Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ambridge In Exile

The best Rust Belt writers don't live there. Writing about home from a few states away or in another country is a powerful lens. Distance makes the heart grow fonder and the nostalgia informs an optimism sorely lacking in most shrinking communities. From afar, anything is possible.

Paul Hertneky is one such writer. He's from Ambridge, PA and a Keene, NH newspaper decided to do a story about the Rust Belt Boy in exile:

“We moved 13 times in 10 years, Atlanta, New Haven, Newburyport,” he said. “We came here when my wife accepted a job in development at an artist colony in Johnson, Vermont.”

Hertneky had worked on and off as a waiter and bartender in his early years, and moonlighted in restaurants periodically throughout his life.

Armed with that experience, he broke into writing for restaurant trade publications, and did book reviews on radio stations. Shortly before his 1989 move to the Monadnock Region, he took a leap of faith, and became a full-time freelance writer, gathering clients among local design firms and agencies.

This is the entrepreneurial spirit that left so many mill towns. However, Hertneky ended up in a part of New England's Rust Belt. This region also lost many of its best and brightest. The talent churn between post-industrial places is important:

Besides his work, Hertneky is invested in the local community. As a volunteer, he serves on the leadership board of Monadnock Transitional Shelter, and on the allocations committee of the Monadnock United Way. He also is employed as program manager at Art for Water, a Harrisville nonprofit organization that raises public awareness of the lack of water in the world.

Along with writing, it’s become his passion.

“We go to schools and civic institutions, anywhere people gather, to talk about the scarcity of water in the world,” he said. “Five million people die because of lack of water. We ask people to reflect and write about water on specially made pieces of paper that we turn into art installations.”

Last year, for several months, the organization exhibited a large-scale installation at the Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough. A second installation is displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., through June of next year.

Future initiatives involve St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, as well as an extensive project with the Connecticut River Valley Watershed Association, spanning from Pittsburg to Seabrook.

“We’re teaching and gathering from St. Johnsbury, Vermont all the way down the watershed,” he said.

A brain exchange between Ambridge and St. Johnsbury would be a win for both places. You won't keep the New Argonauts from leaving. The only hope for your community is to attract New Argonauts such as Paul Hertneky.

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