As Diversity Sweeps Nation, a Placid Town Is Unchanged

May 4, 2001
New YOrk Times


SELINSGROVE, Pa. - On a temperate Sunday evening this small town is in comfortable repose. People linger at restaurant tables along the neat sidewalk of Market Street. Rabbits hop across the well-kept lawns of well-kept houses. Even the junk piled on the curbside for cleanup week seems tidy somehow.

Down the road a mile or two, the hoods of parked pickups glisten in a Dairy Queen's red-and-white glow. The young truck owners and their dates wait patiently as twirls of ice cream are caught in cups and cones. From the ice cream to the people, everything seems vanilla-white.

This is America. And this is not.

According to data released in the 2000 census, the United States changed substantially in the last decade, with its population expanding by 32.7 million, to more than 281 million. There are millions more Hispanic and Asian people, transforming towns and cities from top to bottom.

But this national sea change barely splashed certain communities. There is Vinton, Iowa, for example, and Fredonia, Kan., and Cuthbert, Ga. And there is the Pennsylvania borough that bills itself as "America's Hometown," Selinsgrove.

The 1990 census said Selinsgrove had 5,384 residents; today, 10 years later, it has 5,383. It remains about 93 percent white — a percentage that soars to nearly 100 percent when one factors out its two minimally diverse pockets, the idyllic campus of small Susquehanna University, and Pine Meadow, a neat subsidized housing complex that some locals refer to as "Pine Ghetto."

"Everybody gets along; everybody knows each other," said Brian Ferry, peering from under a red cap that signifies his status as a Selinsgrove high school baseball player. A 16-year-old sophomore, he says he will probably attend a college in Pennsylvania, one not too far away. He says he is happy with his world: The community rallies around the high school teams, and the shopping district just outside the borough offers various culinary options.

"We've got an Applebee's, a Bob Evans, a Friendly's, a Rita's Italian Ice," he said. "And we're getting a Ruby Tuesday's."

George Kinney, 61, the curmudgeonly borough manager, is among those who prefer to keep Selinsgrove the way it is, and has been. He mutters about the "Ph.D.'s" on the borough council who are nudging him from his job, and wonders aloud why black and Hispanic people would want to move from New York and Philadelphia to his hometown.

"That's the only reason we have those minorities, is Pine Meadows," he said. "They're coming in from all over the country. I don't know why they come here."

Others, though, thirst for difference as long as it does not jeopardize the town's family-friendly feel. Karen Hackman, a lawyer, says she and her husband, Léo Mendonça, share monthly "international" dinners with friends and soak up the experiences of out-of-town guests who stay at their inn, the Potteiger House.

"This is not an isolated community with no connection to the outside world," she said.

Still, Ms. Hackman, who grew up in the area, acknowledges that her community is a little closed, in its mindset as well as in its geography. "The resistance to newcomers, I'm convinced, is cultural; it's not malicious," she said. "But it does put people off."

Among those who feel put off is her husband. Mr. Mendonça, who is Brazilian, has lived in Selinsgrove for a decade, but says he still does not feel entirely welcome. He tries to fight his sense of alienation by walking the streets of Selinsgrove early in the morning, wearing a headset and singing along to Brazilian music.

"If it wasn't for my wife, I would never stay here," he said. "Never."

Selinsgrove is the nerve center of Snyder County, a pretty patchwork of farms and small towns that comes to a stop at the western banks of the Susquehanna River. For decades the borough was the county's marketplace, the place where farmers came to buy and sell. Most were Lutheran and reformed Protestants with German surnames, although some were Amish and Mennonite; those two groups still occasionally roll into town in their horse-driven buggies.

Most of the substantial changes in daily life have resulted from commerce. First there was a canal, then a railroad and, finally, the Susquehanna Mall, just north of the borough. The mall forced Market Street here to redefine itself, with boutiques selling antiques, gifts, rare books and high-end clothing.

Throughout, the makeup of the people remained essentially the same: white and Protestant.

Local leaders give several reasons for why Selinsgrove looks and feels much the way it did a generation ago.

The boundaries of the 1.9-square- mile borough are tightly defined; much of the county's growth is occurring in the affluent subdivisions cropping up in the Penn and Monroe Townships that surround it. Within its borders, there is little room for more development, and many houses are so desirable that local people buy them as soon as they come on the market. And, they say, there is the obvious: Selinsgrove is in rural, central Pennsylvania, where the Susquehanna separates it from even the slight diversity of the old coal-mining communities to the east.

Officials at Susquehanna University say that while they have succeeded in raising the number of minority students who enroll each year, from 58 of 1435 students in 1990 to 137 of 1682 in 2000, they struggle to keep those students through graduation.

"Our biggest stumbling block is the community itself," says Don Aungst, the university's treasurer and vice president for finance. "The most diversity they find is here on campus."

Also, ground was not broken for Selinsgrove's first Roman Catholic church, St. Pius X, until 1959.

"They used to say there was one Catholic family in town, but putting that church in probably brought more into town," recalled George Rishell, 84, a borough councilman.

"That was a change, though."

It may have taken 40 years, but that Roman Catholic church has become an integral part of community life, its congregation growing so much that a new church is planned. The success of St. Pius X also reflects what Dr. Donald Housley, a history professor at Susquehanna University, says is the tendency for change in Selinsgrove to come slowly, and often from outside forces.

"It's almost like a laboratory," marveled Dr. Housley, who has lived in the area for 34 years.

But he and others say statistics and anecdotes do not necessarily get to the heart and soul of a community. Selinsgrove is more than just a place that has not had a homicide in a decade, or where a local automotive store sports a portable sign that reads, "Rise Up Men of God." However slowly, it continues to evolve.

Now that Routes 11 and 15 have been widened, some residents travel 40 miles south to work or shop in Harrisburg, the state capital. The sale and use of heroin have prompted a few arrests recently. And there is a recognition of the nascent diversity occurring within the borough.

The local newspaper, The Daily Item, has adopted "a diverse community is our greatest asset" as one of its mottoes. Harvey Edwards, the only black teacher in a school district of 203 teachers, directs performances of a group of students called the "Tolerance Troupe." And the five-member police department is taking Spanish lessons, its chief, Tom Garlock, says, because of "communications problems that 10 years ago we didn't have."

Today, the census indicates, Selinsgrove has 72 more Hispanics than it did in 1990, for a total of 157; 119 more black people, for a total of 147; and 24 more Asians, for a total of 54. But most of those members of minorities are university students, with many of the rest living at Pine Meadow.

Barbara Demshock, its manager for nearly two decades, arrives each day in a white Cadillac Eldorado, a teacup poodle named Brandi strapped into a car seat by her side. She says that traces of community resentment regarding Pine Meadow linger — although, she says, "We're making some progress."

Rosa Santana agrees. She moved to Selinsgrove from Brooklyn in 1996 for the most basic of reasons, she says. "I wanted to better my daughter's life, and I wanted to better my own life." At first she was jarred by her transition from big-city anonymity to standing out because of her culture and skin color, she says, and by the muttering down at the public- assistance office, something along the lines of: "You're not going to come here and sit on your derriere."

She recalls her classic urban response, "I'm asking you for your help; I'm not asking you for your opinion."

Today, Ms. Santana, 39, works full- time at a child-care center and has joined a Pentecostal church in Sunbury, just across the river. Her 7- year-old daughter, Maegan, enjoys attending elementary school. And while the local supermarket does not have a full complement of Goya products, she says, it does have enough for her to cook some of the Spanish food she loves. Someday, she says, she plans to move out of Pine Meadow and into a house of her own.

Not far away, on the sprawling campus of the school district, a young white woman and a young black man nuzzle on a swing. She is Irene Seely, 17, who has lived in the area for years, most recently in Pine Meadow. He is Lamiek Maxwell, 21, who just moved into Pine Meadow.

Ms. Seely says she enjoys attending the local high school because it is better than other area schools, but she worries about its growing numbers. "I think there's enough people here," she said.

To which Mr. Maxwell, formerly of Brooklyn, replied, "You need people like me."


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Last modified: Saturday, 05-May-2001 07:18:01 EDT