Chris Frye Is Helping Stage New Castle's Comeback
NEW CASTLE, Pennsylvania -- For over 100 years, the sprawling Shenango China plant warmly greeted just about every person who entered this Lawrence County city. Its 30 acres of multipane windows reflected off the Shenango River when they entered the 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. One hundred years ago, New Castle was such a significant player in iron and steel manufacturing that it was often referred to as "Little Pittsburgh."
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 32-year-old father of three described his first impressions after arriving in this post-industrial setting 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. The son of a single mother with three siblings made 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. He did this with only $250 in his campaign coffer in a predominantly white city where the registration is overwhelmingly Democratic.
"My biggest challenge is being new to the mechanics of politics and being an outsider," he said. Long before his political career, he had explicit beliefs and 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."
The city is very urban and industrial. The downtown business district is vibrant, filled with dozens of shops and restaurants. It is a melting pot of ethnic delicacies reflective of the generation of immigrants that moved here at the turn of the 20th century.