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Pa.'s singing, driving, flag-waving identity crisis

Plus, the sudden death of a 'worst transit project' contender.


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Thank you!

— Colin D., Newsletter Editor
Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.

March 24, 2023
Inside this edition: Short-lived, bug deal, furnace find, the King is dead, apartment envy, and Pennsylvania 2.0. Thanks for checking in.
🏆  TEST TIME: If you’re confident you followed the news closely this week, there’s only one way to prove it: Put your knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

There is one Pennsylvania county with no traffic lights. Which one is it?

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One rule worth knowing: Otto's Pub & Brewery in State College stopped honoring lifetime memberships. Still-living members would like a word.

» One bug worth wearing: Pennsylvania's spotted lanternfly zone is expanding, again, and Maryland's state flag never looked better

» One name worth knowing: WESA reports we finally know who the famed Carrie Furnaces near Pittsburgh were named for.

» One story worth reading: SEPTA's $3B King of Prussia rail extension — a "worst transit project" contender — is halted indefinitely.

» One place worth seeing: The internet is having a meltdown over this Philly apartment because it somehow "isn't $10,000/month."

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Mortgage relief botched from start, Pa. says

» Full guide to Pa. Supreme Court candidates

» Hurdles remain for Pa.'s women lawmakers

» Local fixes for a broken Pa. legal system

» Slow change after fatal Pa. police shooting

» Watch a panel on Pa.'s uneven election policies
A tricolor flag waving in the wind with Harrisburg and the Susquehanna River in the background.
An alternative to the Pennsylvania flag called the Keystone Flag, designed by Tara Stark. (Courtesy of Tara Stark)

It’s minutes after 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and state Rep. Joe Ciresi is singing a song about Miami — this 1983 tourism jingle, specifically — into his phone.

“It’s Miami. It’s my Miami. Miami’s for me,” he croons from his Harrisburg office.

Ciresi — son of a nightclub singer and a trained vocalist himself — is giving PA Local an example of the kind of earworm effect he has in mind as he pushes a plan to reexamine and replace Pennsylvania’s divisive (in the mildest sense of the word) state ditty, a song the Montgomery County Democrat feels is at once flat, forgettable, dated, and not adequately serving the commonwealth’s PR needs.

There’s a lot of this going around these days, from unofficial reassessments of Pennsylvania’s state flag to “graphic design is my passion” critiques of our license plates. A slow-moving and civic-minded seven-year itch of sorts seems to be underway. 

In a recent piece for Philadelphia Magazine titled “Other States Have Cool License Plates. Why Can’t Pennsylvania?”, journalist Christine Speer Lejeune writes that it’s been 24 years since Pennsylvania’s last update, which yielded rather drab results.

Speer Lejeune quotes an Autoblog review from December that compares our plates to the Visa logo — here’s an uncanny side-by-side — adding, in her own words:

“There’s also no voice there, nothing to cling to. Virginia gets to be for lovers. Idaho mentions its ‘famous potatoes,’ and South Carolina strangely but memorably proclaims, ‘While I breathe, I hope.’ Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has eschewed such frivolities in favor of dull utilitarianism. ‘VisitPA.com,’ our plate lamely commands. But why would anyone want to?”

(PennDOT says the plate may be boring but it’s easy to read, and that’s priority one.) 

A person in a hellbender costume.
The hellbender — aka snot otter — is Pennsylvania's official state amphibian and arguably its least controversial state symbol. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

On the flag front, vexillologist Tara Stark has taken it upon herself to redesign Pennsylvania’s, freeing it of the busy coat of arms cluttering up its aesthetic impact and — as you’ll see a third of the way down this page — making it largely indistinguishable from a host of other states’. 

Much like Ciresi and the state song, Stark thinks Pennsylvania’s 100-plus-year-old flag is milquetoast. To illustrate the point, she recalls a tweet by state Sen. Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) who, when prompted to describe the flag from memory, simply wrote the word “horses.”

Stark’s updated version draws inspiration from the original. It uses blue, green, and yellow to evoke the sea, plow, and fields at the center of the coat of arms. But it replaces the visually crowded emblem itself with an understated keystone symbol. The simplicity is kind of the point, eschewing complicated visuals that don’t look good from a distance or contorted in the wind.

“It should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory,” Stark says, citing the North American Vexillological Association’s five principles of good design

I ask if there’s a “gold standard” of state flags. Stark says it might just be New Mexico’s

It’s probably worth noting here that flags tap a deeper well of public — and at times political — opinion than a state song or certainly a license plate would. Just look at the heated debate around Utah’s recent replacement of its state streamer. (A repeal effort is underway.)

Vexillologist Ted Kaye, in a recent interview with GlacierHub, used the phrase “ugly baby syndrome” to describe garden-variety flag fervor and the interwoven resistance to change. 

“That’s part of why I was conscious in designing the Keystone Flag to pull elements from the current flag,” Stark explains. “It’s not meant to be something that says our flag is trash. It’s saying our coat of arms is great. I often joke about the flag being a disrespect to the coat of arms because if there’s not enough wind it’s just a horse’s ass in the air vertically.”

A house with the Keystone Flag hanging from the porch.
A Keystone Flag in the wild. They're on sale here. (Courtesy of Nick Malawskey)

She likes to think of flags as “visible symbols of invisible bonds,” and her design is public domain, meaning it's yours for the taking. 

The goal of Stark’s Keystone Flag project was to create “a symbol of unity,” not to replace the state flag, though she’s open to that possibility. Some lawmakers appear open to it too.

Tradition, however, is a hell of a drug. 

Ciresi — who got his bachelor of music from the University of Miami — is aware that the “you can’t please all the people all the time” adage is particularly true when it comes to things like his quest to upgrade Pennsylvania’s state song. He wants to tap a volunteer commission to find and recommend a new one. Legislators would get final approval.

“People are going to get angry,” he said. “People get angry at everything. But I want something that we can use in tourism. You know that compared to our sister states we’re way behind on tourism spending, right?” 

Ciresi adds that in a state that can claim Taylor Swift, Hall & Oates, The Roots, and Oscar Hammerstein’s “creative epicenter,” it’s time for something a little more contemporary. 

He’s less definitive when asked if he’d support a new state flag or license plate but said he’s open to discussing all of it. He closes with this: "We need to keep tradition, I get it, but there are things that move along. Even in Fiddler on the Roof, someone says why do we do that and [Tevye] says tradition, but it doesn’t work, but it’s tradition. You know what I mean?”

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor

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Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"We basically had to dig the railroad out of the dirt. It had sat dormant for nine years, but even before that, they were struggling to keep up with it."

—Jonathan Smith on the century-old, steam-powered train now serving as a "living museum" in Huntingdon County where, yes, you can ride it

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
A raccoon at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, via Don N. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on IG, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A raccoon peering down from rafters.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Forest County, Pennsylvania's most rural, has no traffic lights, PennDOT confirmed to PA Local. At one point it and Perry County were the only two, but the latter got its first stoplight in 2010, upsetting some.

A shaken Gary Hill of Marysville was left taking comfort in Perry County's lack of parking meters, adding, "That’s when I’ll know Perry County has grown too much. When I have to drive around with change to park."

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

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