Unemployment Line Serenade Seems Almost Quaint


March 19, 1995|By ANDREW RATNER

When pop singer Billy Joel needed a setting for his anthem to the industrial recession early in Ronald Reagan's presidency, he chose a place as innocent as the name sounds: Allentown.

Oh, we're living here in Allentown, where they're closing all the factories down.

Out in Bethlehem, they're killing time, filling out forms, standing in line.

It was a depressing ditty, but Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania were proud of the attention nonetheless. That area of eastern Pennsylvania is roughly an hour or so from the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas (and less than three hours from Baltimore), but hemmed in by the Pocono Mountains, the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, it's a place unto itself. With dust from the cement mills on its brow, Pennsylvania Dutch shoofly pie in its belly and conservatism in its breast, the region relished its 15 minutes of fame as a model of Middle America.

One can only wonder at the lyrics Mr. Joel would write now.

On Feb. 27, two teen-age skinhead brothers were arrested in the murders of their parents and 11-year-old brother in a township just outside Allentown. Police said that the brothers had threatened for years to kill their Jehovah's Witness parents as revenge for imposing a lifestyle they rejected. The parents tried to no avail to help reform their sons. The older, 17, has the word "Berserker" tattooed on his forehead, is 6 foot and 215 pounds. His 15-year-old brother is 6-foot-3, weighs 245 pounds and has "Sieg Heil!" etched above his eyebrows. A skinhead cousin was arrested with them in relation to the killings.

More tragedies

Days after that murder, another teen-ager was charged with the shooting deaths of his parents in nearby Lower Macungie Township, possibly the result of disputes over poor school test scores. The youth drove the family car to Missouri where he was arrested after it ran out of gas.

And yet those tragedies might only vie for the title of strangest news that the area has witnessed this year.

In January, in nearby Bethlehem, home to the steel company best known to Baltimoreans from its plant at Sparrows Point, an unmarried financial analyst was charged with killing a 5-week-old boy whom he had paid a surrogate mother to bear for him.

Police said James Austin, 26, told them the infant wouldn't stop crying, so he shook him and hit him with an open hand across the face. The child's death spurred calls for greater regulation of the burgeoning business of commercial surrogate parenthood.

(With news like that, the recent indictment of guards at the county prison for smuggling $1 million worth of drugs to inmates over the past few years was probably lucky to crack the front page of the local papers.)

Cloudburst of lunacy

Perhaps this is just a cloudburst of lunacy passing over the valley's quilted cornfields, but the depth and breadth of the tragedies are striking for a metropolitan area of a half-million people that traditionally has one of the lowest rates of crime in the country. A big story for Allentown in the '80s was two unemployed guys living on a billboard platform, in a contest to win a mobile home.

This dramatic change in story line in a place largely white, largely middle-class, decreasingly blue-collar, contrasts with the picture of America being beamed out of Washington by Newt Gingrich, himself a product of small-town Pennsylvania: That if urban America would follow the lead of white suburbia in terms of industriousness and family values, the country would be fine.

The folks of Allentown have good reason to question that. The succession of infanticide, matricide and patricide cases are aberrations, but they are erupting atop a weakened family bedrock whose fault lines show up in the increase in domestic violence, divorce and disrespect toward authority in the schools. Economic anxiety also runs deep as coal veins in many of these heartland communities where one can no longer count on a mill job for sustenance.

Allentown may, in fact, be a mirror to America. The economic dislocation of the '80s has helped feed the social dysfunction of the '90s.

To be sure, Allentown hasn't lost all innocence; folks still revel in doing the "chicken dance" at the summer music festival. Yet who would have thought, a decade later, that Billy Joel's unemployment line serenade would sound almost quaint?

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for the Baltimore Sun.

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