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One photo launched a million Breezewood memes

Plus, the coolest way to land an internship.


September 23, 2022
Inside this edition: Best of, happy place, open hire, mushroom act, live from New Yorker, and in defense of Breezewood — or not.
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A thriving seasonal community of "Amish snowbirds" escaping the winter in places like Pennsylvania can be found in which coastal U.S. state?

(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.)

» One thing worth knowing: Pennsylvania can claim three eateries on The New York Times' list of the 50 best restaurants in America: Apteka in Pittsburgh, Gabriella’s Vietnam in Philly, and Andiario in West Chester.

» One thing worth trying: Filipino fast food chain Jollibee, Anthony Bourdain's "wackiest, jolliest place on earth," has come to Philly. Billy Penn breaks down the menu and the mascot.

» One thing worth sharing: In July, Rutgers student Alex Davis posted a funny-but-searing YouTube takedown of NJ Transit's brain-breaking fare schedule and "worst in the nation" transit app. Apparently they noticed. Davis is now a technical specialist intern for the transit system.

» One thing worth seeing: The largely immigrant mushroom farmers that have made Kennett Square the "Mushroom Capital of the World" are the focus of a new play now showing in Malvern, via WHYY.

» One thing worth reading: A New Yorker profile of comedian and Mechanicsburg native Shane Gillis covers his exile from SNL, his "Pennsylvania accent," and the beginning of his "second act."

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Thousands of older Pennsylvanians at risk of losing property tax rebates because of legislative inaction

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Breezewood, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Edward Burtynsky)

Say what you will about Breezewood, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more culturally relevant bathroom break anywhere in the world.

Best known to scores of motorists as the awkward go-between for two of the nation’s largest highways, Breezewood has attained internet infamy thanks to the 14-year-old and heavily memed photo above. 

The image by Edward Burtynsky, whose “quest to photograph a changing planet” was chronicled by the New Yorker in 2016, appeared in his book on the fossil fuel industry and was far more difficult to produce than the finished product suggests.

Burtynsky told Bloomberg in 2019 that it required days of scouting, a scissor lift, and a compression-heavy telephoto zoom: “I kept trying and trying, and no, no, no.”

In an email sent to PA Local this week, Burtynsky’s office said it’s “fully aware how much this photograph has become ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist.”

One reprint sold for $43,750 at Sotheby's — and they continue to circulate.

There is an entire genre of memes — dating back at least a decade — built on the visual, one that shows a quarter-mile strip of claustrophobia-inducing asphalt that has, in a popular sense, come to symbolize everything from the excesses of car culture and the corporatocracy, to the “unbearable sameness” of everything.

(Think pieces keep going there, too — in both directions.)

As a result, Breezewood is recognizable to legions of people who have never actually been to the "traveler's oasis" or set foot on its logo-covered shores.
While the "neon jumble" seen in Burtynsky's photo functions as the antithesis of emotional attachment for the millions of motorists forced to pass through it every year, others can picture the place differently.

PA Local reader Don Hebel lived in Breezewood in his younger years, in a house that's no longer standing. He explained:

“I have an entirely different perception of the place and its morph from a small town of good and kind neighbors, three mom-and-pop stores, a post office, barber shop, two churches, a very good grade school with great teachers, a few gas and service stations, several family owned motels with family farms, and fields surrounding all but the budding commercial strip."

Hebel left in 1965, when the strip looked comparatively quaint and the transition from local owners — like those chronicled by the Bedford Gazette here — was beginning to intensify. (It was around this time that the stretch of I-70 connecting Breezewood to the Maryland state line and points south was completed. National Geographic says that's when "things got weird.") 

In a 2004 piece on the closure of The Post House cafeteria and bus station after 41 years in business, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took note of the local shift "from a handful of motels and family restaurants to a constellation of chain hotels — Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge — and almost any fast food a person could desire.”

In a 2020 piece for Gribblenation titled “The rise and decline of a highway rest stop,” Adam Prince says that trend cuts the other way, too.

“Over the last ten years, a number of fast food chains have left,” Prince wrote of Breezewood. “Wendy's, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell have all closed” as the travel plazas have expanded, built food courts, and consolidated services. (There is still plenty of fast food to be found.)

If Breezewood’s monument to commerce is slowly crumbling and/or consuming itself, there is one thing certain to finish it off: the unlikely creation of a demanded-but-long-thwarted highway bypass.

A push for one by Michael Dawida, a former Democratic state senator from Pittsburgh who was involved in a rear-end collision in Breezewood in 1988, led instead to a widening of the roadway.

Today, a number of the businesses seen in Burtynsky’s iconic 2008 photo are gone. In another 14 years the frame is almost certain to look even more different. But the internet never forgets.

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor

Happy fall, via @mar_sees_lifeSend us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

Every year thousands of "Amish snowbirds" from states like Pennsylvania head to Sarasota, Florida, and the community of Pinecraft to beat the cold, play shuffleboard and softball, cruise on bikes, and hit the beach.

The phenomenon has been documented by The New York Times, photographer Dina Litovsky, and Atlas Obscura, which dates the tradition back to the first half of the 20th century. 

Many arrive via charter buses, a jaunt immortalized in the first person by Miki Meek for the Times in 2012, beginning with this excellent anecdote: 

I boarded one of those buses, full of grandparents, neighbors, sisters and childhood friends. They talked into the night, using conversation as entertainment instead of movies and music.

I sat up front next to two boisterous bishops named Roy J. C. Yoder, 75, and Andy Miller, 65. They peppered me with questions: “Are you married?” “Will you have kids?” “Do you believe in Christ?”

But they mostly killed time on our 19-hour ride by ribbing Lee, one of two bus drivers on board, and then each other.

"When Roy became preacher, he was a little bit of a slow learner, so we sent him to seminary school,” Andy told me. “They asked him ‘Where was Jesus born?’ And he says ‘Pittsburgh.’ So they say ‘Nope, Bethlehem.’ And then Roy says, ‘I knew it was some place in Pennsylvania.’ ”

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