A Fortuitous Encounter – Johnstown Exploratory Journalism Project by Carlos Irisarri (A’21)

by tuftsigl
Aug 23

This summer, myself and two of my classmates, Arjun and Elliot, traveled to Johnstown, PA to get a better understanding a city facing out-migration from former industrial hubs. Prior to our trip, we conducted a significant amount of background research on the topic and spoke with individuals who have experience in the field of investigative journalism and on de-industrialization in the US.  One of the goals of this narrative project is to document the lives of people in cities facing economic, political, and social decline. We want to put a human face to what is happening in cities such as Johnstown.

We arrived in western Pennsylvania on the 27th of July, and just two days into our travels, we felt we would be able to accomplish what we set out to do. Our biggest worry in conceptualizing this project was that we were not entirely sure as to whether or not people would want to talk to us. Why would anyone want to speak to three students from Tufts University randomly deciding to spend a month in their town? However, on Tuesday, two days after arriving we decide to run into a bookstore to shield ourselves from rain. Arjun taps me on the shoulder, points to the owner and urges me to go talk to him. It only takes a question or two for Mike Messina to start sharing his stories, each more fascinating than the last. He told us about his wife who had recently passed away, and the impact this had on his life. His personal story was full of details that described the changes Johnstown has seen over the past decades.

Mike’s generosity in storytelling is not uncommon in this town, which has been a true blessing.

A few days later, Mike posted about his conversation with us on this on his bookstore’s Facebook page and encouraged others to speak to us about their experiences.

Friday a weird thing happened. to me. Out of a clear blue sky there was a massive clap of thunder. It set off the fire alarm at Chameleon & within seconds there was a monsoon-like downpour, and amid all the noise & chaos three young dudes flew into the store like Dorothy arriving in OZ. I knew they weren't locals; they were too clean, polite and well-dressed. I started telling them about my life in Johnstown and they were thrilled. "Tell us more, can we record this?" Yeah, I guess so. I talked most of the afternoon, about the history of Johnstown, my family, of Lorraine and of her tragic loss, how I will make the success of the Chameleon her legacy, etc. The guys ate it up, asking if they could take pictures of me & the store…Elliot, Carlos & Arjun are in town until August 26th. I was their 2nd interview. In my entire life no one conscious has ever listened to me the way they did. They are really cool. I had them meet me at VOMA's open mic event, where Elliot sang Sinatra songs acapella, Carlos told a touching family story, Arjun photographed everything, while I did a comedy monologue about how we met. The guys will be at the street party on Sunday. Make them welcome & support their work while they are here.” -Mike Messina