Oil City was once the hub of the petroleum industry. Those days are long gone and the city is reinventing itself–as an arts community.
Oil City suffered the fate of many other Pennsylvania communities that were once driven by prominent industries. It was once the hub of the nation’s oil production and home to major companies like Pennzoil and Quaker State. But the companies moved away and the days of Oil City’s prosperity are gone. Oil City has had to find ways to reinvent itself. And it’s chosen to embrace art—and artists.
Nowhere is there a better metaphor for Oil City’s reinvention than the National Transit Building. Built in 1890, the building was once the headquarters of the National Transit Company, a subsidiary of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. It boasts an ornate double staircase with wrought iron railings, stately woodwork, and giant windows.
And vaults. Many, many vaults.
The executives—and the money that once filled those vaults—have long moved out, but in their place is art. Everywhere. That’s because the city has turned the building into the hub of a bustling artist community.
The artists’ presence is apparent—on the second floor, just outside the elevator doors, there’s a larger-than-life papier mache Charlie Chaplin lying on the floor. And beside that, prize-winning children’s book illustrator John Manders is snapping images of Kat Sockey, who is clad in medieval attire and wielding a sword. (He plans to use the images to guide his drawings for a graphic novel.)
“I’m always trying to convince my illustrator buddies who live in Pittsburgh to come up here,” said Manders. “You’ve got a whole lot less stress. It’s easier to live up here. And we have an arts community and people are very supportive of me here.”
Manders is one of eighteen artists in the building, and there’s room for more.
Joann Wheeler is the head of Oil City’s Artist Relocation Program. (And an artist herself—her medium of choice? Styrofoam.) Her job as head of the relocation program is, simply put, to get artists to move to Oil City. A key marketing tool for the past 8 years was a 100 percent financing program by a local bank specifically for relocating artists, but those terms have recently changed and Wheeler is currently working to set up new incentives.
A major selling point is the fact that Oil City is uniquely beautiful. It’s nestled between hills and bisected by a river. All around town are Victorian mansions built for oil magnates of days past.
Maybe most importantly? Real estate prices in Oil City are really, really low. As in, you can buy a house for $30,000 dollars.
Artists have to apply for the program. If approved, Wheeler connects the artist with a realtor and a local bank.
In the eight years the program has been going, 32 artists have moved to the area from places like Boston, Chicago, and LA. And three more are in the process of moving.
Other cities have tried similar programs, with mixed results. Peducah, Kentucky was the model for Oil City’s initiative. In Pennsylvania, York’s Artist Homestead Program provided grants for down payments and settlement costs until funds ran out. Johnstown started the Kernville Art District, but the program is on hold.
Swantje-Elke Daashuur is one of the artists who relocated as part of the Oil City program. She makes one-of-a-kind jewelry from materials she’s collected over 40 years of travel.
Daashuur is originally from Germany and lived in big cities before moving to Northwest Pennsylvania. She said she moved to Oil City because she saw Wheeler’s ad for the relocation program in an arts magazine.
Daashuur explained, “I had this open in my studio for about a year… to make a long story short, I looked at [the ad] and I said, “What the heck, let me give this a call.”
Daashuur and her husband had been in the real estate business in New York and Los Angeles, and when the economy bottomed out they decided to try something new.
“It’s very different from New York and Los Angeles and London,” she said. “But I like it here.”
Just down the street from the National Transit Building is the Mosaic Café and Gallery. Mary Morgan owns the café and is also a photographer. She, too, moved to Oil City after seeing Wheeler’s ad in a magazine. Morgan said she thinks Oil City’s smart to target artists.
“You can take a town that has lost its industry and things, but when artists come they’re looking at a blank canvas so they can see that this town has the potential and help move it forward,” she said.
Morgan’s bought a house, a downtown storefront for her business, and a house for her mom.
Kathy Bailey is Oil City’s Main Street manager. She said the real estate sold to artists is a tangible sign of the relocation program’s economic success. And artists-turned-residents pay taxes, patronize local businesses, boost the tourism industry. And—this is key—they bring their jobs with them, so they don’t compete for locals in an already weak job market. Bailey also credits the art revival with drawing businesses downtown—15 since the relocation program.
She said at first people wondered why the city was focusing on arts instead of something that would bring more jobs.
But Bailey says it’s necessary to focus on smaller scale initiatives.
“We’re wise enough to know that we’re not going to get a Toyota plant dropping out of the sky. You have to create opportunity little by little,” said Bailey.
And is art in itself going to make up for the bygone oil industry? Bailey said of course not. But she said it’s clear in Oil City, investing in the arts is a good idea.
Keystone Crossroads is a new statewide public media initiative, reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania’s cities.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year the National Transit Building was constructed due to a typographical error. The National Trust in Oil City was built in 1890.