Luzerne County hometowns, Kingston: The book on this borough? Libraries, home rule

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
Konstantin Lyavdansky, who teaches Russian at Wyoming Seminary, says he loves living in Kingston. ‘Here, everything is accessible,’ he said. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader) -
Jessica Liu Gensel teaches Mandarin Chinese at Wyoming Seminary. Gensel is a native of China who earned her master’s degree in education from Harvard. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader) -
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Toddler Benjamin Carr gets a little help from his mother, Kaitlyn, as he walks toward his prize during a summer reading program at the Hoyt Library in Kingston. The Hoyt runs numerous programs each year. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader) - -
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Addison Carr, 5, of Edwardsville, eats an ice-cream cone outside of the Hoyt Library in Kingston. Addison participated in the library’s summer reading program. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader) - -

It’s the last day of the summer reading program. Addison and Benjamin Carr stand like two kids in a candy store, or at least like two kids hoping to get their favorite present.

“I want a princess crown,” Addison says as she waits with other youngsters in the Hoyt Library.

Of course she does. She’s a 5-year-old girl.

Ben is less loquacious — taciturn, even. While his mother, Kaitlyn, insists he read — or, more specifically, was read to — at least three times a week in his quest to win a prize at the library, he buries his head in the chest of his father, Judd, when asked his favorite book.

Of course he does. He’s a toddler looking forward to his second birthday.

Addison is more forthcoming.

“ ‘Curious George’!” she said, grinning.

“Does it count for 300 books if she reads the same one 300 times?” Judd quips.

Addison and Benjamin are just two of many children who racked up book titles this summer. The more you read, the more tickets you get. The more tickets you get, the more you can put toward the drawing for a favored prize, increasing your odds.

Summer reading is just one of numerous programs throughout the year at the Hoyt Library in Kingston, a borough of 13,074 people that proudly bills itself as a “bedroom community,” where the emphasis is on quality of life. Also in town is a recreation center, a pool, 10 parks, a diverse selection of schools and churches, and a plethora of businesses focused on retail, dining and service — all packed into two square miles.

“Everything is in walking distance,” Judd notes. “Everything.”

The Carrs technically live in Edwardsville, but barely.

“Our house is in Edwardsville, our garage is in Kingston,” Kaitlyn said. “We walk here all the time. We love all the programs.”

And what did their youngsters win?

Addison nabbed a box of items for crafting headwear, a sort of “make your own tiara” kit. “I got what I wanted!”

Ben sat at colorful, kid-sized plastic desk, which he promptly turned into a drum.

Then it was off to the parking lot for ice cream from the Silly Willy truck, one last reward for a summer of reading.

Home sweet home rule

Paul Keating can’t help but talk like the pitchman he’s been for 21 years as Kingston’s administrator. The municipality, he notes, just spent $1.4 million on recreation upgrades.

“We completely redid the pool,” he said. “We have an indoor recreation center and awarded a bid to put in a new $190,000 HVAC system. … new LED lighting system at the Little League field … expanding the girls softball facility so it can be used for soccer.”

“We are a high-density residential community,” he added. “Our priorities are government services that keep our community attractive to a working middle class.”

Kingston, he pointed out, is a “home rule” municipality. In a nutshell, Pennsylvania’s municipal laws are pretty strict in how different levels of government work. Home rule is a state system that lets residents craft their own government.

In adopting its home rule charter in 1974, Kingston opted to raise tax money from income, not property value. Keating said he thinks this gives the borough a different appeal compared to neighbors.

“Our real-estate taxes are very low, but we have 2.1 percent earned income tax. The communities surrounding us have a 1 percent income tax but higher property taxes.”

But the real sign of an effective tax system may be that, when asked what they like about Kingston, no one mentioned taxes — including Keating.

“I live off Market Street,” he said. “I’m within walking distance of places like Rita’s Italian Ice and Tommy’s Pizza. On the corner are Walgreens and CVS pharmacies. We’re a short walk from different parks and playgrounds. I’m a member of St. Ignatius Parish, so I walk to St. Ann’s Chapel for services.”

Everything is within walking distance.

Sichuan to the Susquie

Jessica Liu Gensel holds two master’s degrees. To most, her English would sound impeccable, though she insists, “You will hear mistakes if you listen to me long enough.”

The inevitable question, as she stands in the classroom where she teaches Mandarin Chinese at Wyoming Seminary’s Upper School: How did a native of Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, end up in Kingston?

That’s 7,500 miles away, as she moved from a city of 14.4 million residents to a community of 13,074.

“A job,” Gensel said succinctly, with a smile.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in English in Sichuan, then went to Harvard for a master’s in education.

“I figured I couldn’t teach English here because everyone speaks it,” she conceded.

She nabbed two job offers — one in San Francisco and one at Wyoming Seminary. Why choose a quiet community on the banks of the Susquehanna over one of the country’s most famous cities?

“I came here because they asked me to build a whole new program,” Gensel replied. “It was a whole new challenge.”

Kingston is home to a particularly eclectic education scene. Along with hosting schools for Wyoming Valley West School District, it headquarters the Luzerne Intermediate Unit, one of 29 such entities set up by the state to provide education services to area schools.

The borough boasts the region’s only Montessori School, a system that mixes age groups and stresses hands-on learning. It lost Bishop O’Reilly High School in a massive contraction of the Diocese of Scranton Catholic school system in 2007, but the building remains as Good Shepherd Academy elementary school.

And while Wyoming Seminary has its roots in very rural ground — housing livestock and smoking meats when it started in 1844 — the location grew into a prominent college prep boarding school that draws a healthy contingent of international students and faculty.

Predictably, Gensel’s classroom is peppered with tidbits from her native land, including tea tins sent from Mom in China. Gensel rattles off subtleties of the complex tea ceremony. The most amusing: There is a clay figure used to test whether water is the right temperature for certain teas.

“They pour the water on the figure’s head, and if the temperature is correct, it pees!” she said, laughing.

Doubtless a key attraction keeping her here is her husband — a Wilkes-Barre native. But she cites reasons similar to those given by others.

“People are really nice and friendly. There is nice scenery,” particularly compared to her family home in the heart of Chengdu, where it can take hours to get out of the city. “There’s beauty wherever you go.”

Down the hall, Konstantin Lyavdansky speaks with an accent straight from any American movie about a Russian immigrant. His classroom is decorated with a picture of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and an artist’s rendition of the historic 1975 docking of the U.S. Apollo space capsule and the Soviet Soyuz craft.

Lyavdansky pulls a small metal samovar — a traditional Russian appliance used to heat water — off a shelf and opens it to show the electric plug he cannot use. Made for a 220-volt power line, he notes, the plastic adapter melts when it tries to draw power from an American 110-volt socket.

A St. Petersburg native, Lyavdansky grew up in a city of about 5 million people awash in spectacular architecture. There he taught Russian to international students, including an American connected with an institute in Monterey, Calif. That connection led to an invitation to Monterey, which in turn led to Kingston when he was asked to help launch a “critical languages program” offering courses in Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

That was in 1992, and while he returns regularly to his home country, he lives on the seminary campus.

“I love Kingston,” Lyavdansky said, emphasizing he has lived in Russia’s second-largest city, in Monterey, in Manhattan and in Washington, D.C. “Here, everything is very accessible. I can walk to the river park, I can ride my bicycle on the dike.

“It’s a great place to call home.”

Konstantin Lyavdansky, who teaches Russian at Wyoming Seminary, says he loves living in Kingston. ‘Here, everything is accessible,’ he said. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_Konstantin-Lyavdansky.jpgKonstantin Lyavdansky, who teaches Russian at Wyoming Seminary, says he loves living in Kingston. ‘Here, everything is accessible,’ he said. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)

Jessica Liu Gensel teaches Mandarin Chinese at Wyoming Seminary. Gensel is a native of China who earned her master’s degree in education from Harvard. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_Jessica-Liu.jpgJessica Liu Gensel teaches Mandarin Chinese at Wyoming Seminary. Gensel is a native of China who earned her master’s degree in education from Harvard. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)

https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_Kingston.jpg

Toddler Benjamin Carr gets a little help from his mother, Kaitlyn, as he walks toward his prize during a summer reading program at the Hoyt Library in Kingston. The Hoyt runs numerous programs each year. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_TTL082017ourtownkingston2.jpgToddler Benjamin Carr gets a little help from his mother, Kaitlyn, as he walks toward his prize during a summer reading program at the Hoyt Library in Kingston. The Hoyt runs numerous programs each year. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)

https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_kingston-2.jpg

Addison Carr, 5, of Edwardsville, eats an ice-cream cone outside of the Hoyt Library in Kingston. Addison participated in the library’s summer reading program. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/web1_TTL082017ourtownkingston1.jpgAddison Carr, 5, of Edwardsville, eats an ice-cream cone outside of the Hoyt Library in Kingston. Addison participated in the library’s summer reading program. (Sean McKeag | Times Leader)

By Mark Guydish

[email protected]

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Throughout the year, the Times Leader is looking at life in two dozen Luzerne County communities in a feature called “Hometowns.” The series is running in alphabetical order in print and on our website at www.timesleader.com/tag/hometowns. Today: Kingston. Next up: Luzerne on Sept. 17.

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish