Harrisburg Turns On The Lights

Lively Night Scene Helps Pa. Capital Brighten Up

By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 20, 2008; Page C02

It's a young crowd we see, but not completely young, as we wend our way down North Second Street. It feels like Mardi Gras mixed with a beach-town boardwalk, bodies pressed together, weaving around sidewalk tables. Live music blares from a half-dozen bars. By 11 o'clock, lines are forming at dance clubs as black-garbed bouncers check IDs.

Can this be Harrisburg?

The Harrisburg I remember was worked over pretty badly by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, leaving the downtown barren, a place to avoid. In 1979, the accident at the nearby Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accelerated its decline. By the 1980s, distress was its middle name. Even as far back as 1842, Charles Dickens didn't like the Pennsylvania capital, describing it in "American Notes" as a place "whose feeble lights, reflected dismally from the wet ground, did not shine upon a very cheerful city."

Jeff Murison, executive director of the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District, knows how far Harrisburg has come.

"When I first got to Harrisburg in the 1990s, there were maybe three eating/drinking establishments anyone went to," he says. "[It was] not safe and clean . . . not a vibrant, exciting urban environment. It wasn't like 'Sex and the City.' "

Jennifer Fritz, 27, typifies how Harrisburg has changed. She arrived in spring 2003 as a college intern working in the legislature. Unlike earlier generations of young people, she didn't commute from outside town but lived in a downtown apartment building with a stunning view of the capitol dome. She fell in love with the city and stayed.

"While Harrisburg is not Philly or Pittsburgh," she says, "a lot of exciting things happen in the city."

That's the thing. Not only does this city of 50,000 on the Susquehanna River offer a slew of daytime activities for visitors (two art museums, the kid-friendly State Museum of Pennsylvania, the capitol, the National Civil War Museum and the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts), but it also has become a nighttime destination. That's why my wife and I are here.

Our evening starts at Zia's at Red Door, a trattoria on North Second, where we eat at a sidewalk table on a very hot June night. By 6:30 the streets begin to fill with the Saturday afternoon crowd coming out of the bars and early diners looking for a place to eat. After dinner, we make our way to the Sunoco Performance Theater at the Whitaker Center to see "The Mikado" by Theatre Harrisburg, one of the oldest community theater groups in the country.

The Whitaker, a combination science center, Imax theater and performance venue, opened in 1999 and is called the city's "crown jewel" by Harrisburg's mayor. The Sunoco theater brings in top-notch music, theater and comedy year-round.

There's lots to do in town this night. If we hadn't already purchased our "Mikado" tickets, we might have gone up to Reservoir Park, about two miles north of downtown, to see "Love's Labour's Lost," this year's selection for the annual Free Shakespeare Festival.

Or we could have walked to City Island to see the Harrisburg Senators play baseball. Yes, walked. The Walnut Street Bridge, a pedestrian crossing, connects Harrisburg to City Island, site of Commerce Bank Park.

After the operetta, we people-watch on Second Street's "Restaurant Row," which is even more alive than earlier in the evening, as lines of young people snake their way into the dance clubs, including Dragonfly, and the Hardware Bar. A band entertains at Ceoltas, a faithful re-creation of an Irish bar. The largest crowd gathers in the outdoor bar area at the Tom Sawyer Diner; strung with lights, it looks like a luau breaking out in downtown Harrisburg.

All the activity reminds me of what Stephen Weinstock had told me earlier. He is the owner of Stock's on 2nd, an upper-end restaurant and one of the pioneers in reclaiming downtown. He and his wife took a big chance in 1998, he says, hoping that proximity to the capitol, the Hilton and the soon-to-open Whitaker Center would allow them to make a go of it.

In those days, Weinstock says, they never got walk-ins and "once 5 o'clock came, the sidewalks rolled up." But on this Saturday night, Stock's is full of diners and the sidewalk is still unrolled at midnight.

Restaurant Row's success makes us appreciate how far from the brink this city has come.

I bet Dickens would agree.

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