Skip to main content

7. Wellsville: It's a Wonderful Life

Pottersville and Bedford Falls

The neon luster of Pottersville in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a boundless pleasure playground of hypercapitalism. But is the town's prosperity worth its moral abdication?

“The Southern Tier is Desolate”

Addressing local media in February 2015 on the semi-serious plan by towns affiliated with the Upstate New York Towns Association (NYTA), town supervisor Jim Finch of Conklin, NY expressed his concern with the deepening economic worries of the region. “We have no jobs and no income...Right now, we are being deprived of work, jobs and incomes.”

He is certainly right in his concern. According to the 2010 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau, the counties of Broome, Chemung and Steuben along the Southern Tier of New York were ranked 28th, 35th and 37th in per capita income (well below the national average of $27, 334) while Allegany county ranked third to last in both per capita and median household income, with its citizens making just over $20,000 a year. Alfred, a village within Allegany County, has 37.7% of its citizens falling below the national poverty line, while Elmira, NY of Chemung County records that 32.6% of those under the age of 18 are living under impoverished conditions. President of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Natasha Thompson estimated to the Ithaca Voice in 2014 that nearly one in four citizens of the region had some experience of food insecurity since 2009. “It was a challenging time,” Thompson says of the increased patronage to the food bank following the Great Recession, “and then it became the new normal.”

The situation in the Southern Tier is dire. Poverty as a normalized phenomenon is a threat not only the sovereignty of the Southern Tier region of New York, but to the general welfare of its citizens as well. If history has shown anything, it’s that a disenfranchised public faced with unprecedented economic strife is liable to turn to rather extreme measures.

Genesee River-Wellsville

Wellsville, NY―A view of the Genesee River towards the former site of the Sinclair Refinery Company

“An Emotional Dialogue”

In December of 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, due to insufficient scientific evidence to counter significant risks to public health, a state-wide ban on hydraulic fracturing would take effect. Scores of anti-fracking activists, reveling in the decision, gathered on the Great Western Staircase of the Albany Capitol Building. “I woke up this morning proud to be a New Yorker,” said Katherine Hudson of the activist group Riverkeeper, “A state in which…citizens speak, we speak, and government listens. Our government…listened to the science, they listened to the people, and they made a decision based on the facts.”

 For activists, the decision was an affirmation of the legitimacy of their concerns; launching a high-pressure chemical concoction into the ground with the expressed purpose of exacting flammable, poisonous methane could not possibly be done without significant environmental harm and degradation. A definitive study by environmental scientists from the nation’s top universities, conducted just two months prior to Cuomo’s ban, revealed that groundwater contamination by fugitive gases around 113 fracking sites on the Marcellus Shale were all derivative of human negligence. These findings discredited the notion of “natural methane migration” touted by oil companies and pro-fracking activists, which dismissed the high concentration of methane in drinking water as a natural consequence: “Few buyers ordered methane tests since there was very little public awareness that methane could be present in water wells,” a statement by Natural Gas Now, a pro-fracking organization, reads. “Public awareness has heightened since Marcellus Shale drilling started in 2008 and the public is now more aware of methane and other contaminants and so there is more concern than previously.”

 Many environmentally-conscious New Yorkers were picking up what the oil companies were putting down…And what they were putting down was toxic, in more ways than one.

Wellsville Refinery Building 44 Wellsville Refinery Building 44

'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

“I’m optimistic, I guess…”

Jessmynda Dosch-Evangelista of Wellsville, NY was profiled by NBC News in early 2014 as the face of “the seesaw economy,” a term coined by the outlet to describe the nearly 33% of Americans that teeter on the edge of poverty. Of her sporadic, part-time job at a pizzeria where she makes just five dollars an hour plus tips, Jessmynda told NBC, “I hear people say ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and I think, ‘Oh my God, that would be great.’” Jessmynda’s case is not an anomaly for the town on the Southern Tier: Census data corroborates that 24.3% of Wellsville citizens had fallen below national poverty standards between 2009 and 2013 (Comparatively, the national average over the same period was 15.4%). This means that, like Jessmynda, many citizens of Wellsville have taken measures to reduce expenses and live without luxuries.

Yet Wellsville was not always a milieu of meager living. Like much of the Southern Tier and across the Genesee Valley, Wellsville has fallen behind in the post-industrial evolution of the United States’ economy. For over 100 years, the town of Wellsville had been synonymous with manufacturing: First, with the small, hydraulically-powered lumber mills along the Genesee River in the mid-nineteenth century, followed later by a giant oil boom and the establishment of the Sinclair Refinery by the end of the nineteenth century. Sinclair and the refinery quickly became the crux/crutch of the town’s economy, the result being a gleaming, unparalleled prosperity for the townspeople: “Like a fairy kingdom, springing from the magic touch of a million nymphs,” reads a 1930 article from a local paper, “has a great industry reared its stacks and towers skyward over Wellsville, undreamed of 50 years ago…” As another article from 1957 declared, “…Sinclair saved Wellsville from the Depression.”

But after a second major fire shuttered the Sinclair Refinery for good in 1957, those that stayed in Wellsville clamored for a new economic identity. What remains of the fairy kingdom when the “million nymphs” and kings and queens of oil skip town on the nearest Greyhound and leave its loyal subjects behind? Who were they to become now that the shining smokestack beacons had tumbled back down to earth?

Five dollars an hour plus tips.

Sinclair Gas Sign, Wellsville, NY

A mocking monument of rusted glory standing just outside of Wellsville. Only 31 cents a gallon!

“I can live without natural gas…I can’t live without water.”

 Bill Ely’s water explodes.

This is not a new phenomenon: Bill, along with the other most vocal residents of Dimock, PA demonstrated their water’s pyrotechnic proclivity on 60 Minutes in 2010, and has been prominently featured in Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland of the same year. The widespread images of flammable water out of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Texas, among other states where fracking is prominent, are the most poignant piece of propaganda to come out of the anti-fracking movement. Perhaps these images resonate so viscerally with us due to its symbolic significance: It is shocking union of two diametrically-opposed classical elements―an unholy matrimony of the great life-giver and the universal destroyer. Perhaps more simply, it is just plain evil that any entity (let alone an oil company) would insert itself into a low-income community, taint its water supply, and then deny all wrongdoing when its residents object.

But this is an argument that has all been made before, over half a decade ago. With Bill’s negligence case against Cabot Oil & Gas slated to go to trial in November of 2015, now is a more appropriate time than ever to take stock of what has transpired since Bill put a match to his water on national television:

  • Natural gas production accounts for 90,000 jobs in Pennsylvania, and wages in Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas industry rose by $22,104 in 2012.
  • From 2008 to 2012, Pennsylvania extracted 2.0 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, second only to Louisiana in gross withdrawal over the same period.
  • In 2013, Cabot Oil and Gas agreed on a settlement with the EPA to spend of 84 million dollars to control its noxious air pollution in its facilities in Texas and Louisiana. 
  • It is 2015 and Bill Ely’s water still explodes.
7. Wellsville: It's a Wonderful Life