20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40’s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90’s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90’s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

Yes, Journalism Has Consequences. Get Over it.

Illustration By John Tomac

Illustration By John Tomac

For 45 years, Penn State never endured the offseason drama of losing a head football coach. Until this year, the rumor mill and the subsequent hiring free-for-all that occupies the sports pages of most major universities during the winter months never pierced the State College bubble.

So it was odd to see the contorted reactions locals had when Bill O’Brien left town for a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. The backlash was predictable; fans who praised O’Brien’s loyalty and winning record turned around and painted him as a traitor with a mediocre record. Soon the gossip bubbling under the surface came to light.

Then the secondary consequences filtered in. Stores found themselves with unsellable O’Brien-related merchandise. Recruits second-guessed their decisions to commitment to Penn State, The families of assistant coaches were forced to leave town for new jobs.

All of this is mind-numbingly obvious, of course. Sure it stinks for the people who find themselves leaving friends or taking a financial hit. These are real people with real friendships and budgets. But it’s part of the business.

I see a lot of similarities between Penn State’s jarring realization that college sports involves broken promises and uprooted families and the web’s histrionic reaction to Grantland’s investigation into Dr V’s Magical Putter.

Caleb Hannan investigative profile of Dr V is a compelling story that starts with a late night encounter with a Youtube video and ends with the death of the con woman behind the video. As you can imagine, it’s that last part that has people upset.

Most of the outrage has revolved around the fact that Dr V turned out to be transgender, and whether it was ethical to “out” her against her will. But the people who are fixated on that aspect are ignoring Hannan’s primary discovery: Dr V ( who chose the name Essay Anne Vanderbilt after her gender reassignment surgery)  was a con woman who lied about her credentials and connections in order to get wealthy investors to fund the golf putter she had invented.

Among the tall tales she told, Vanderbilt claimed to be: an aeronautical physicist from MIT; her clearance level within the government equaled those given to federal judges; a member of the exalted Vanderbilt family; a private contractor for the Department of Defense; a key researcher on the stealth bomber; and a clearance level is so high that her names cannot be found on government record; and someone who knew former Vice president Dan Quayle.

I want to point out two critical elements of Vanderbilt’s story that keep getting lost in the shuffle. The first is that her name change was explicitly made to deceive people and raise funds for her putter. If she had chosen to rename herself Essay Anne Smith, then that’s no biggie. But she chose Vanderbilt, and she used her new name to mislead investors.

The second point is that her initial condition for agreeing to talk to Hannan wasn’t simply because she wanted his report to focus on “the science and not the scientist.”  She wanted to protect her “association with classified documents” and her fictional government clearance level. In other words, she was most interested in preventing an investigation into her phony scientific credentials.

Back in the 80’s I wrote for Penn State’s college newspaper, the Daily Collegian.  While we weren’t exactly breaking major scandals, but we did learn a lot about Journalism 101. And one the key lessons drilled into us was to be tenacious. Never settle for anything less than the whole truth, and go where your investigation takes you no matter how unexpected the twists and turns are. To be honest,  being a good reporter means being a jerk: break promises; lie if you have to get to the bottom of a story; and if someone tells you not to look into their background and gives you wild, melodramatic warnings if you do so, then by all means dig into their background.

By and large, good journalists are rude, aggressive, selfish, and restless. If you want people to like you, then don’t become a reporter. If you ‘re more concerned about the potential consequences of your investigation than the investigation itself, then don’t become a reporter.

One of the reasons I quit was because the environment even at the college level was so ruthless. I don’t know if Caleb Hannan is a nice guy – he strikes me as affable enough and I commend him for being willing to pursue his story to its end, even if his phrasing in a few parts is poorly chosen. But everyone is assuming that Vanderbilt killed herself for fear of being outed. They’re ignoring the fact that she has a long history of mental illness and at least one previous suicide attempt. It’s also possible that Vanderbilt feared being outed as a Sunoco mechanic and bartender more than any public disclosure of being transgender.

I imagine many people already assumed that a 6 foot 3 woman with an unusually deep voice would be transgender. And we should never forget that no one would have probed into Vanderbilt’s past if she hadn’t spun such tall tales about her credentials and deceived so many people.  She’s the one who chose to con wealthy people and adopt a name after her surgery that would aid her scheme. Being transgender should not let her off the hook for her dishonesty in every other facet of her life.

I think it’s a good that reporters err on the side of being insensitive. Investigative journalism on all levels is suffering because journalists care too much about getting chummy with the people they’re supposed to be watching. As result of the Dr V story, people are coming to grips with the mind-numbingly obvious revelation that investigative journalism impacts real lives, and it often does so negatively.

But it’s always been that way: thanks to the media, a company that dumped toxic waste into a river has filed for bankruptcy. We should (and do) focus on the lives harmed by the chemicals and the hazardous drinking water. But breaking open the story of the corrupt chemical plant also causes lost jobs for the people who worked there, uprooted families, and down the road it could mean divorces and even suicides.

The reporter who scored the revelation that a New Jersey governor may have used his power to punish mayors who wouldn’t endorse him should be commended. But people were fired, reputations ruined, friendships were likely broken and down the road there might be divorces and broken homes. There’s a lot of misery to go around when reporters get big scoops.

So get over it. Journalism is cold-blooded, even if some reporters aren’t. Broken lives are an inherent byproduct of big stories, Given that Hannan’s investigation involved a wild attempt to profile a self-claimed physicist who conned people to create a revolutionary golf club, there would be no way to expose Vanderbilt’s fraud without mentioning who Dr V was before she was Dr V.  And lets not forget that lots of people have lost thousands of dollars in this mess. Who knows how many savings and retirement nest eggs were lost?