fool’s paradise. Bad stuff can happen anywhere, as we saw when we had a shooter on campus in 1996, when the crimes of Jerry Sandusky came to light in 2011, when Tim Piazza died in 2017 and when a gunman shot four people and then himself last month. And that’s only a short list. (I contributed to a collection of writings on the Sandusky scandal titled “Notes from Inside a Burst Bubble.”)

Little wonder there are always some who gloat when bad news emanates from Happy Valley.

And yet it’s overly literal-minded to seize on this or that tragedy as proof that our bubble is a figment. Of course there’s no actual bubble, but it’s undeniable that this place, like a leeward port, is less buffeted by gales than a windward port.

I’m reminded that this is so when I drop in on other small cities and towns in Pennsylvania. I’ve been doing that a lot during the past year, visiting newspapers around the state as a traveling writing coach. The offices of most of these papers are right downtown. Calling these business districts ghost towns would be an overstatement. Comparing what they look like at 3 p.m. to what downtown State College looks like at 3 a.m. would not be.

It’s heartbreaking to see so many empty storefronts in what are often beautiful historic buildings, to see people on the streets who look like they’re there only because they have no place else to go.  

And then there’s what I don’t see: the crimes. The local papers are saturated with them. I doubt that I would feel unsafe at 3 p.m. on the streets of any of the towns I have visited; I know that I have not felt unsafe on the rare occasions when I have been out and about at 3 a.m. in State College. (The asterisk here is that I am out and about in a white male body, which can be its own protective bubble. The second asterisk is that my friends who go about in black and brown bodies feel safer in State College than they do when they go elsewhere in rural Pennsylvania -- though maybe not at 3 a.m.)

The stories I’m seeing in these Pennsylvania newspapers track with the book I’m reading about the opioid crisis. Beth Macy’s “Dopesick” tells story after story about once-placid small towns from Appalachia to Maine where addicts are stealing pills, cash, jewelry and tools from relatives, friends and neighbors.

In places where people used to leave their keys in their cars and their doors unlocked, one of Macy’s sources tells her, “they’d look for things during the day – weed eaters were popular – and then at night they’d come back and pick them up.”  

It’s a real-life version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: Your relatives, friends and neighbors look like their old selves but they no longer act like their old selves.

It would be naïve to think that nothing of the sort is happening around here, but I’ve heard nothing to suggest anything is happening on the scale of places where opioid addiction tracks with burgeoning unemployment rates.

I used to get defensive when told I lived in a bubble: Don’t we grapple with money, work, health and relationship problems just like everyone else?

Now, though, I may as well admit it: I like living in a bubble, even as the stories from elsewhere in Pennsylvania and in Macy’s book, and especially the stories in our own news outlets about the recent shootings in P.J. Harrigan’s remind me that a bubble is a very fragile thing.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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