In terror's wake, a new civic unity comes to town
VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — Last week, the Century 21 real estate office here took its turn cooking dinner for the Giammona family.
In a burst of compassion and civic-mindedness, groups in Valley Stream, N.Y. - a town of 38,000 within commuting distance of New York - have set up a schedule for delivering home-cooked meals to local families who lost someone in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The outpouring of neighborliness, which this time took the form of turkey, Polish dumplings, and apple pie, is just one way the town has reinvented civic unity in the nine weeks since people here learned that 15 of their own - more than it lost during the Vietnam War - would not be coming home.
Similar scenes, of course, have played out in many US cities and towns, even in places not so directly hit by the tragedy. A newfound longing for a sense of community - the antidote, perhaps, to a new vulnerability - appears to be reviving Americans' slackened interest in volunteerism, public affairs, and civic life in general.
"There's definitely an uptick," says Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who has commissioned a survey to document what could be the greatest increase in civic engagement since the attack on Pearl Harbor six decades ago. If so, it would reverse his finding that Americans no longer bother signing up for the PTA and now opt to bowl alone instead of in leagues.
Already, there's some hard evidence that community involvement is up. A 4-H survey, for example, found 90 percent of American youths say they are more likely to volunteer since the attacks. Likewise, a Harvard University survey of US undergraduates shows a rise in community service over last year, as well as a higher number who now see politics as relevant to their lives.
The key question is whether this civic revival is temporary - a momentary embrace of victims of Sept. 11 - or whether it will endure and seep into the fabric of the larger community, affecting everything from sports leagues to voter turnout to staffing of volunteer fire departments.
In many ways, Valley Stream is a good laboratory for assessing the change. The attacks on the World Trade Center hit people here like a sucker punch. From the vantage point of the high-school's third-floor classrooms, students could see the burning towers on the horizon - and their awful collapse. That first night, local residents waited at the commuter-train station to learn whose cars didn't get picked up.
Among the 15 residents lost Sept. 11 were firefighters, police officers, a Cantor Fitzgerald bond trader, and a millwork foreman who happened to have a meeting on the 107th floor. The town paid homage to them all at memorial services. It draped itself in stars and stripes. Collectively, it raised tens of thousands of dollars to benefit local victims' families.
But after the initial surge of mourning and bonding, this middle-class suburb of single-family homes and strip malls has found itself transformed in ways both subtle and profound. Existing community groups, including churches, schools, and Boy Scout troops, have redirected their energies, finding new ways to be of service to their town.
"This is the greatest I've ever seen people getting together," says Mayor Edward Cahill, who has lived in Village Stream for 36 years.
While Valley Stream has many long-time residents like Mayor Cahill, the Long Island suburb also has seen a surge of newcomers in the past decade - especially African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos moving up from New York's outer boroughs. Indeed, one Paraguayan immigrant was killed a week before he was supposed to move from Queens into a new house here.
If people needed any admonishment to pull together, houses of worship here have certainly supplied it. At a Sunday mass last month at the Holy Name of Mary Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Thomas Harold urged parishioners to "find new ways of expressing community." Sixteen children in the parish lost a relative on Sept. 11, and the congregation had already donated $17,000 for local victims.
Church attendance has now, for the most part, fallen back to pre-attack levels, but attendees are still seeking new ways to connect with one another in and out of church.
For the first time, members of the Church of the Nazarene, which didn't lose any members in the attack, formed small, weeknight prayer groups in members' homes. "They wanted to be together, to talk, pray, hug, and process the situation and how our communities have been impacted," says assistant pastor Cliff Kretkowski.
Congregants from all the village's houses of worship - including the local Islamic Center - came together for an unprecedented prayer service last month on the village green. Only the July Fourth fireworks show ever brings out a crown bigger than the 1,000 people who clutched candles at the vigil that night.
The importance of serving community is taking shape in many other ways, too, including the following.
A rise in the number of people willing to staff Valley Stream's volunteer fire department. Like most volunteer fire departments in the US, the one here has found new recruits hard to come by in this age of time-pressed, dual-income families, says Robert Petry, first assistant chief. In a good year, the department might get seven new members, but just since Sept. 11, six residents have volunteered.
A new interest in helping local government - even among children. Ten-year-old Maria Taliercio, for one, raised $800 selling patriotic pins. With the money, she hoped to buy locator beacons for village firefighters to carry when they respond to emergencies, so they can be found if they become trapped in the line of duty. Maria plays soccer with Francesca Giammona, whose father, Lt. Vincent Giammona of the New York City Fire Department, died at ground zero.
A galvanized youth population. Students at Central High School, for instance, organized a benefit concert for local victims. But the events of Sept. 11 may prove to be more life-altering for some of these young people: One-third of Central's sophomores say they want to sign up for a new Junior ROTC program, designed to teach students about the military.
Even before the attack, Principal Joseph Pompilio, who had started his job only a week earlier, had thought about adopting a J-ROTC program, but he says he is shocked by the high interest.
The rise of interest in civic life among adults here is reflected, of course, in the countless conversations that go on in restaurants, on soccer fields, anyplace where people gather. It's no different at Larry's Pub, where sports talk has shifted in large measure to topics of community interest.
Ostensibly, a dozen blue-collar regulars have gathered here to watch another Yankees post-season game. Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" plays on the juke box.
But things are different now. A newspaper obituary hangs on a mirror in the bar - a tribute to Raymond York, a New York City firefighter. York's seat at the far corner is occupied by his close friend, a Port Authority police officer who spends 12-hour shifts sifting through rubble at the World Trade Center site.
The evening news now competes with sports on the pub's TV, and conversation drifts from baseball to war. There's grief - and rage. Yet humanitarian concerns also emerge. "I'm very angry, but I also don't want to see [Afghan] children die," says Mike Doyle, a 25-year resident.
Valley Stream's leaders hope to maintain the new engagement. To that end, they've set up a new fund and organized help for local victims' families far into the future. Supermarkets will provide groceries, and Boy Scout troops will take turns shoveling the families' driveways, says Village Clerk Vincent Ang. "That's how you keep something like this going and not let it fade away," he says.