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Larry Newman of Diamond City Partnership – Why NEPA?
“We have to safeguard, care for, and cultivate the things that make us special.”
For almost 30 years and what feels like his entire life, Larry Newman has been preaching the city of Wilkes-Barre’s greatness to the region and beyond.
You may know him as a Y Walk Wednesday tour guide, a frequent kayaker on the Susquehanna River, or that guy with a beard who talked to your class about urban development. His professional title is Executive Director of the Diamond City Partnership, but to me, he’s dad.
Despite being a Wilkes-Barre “lifer,” Larry actually grew up in Kingston, (something my mom and I love to remind him of).
A proud graduate of Wyoming Valley West High School, he went away for college, earning degrees in Architecture and Urban Design before returning to the area. He could have stayed in a larger city, but he was excited to apply the lessons he had learned to a place with the raw material to be amazing. A city he has admired since childhood, Wilkes-Barre immediately came to mind, and so the lure of NEPA inevitably called him home.
We caught up with Wilkes-Barre’s biggest cheerleader in a comfy booth at Pour Coffee House. Over creamy mocha lattes he treated us to his thoughts on architecture, pizza, and most importantly, Why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
I spent my childhood here, from the time that I was born until the time I left college. I returned to the community in 1990 and have been here ever since.
What do you love about your town?
(Grab your popcorn for this one)
I love walking down Franklin Street. I think that it is one of the most beautiful streets in the country and I wish it was better known. I love the fact that NEPA is small enough that I can run into lots of different people that I know. I love living in a place where family connections go back generations. That’s a really cool and unique thing in a country where a lot of people move around from place to place. Here, there’s a real sense of belonging, a community that’s profound and special.
What’s neat about Wilkes-Barre is that it’s evolving and there are new people who are calling it home, and it’s a much more culturally diverse place than it was when I was a kid. And so we get to enjoy the benefits of seeing that increase in diversity too.
No one is going to confuse it with, you know, dozens of other cities across the country. It’s a very distinct place. It’s got a distinct history. It’s got a distinct culture- for better or worse- and as a result it’s got a personality. There are a lot of places in the United States that in my opinion, feel rather soulless. This is not one of them.
I knew that at a young age, and when I went elsewhere, I became even more appreciative of where I grew up.
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
I have so many, I don’t even know where to start. I think what’s neat is that we have restaurants that span the spectrum.
In terms of higher-end dining, I think Bank + Vine is as good as anything in the country. Istanbul Grill is also amazing, and I think it’s so cool that we have a restaurant like that in downtown.
But obviously I couldn’t talk about NEPA without mentioning pizza. I grew up a big fan of what I like to call the Victory Pig style of pizza, and there are so many different places that do that particular style. But what’s really neat about marrying someone from South Wilkes-Barre is that I’ve become a Gerry’s partisan.
I think that it’s important to understand that there’s not just one style of pizza that makes us great. There’s really good pizza in other parts of the country, but there is no other place where you can get this many varieties of amazing pizza in a relatively small geography.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
I love being able to explore on a kayak and bicycle. I think that the rivers and trails here are incredible. The fact that you’re able to get out on a bike and take advantage of 13 miles of trails from downtown Wilkes-Barre alone is awesome. And skiing, obviously, is great too. Elk Mountain is one of my favorite spots.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve reached that point in my life where my wife and I are empty-nesters, and so I think we’re starting to think about what that looks like. But what I do know is that I still have some work to do here, because we are not where we want to be in terms of downtown Wilkes-Barre’s revival. So I guess my plan for the foreseeable future is to finish what we’ve started and make sure Wilkes-Barre meets its full potential.
I also hope to travel more. I think it’s really important in allowing you to see the rest of the world and compare cultures and places. My favorite thing to do is go somewhere I’ve never been before- wander around and explore. There’s a term in French for that, it’s called being a “flâner,” and it means somebody who explores and observes life go by. That is something I enjoy doing more than almost anything else. And I am looking forward to more opportunities to being a flâner in a wide variety of places.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
I think that we have a bright future ahead of us. We need to focus on strengthening our core communities and cities. We are an area with multiple centers and all of those center cities have to be as strong as they can possibly be. That means Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton, Pittston, Pottsville, so on and so forth, have to be firing on all cylinders.
Our region is going through a lot of changes too. This is the first time that we’ve seen population growth in the core counties of Northeastern Pennsylvania in 70 years. That’s an incredible opportunity. It’s the result of the incredibly hard work of enormous numbers of people, but we have to figure out how to mold that growth so that it benefits us in the future. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing all of this work?
So in other words, we need to build on the things that make us special. It’s about channeling that growth and those opportunities for investment back into our communities that make people say “You know what? This was an amazing place to grow up, and I want to come back.”
I don’t think there are many places in the United States like this that combine the different assets that we have. Northeastern Pennsylvania is a place where you have cities and towns with rich histories, a wide range of educational opportunities, a very distinct and unique regional culture, immediate access to outdoor recreation, and you can be in New York City in two hours.
If you want to live in a walkable neighborhood or loft apartment it’s so much more accessible than in a larger city. But you still have access to those large metropolitan areas and you can be home in time to sleep in your own bed.
We have assets that other communities would kill for. We have blocks and blocks of world class architecture, and not just in one city. We can access any number of ski slopes in less than an hour. And because of where I live, I can leave my house and be on a riverfront trail circuit that extends 13 miles along the Susquehanna River.
The thing is, people don’t want to stay in a place where there are no opportunities. You can’t force a business to locate somewhere, they have to choose it for themselves. That’s why it’s so important for our communities to continue to invest in themselves, building places people will seek out in order to live, work, and play. By building on NEPA’s amazing existing physical and natural assets, we will continue to reinforce the amenities that make this a region where people want to be.