Change slow in `America's hometown'

Time not transforming Selinsgrove, Pa., census reports

May 07, 2001|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SELINSGROVE, Pa. - A temperate Sunday evening finds this small town 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 curb for clean-up 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 dramatically 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.

And yet 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 that 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 tidy subsidized housing complex that some locals refer to as "Pine Ghetto."

`Everybody gets along'

"Everybody gets along; everybody knows each other," says Brian Ferry, peering from under a red cap that signifies his status as a Selinsgrove Area High School baseball player. A 16-year-old sophomore, he says he will probably attend a college in Pennsylvania, one not too far away.

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 that she and her husband, Leo Mendonca, 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, 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 says. "But it does put people off."

Among those who feel put off is her husband. Mendonca, 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 says. "Never."

County nerve center

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; they still occasionally roll into town in their horse-driven buggies.

Most of the dramatic 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 boutique shops 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 coal-mining communities to the east.

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