Of the numerous cities that make up the 570 area code, Hazleton, Pennsylvania is not the most glamorous by any standard. Regardless, it is home.
Well, technically it isn’t. I grew up in Drums, Pennsylvania, an even smaller town situated in a valley just outside of the already small city. It takes me approximately four minutes to reach Hazleton. Nevertheless, the Hazleton Area School District encompasses my town and many others. It’s like being a Philadelphian that grew up just outside the city, except we substitute your cheesesteaks for our cold pizza and Farmer’s Iced Tea, and we don’t have any major league sports teams to claim as our own.
Here’s what Hazleton does have: an overwhelming population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other neighboring countries. Just about half of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to a 2015 census. I had the pleasure of sitting in class with students from these countries throughout my schooling. Some of them became my best friends, and I learned more from them than I ever could from any history lesson. Hazleton has countless restaurants to satisfy even the pickiest eater. The diverse eateries reflect the diverse culture that epitomizes where I grew up. If you look past Panera Bread and Applebee’s, you’ll find Cusat’s, Jimmy’s Hot Dogs, and Vesuvio’s. I have yet to find better Mexican food than the Brass Buckle.
Hazleton is subject to the same political issues that have arisen throughout the rest of the country; many of them are even amplified because of the characteristic population of this town. Because of this, Hazleton is filled with individuals who are passionate about what they believe in and are taking active steps to share those beliefs and make this world, and our town, a better place. These are the people who are going to make a long-term difference.
Hazleton is full of young academic and athletic talent. My graduating class of 760 students was comprised of many students that have now completed their first semester at some very impressive higher education institutions, while some have begun careers in the military and others are fully prepared to enter right into the workforce. Our high school athletic teams are some of the best in the state, and a few graduates from the past several years are working toward careers at the professional level.
Here’s what Hazleton doesn’t have at first glance: a lot to do. My friends and I quickly realized this as we looked for ways to occupy our time on Friday nights. Once we exhausted our options at the local movie theater and bowling alley, we came up with ways to make our own fun. There’s something beautiful about that. We became the most creative kids I knew. I might be biased, but I think there’s truth in that statement. My childhood was marked with late summer nights with round after round of barefoot manhunt, either at the park or in our own neighborhoods. We’d catch a Little League game first and then play for hours. This was before we had phones to text our friends when we couldn’t find them. In the winter, we bought the six-dollar sleds from Weis’s or Gould's, the local grocery store, made snow slushies and stayed outside until we couldn’t feel our toes.
Then seasons changed and years passed and we grew up, and a wider berth of opportunities to occupy our time opened up. The lines between the valley and the city began to blur. High school drove us all to be friends, and we would drive up and down Route 309 and Route 93 like we lived in two places at once. We got in our cars, drove to each other’s houses, picked up four or five friends and headed to Stewart’s or Valley-Hi for ice cream. Stewart’s has been replaced by Valley Scoops now, but the ice cream tastes just the same. We’d catch a football or basketball game, and sometimes the boys would start games of their own. The bottom line was: we were perfectly content with where we were and living in the moment of what we had.
Then, for some reason, we started complaining. We realized that we could leave this place in a few years, and our appreciation for what we had began to cripple and fade. Negative perspectives on the place that gave us so many memories began to develop, and people became impatient, like caged animals waiting to be released and freed from the captivity of the 570. I also see a similar sense of negativity in many of the adults that never moved out of the Hazleton Area, as if they never took the opportunity to leave and are now regretful. This negativity spreads and spreads until it begins to corrupt the image of a place that may not be so bad, if you look at it optimistically.
As my peers and I threw our graduation caps up in June, one of the most exciting points of my life came and went, and I watched the people I grew up with prepare to scatter across the country. There was one common sentiment threaded throughout everyone, and to put it into words would go something like “Thank God I am finally getting out of here.” I want to stress that there is nothing wrong with feeling that way. At times, I even felt that way myself. There is nothing wrong with wanting to spread out and see different parts of the world. There is also nothing wrong with leaving and never coming back, if you should find that to be where life takes you. As for myself, I truly have no clue where I’m going to end up.
After my first semester of college, however, nothing was more comforting than coming back to see that everything is still just the way it was—that no matter where we go or what we do, middle schoolers will still be going to the Regal movie theater on group dates to catch a movie, and Buddies Bagels will always sit on Route 93 waiting for us with a chocolate milk and our favorite sandwich.
Now, if you’ve never been to Hazleton or any of the small towns around it, you really can’t relate to what I’m saying. Regardless, my point is this: Don’t take your hometown for granted. We all make monumental plans to leave home and see so much of the world or relocate somewhere new, but it is essential to not forget where we come from. I don’t know if I’m going to move back to Hazleton after college. There are a lot of places I would love to live, even for a little bit, larger cities among them. However, I’ll never discredit or degrade the town I grew up in for existing. I’ll always regard it with a sense of pride, even if it isn't the most glamorous, because it is responsible for making me the person I am today.