Coming of Age in the Small Town That Jimmy Stewart Left Behind
Indiana, Pennsylvania is a quiet little town situated about 55 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. It claims to be the Christmas Tree Capital of the World. But most famously (and more factually accurate), Indiana is the birthplace and hometown of the late actor Jimmy Stewart. Despite the fact that Jimmy left after graduating high school, he became the town’s biggest source of pride—a small town boy made good.
Like Jimmy Stewart, Indiana is the place where I spent my formative years. As a kid all I knew about Jimmy Stewart was that he was a famous actor and he was from Indiana. I never even saw one of his films until I was an adult. But even as a kid I could feel the presence he had in town long after he left. He was this larger-than-life person who came from this little, sleepy town known for its coal mines and Christmas trees. That presence that I felt as a kid is still there. Jimmy’s bronze statue greets the town from the front of the courthouse, multiple streets bear his name, his namesake museum continues to show his films every weekend, and each year during the holiday season Indiana is transformed into Bedford Falls for the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” celebration.
Indiana sits amidst an awkward push and pull of inhabitants. The Indiana Normal School that Jimmy attended before heading off to Princeton is now Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)—a school known more for its parties than its academic prowess. The university has a reputation of being more George Bailey-on-a-bender than Jimmy Stewart, something the town tends not to brag about. Locals cling to the past with all they have while the constant stream of students passing through IUP could not care less about Jimmy’s legacy and his hometown’s faded glory. It’s tough to move forward when so much of the greatness of a place lies in the past. But every semester the town is reluctantly forced to face the present.
Growing up long after Mr. Smith went to Washington, I was angry, rebellious, and bored. I wanted to get out as soon as I could, but the pull of an affordable education kept me close to home. After I graduated from IUP, I left town like Jimmy. It wasn’t until I came back as a visitor that I realized how special the place really is. Nothing much happens and there’s not a lot to do, but it’s that stillness and quiet that informs the way I look at the world now. All the things I used to hate about Indiana are the things that now draw me back: The weird lawn decorations, the unkempt student rentals, prominent displays of patriotism and religion, and, of course, the excessive use of Jimmy Stewart as a marketing tool. These photographs are about the things we hold on to when we can’t let go, the pieces of our lives and memories that make us who we are. Indiana still believes in Jimmy Stewart. And I think Jimmy, wherever he is, still believes in Indiana.
Photo Essay is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that features images from both emerging and established photographers working in a variety of styles—from documentary and conceptual, to fine art and commercial. For past installments, visit the archives.