Staging New Castle’s comeback

For over 100 years, the sprawling Shenango China plant warmly greeted just about every person who entered this Lawrence County city. It was one of the largest dinnerware manufacturers in the country. China made here was hailed for its craftsmanship. It graced middle-class family tables and the state dining rooms of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson.

The plant was a place where skilled artisans and union labor workers made a good living. They took advantage of local natural resources: The clay deposits used to make the pottery, and the abundant soft coal used to fire the beehive ovens. That soft coal was also used for making steel.

Today, it is only decaying. A factory abandoned and ravished by time and fires likely caused by addicts scavenging for copper wiring. Thirty years after its closure, the complex has boxes of china never sent, and weeds grow, pushing through cracked floors.

The decay was likely one of the first things 10-year-old Chris Frye saw when his family moved here from Virginia. The now 32-year-old father of three described his first impressions after arriving here from an expanding Washington, D.C., suburb.

“I remember asking my mother, ‘Who is in charge of all this stuff?’ ” he said. “When she asked me what stuff I was talking about, I told her, ‘These potholes and buildings and bridges. Who is in charge of them? Because they are all falling apart, and someone is not doing their job.’ ”

“She told me it was the mayor’s job, and that always stuck with me,” Frye said.

Twenty years later, Frye is the mayor of his adopted hometown, making history in January 2020 when he was sworn in as New Castle’s first Black mayor. He is the rare Republican elected to the city’s top job and the youngest person ever to hold it.

“My biggest challenge is being new to the mechanics of politics and being an outsider,” he said. Long before his political career, he  drew upon conservative principles and values. “I always say this. The conflict was: We were low-income. We utilized government services, had food stamps, the whole nine yards,” he said of his upbringing. He added it provides a misconception about how political values get formed. He called the decision “one of values versus which parties dictate the programs that we’re involved in,” he said. “So, my conservative values of free enterprise and personal responsibility come from those experiences and, of course, religious freedom.”             

Frye came back to live here after earning his bachelor’s degree at Gannon University and then a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pittsburgh. Frye said he and his wife briefly considered moving the family to suburban Cranberry Township, an affluent community close to Pittsburgh.

But he was drawn back, and the idea of entering politics someday was there, albeit far in the back of his mind. “I didn’t even think about running (for mayor) until I was later in life, maybe in my 50s,” he said.

At some point, Frye saw no other option but to step up and try to find some of the solutions himself. “I read a lot about strong communities, strong towns. In the past, our city hasn’t been reshaped to be a strong town.” Turning the city into a strong town requires change. It also requires working with the City Council. “It’s contentious at times,” Frye said. “We’re working on that relationship, working on understanding each other’s roles.”

All five council members are white Democrats. Frye said he refuses to believe that party or race is an obstacle to their productive relationship. “I refuse to think it’s racial. I do, rather, look at it as roles. Who does what? So, I’m constantly trying to clarify roles so we can move forward.”

“New Castle is a typical Rust Belt community,” Frye said. “It had its heyday with the tin mills. It had its heyday with the steel industry. And once that left … there was a brain drain, a lot of folks who had those higher-level, maybe, executive jobs or engineering jobs. And they left at the same time, and it left the labor force, the labor workers, still here to pick up the pieces and find new ways of finding work.”

But that’s not the end of the story because now things are coming full circle.

As more people work from home and look for places to relocate outside of larger cities, destinations such as New Castle are becoming attractive. The houses are affordable, including century-old architectural wonders in the North Hill district and even nearer to the city’s business district’s cheery, lively grid.

Frye said while he didn’t grow up in a political household, he doesn’t think that should hold people back from serving their communities, especially communities that have declined over the years.

 Salena Zito  is  a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.