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Fixing York

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Fixing York

I returned to my hometown of York, Pennsylvania, months ago, at the onset of the COVID crisis, but in truth my heart never left. No matter how long I lived in New York City, I started most days in my midtown Manhattan office by logging on to “Fixing York PA,” to check on the latest back home.

Fixing York is my city’s Facebook group, and surely the most active and chaotic corner of the entire Internet. As of this writing, it has twenty-one thousand fifty-nine members who engage with the forum hundreds of times daily. The frenetic activity here spans the crushingly banal and the immediately urgent, the purely observational and the deeply personal. Where else can you disappear into a hundred-comment thread, fueled by obscure intra-township prejudices and possibly blood feuds, that began with some guy in Strinestown asking whether anyone has seen his keys? Forums like this exist in towns and cities across the country, but I’m here to tell you about mine.

York is a city of forty-four thousand in south-central Pennsylvania. After the presidential election in 2016, I learned from the national media that I had grown up in “the Rust Belt”—I guess there are an awful lot of empty factories around here—and that my humble county had been crucial in swinging Pennsylvania. In the tortured national discourse that followed, suddenly places like York seemed important again, all our problems not only visible but emblematic of America’s problems writ large: substance abuse, obesity, flight, inequality, sprawl, racism. This is the environment into which Hillbilly Elegy and books like it were published, and into which Fixing York was born.

The local newspaper, which founded the page, describes it as an opportunity for people from York County to  “talk about what works and what doesn’t, and offer possible solutions.” Members are instructed to ask themselves, before posting, whether their content does, in fact, contribute to the fixing of York. And some members actually do seem to get at the main purpose of the page. An editor from the newspaper shares uplifting historical facts to inspire local pride: Did you know Thaddeus Stevens lived here? It’s generally well-received to issue dramatic public thanks for good deeds, such as safely-returned wallets, bikes, and cats, as well as good customer service: “Shout out to Pam at Red Wing Shoes!” Some members prefer to get more directly to the point of the forum, though, like this man last November: “Hey, stupid question: why does York have all these shootings going on?” I’d been wondering the same thing.

Mostly, though, Fixing York is a cross between Craigslist, Twitter, and Taskrabbit. “What happened to the Dunkin Donuts on George Street?” one post asks, to sixty-four hypotheses in the comments. Where can I get a good gyro? Can someone unclog my bathtub? Can someone bring me an iPhone charger? Why are there so many tractor trailers on Route 30 right now? Intriguingly: “Looking for an HONEST land surveyor in Red Lion”; “Looking for someone REASONABLE to install an outdoor toilet off my kitchen wall.” Truly iconic Fixing York posts must be both bewildering and hostile: always raising more questions than they answer.

Indeed, many posts share the passive-aggressive grievance of the group’s very name, with its implicit argument that York is broken. These complaints are often registered in all caps: I need a pine stump ground out, by someone who will CALL BACK; I need a Pokémon cake this weekend, but only if you’re NOT BOOKED; Halloween is NOT run by the government! Thirteen thousand photos have been shared to this group, often of some asshole’s parking job. Many posts offer unsolicited advice, so specific as to make you wonder what event immediately preceded them: “Coats do NOT belong on children who are in a car seat.” “When you are pumping gas, have your keys with you and lock your car doors!” There are many missing pets. There are many missing people.

Every type of person participates in Fixing York, just as every type of person lives here. A guy named Bill has been awarded a “Rising Star” insignia by Facebook for getting in everyone’s comments saying things like, “With a little teamwork, we will beat this virus! :)”. There are OAN types who warn about the coming civil war. There are scolds, trolls, and Boomers with dreadful memes. There are even micro-influencers: my brother’s neighbor posts photos of his family collecting litter in the park, to enormous general acclaim. The actual mayor posts announcements with the nonsense hashtag #YorkStrongerTogether.

The newspaper that started the forum seems to have been totally eclipsed by it­­ — a sad little parable about the decline of local news. The print paper now exists entirely to cover high school sports and random violent crimes, and to reprint COVID-related mandates from Harrisburg. Most of the rest of its content is recycled from nationally syndicated sources, and so has lately been monopolized by the man in the White House. (Reading the paper in 2020, you’d think no one lives here at all except for talented student-athletes, murderers, and undecided voters.) Creating Fixing York may have seemed like a brilliant marketing scheme for a newspaper struggling for readers in 2015, but it turns out the members just give each other the news they care about (“What was going on in front of Hobby Lobby yesterday?”) and give Facebook the traffic and ad revenue.

I admit that at first I monitored this page not just out of homesickness, but for the spectacle—like watching Tiger King play out on social media, with locals fighting over alleged Halloween decoration thievery and so on. But when I discussed the page with nearby friends and family, amusement mixed with unease. The frenzied activity on Fixing York seemed like a sign of the deterioration of a community, for one thing: the city was full of these pugnacious screen addicts, plagued by baffling but intractable dilemmas, consulting only each other for advice. If I needed to know where I could inexpensively acquire four tires for a 2014 Ford Fusion, I would ask literally anyone I know before I posted it to Fixing York. If I had recently moved into the city and didn’t know how to register for trash pickup, I would expect to find that information some other way than consulting a forum whose other open queries include: “Does anyone know where I can take my 2 young ducks? I need to get rid of them.”

The fact is, for all its chaos, the most common thing people go to Fixing York for is help: help with yard work, help with plumbing, help with car maintenance, help with household supplies. And shouldn’t this help be available some other way—from a church or community center or neighbor or relative? In this view, the page represents the failure of municipal government, the failure of public education, the failure of local churches: these are the problems that need to be Fixed. Surely my judgements were not elitist or even, occasionally, cruel, I assured myself as I consulted, again, my communitarian conservative principles. Social media is for joking and preening, not for cultivating authentic solidarity.

But as the lockdown began this spring, the effect upon the forum was immediate, and dramatic. Every worrying statistic about the failing economy and the effects of quarantine was mirrored on Fixing York in real time. The local economy worsened, and members needed advice about filing for unemployment—the line was always busy, someone’s paperwork was lost. Poverty rose, and folks needed the distribution schedules of the local food banks. Domestic violence increased, and women asked for leads on apartments—kid-friendly, available immediately.

Though there may be ways of getting this information other than wading through the Facebook swamp, there is nowhere else you will be heard in quite the same way. Here, other members assure you that they had the same experience; me, too; you’re not alone. When opioid overdoses killed more Yorkers in the worst days of lockdown last spring than the coronavirus, loved ones took to Fixing York to grieve with hundreds of sympathetic commenters, many of whom had suffered similar losses. When frustrated parents couldn’t understand their school districts’ bespoke COVID policies and procedures, other parents tried to help interpret, or simply commiserate. While social isolation grinds away at communities already badly bruised by decades of rising loneliness and despair, if you ask Fixing York for its favorite song lyrics, eighty-nine people will reply in an hour.

Building a platform on Twitter or Instagram requires content creation and branding, a non-stop, years-long audition to be considered interesting. The upside of a viral post is enormous: thousands of likes, comments, shares! But it’s far more probable that a person’s thoughts, questions, and pleas will disappear noiselessly into the void. In a local forum like Fixing York, commenters don’t seem to care, particularly, who anybody is; the point is that they’re here. They get answers because they asked questions. They get help because they requested it.

Now that it looks like I’m going to be here for a bit, I’m thinking about getting in the mix. I, too, am annoyed by the construction on Mount Rose Avenue, distressed by the condition of city schools, and outraged by the street-illegal four-wheelers doing donuts in the intersection outside my apartment at two in the morning. I, too, am occasionally astounded by the care with which some small house in the city has been decorated, and want to celebrate it. I, too, have been lonely at times this year. Suddenly the chaos within Fixing York looks much more sane and ordered than whatever’s going on outside of it.

Mary Kate Skehan is a contributor to the Spectator and other publications.

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Mary Kate Skehan is a contributor to the Spectator and other publications.