Unruffled in tense times
On July 4, a Pennsylvania town epitomizes an America clinging to the rhythms of daily life despite the intrusions of the world
NEW FREEDOM, PA. — As dusk descends over the annual Lions Club Carnival in New Freedom, Pa., the scene seems momentarily suspended in time. Families stroll the grounds amid the orange glow of lights and the greasy-sweet scent of corn dogs and funnel cakes. Clumps of teenage girls pretend not to notice the boys jostling a few feet away. Older folks set up lawn chairs by the pavilion, listening to the band and waiting for the fireworks.
Only a few details hint at a different reality: At the Shoot-the-Star game, players fire at a paper target - a picture of Saddam Hussein.
Yet on the eve of this Independence Day, less than 20 miles from where the Continental Congress once met, and 6,000 miles from the struggle to establish democracy in Iraq, the churn of national and international events is never completely removed.
Like any community in America, residents of New Freedom have been affected by the past year's tumult. In the run-up to the Iraq war, employees at a local die-casting plant - which had cut its workforce because of the slowing economy - wound up working overtime to make parts for gas masks for the military. Churchgoers have had to deal with the resignation of a longtime priest over sex-abuse allegations. Parents had to explain the Columbia disaster to preschoolers, whose class had sent tomato seeds aboard the shuttle as a science experiment.
Like so many small towns these days, too, New Freedom has also been undergoing long-term, sometimes painful, shifts of its own. Once a thriving railroad and industrial hub, it's evolving into a bedroom community for commuters from York and Baltimore. Some say neighborliness is dwindling: Membership in groups like the Lions Club is down, while local businesses struggle to compete with chain stores near the interstate.
Still, most here seem largely unruffled by all the uncertainty and change. This is a nation founded by revolution, after all, and, as many note, it has weathered testing times before. Through everything, the New Freedom Lions Club has put on the same carnival since the 1930s, halting only once during World War II. The layout is the same: rides and games on one side, food and music on the other. So is the schedule: kiddie fireworks the first night, the grown-up version at midnight, July 3.
In that sense, New Freedom may be America, circa 2003: aware of the increasing intrusions of an unsettled world - postwar violence, the omnipresent threat of terrorism, a frail economy - but yet relatively unperturbed, clinging to a sense of constancy and the rhythms of everyday life. "We always did go through ups and downs," says Will Shuchart, a Lions Club member who figures he's been selling raffle tickets at the same stand for 35 years. "I guess there always was and always will be change."
There are two theories about how New Freedom got its name. One holds that the town, located just above the Mason-Dixon line, was a stopping point on the Underground Railroad, offering a "new freedom" to slaves escaping the South. The other traces the name back to a local family, the Frees, who played a role in incorporating the town, and wanted to call it Freedom. Since Pennsylvania already had a Freedom, they settled for "New" Freedom.
But regardless of its actual derivation, the patriotic moniker is reflected throughout the town, from its street names (Constitution Avenue, Franklin Street) to the scores of flags and yellow ribbons festooning the porches of its many old Victorian homes.
Patriotism isn't on the upswing here - because it never really went away, people say. Mostly Republican, residents tend to be supportive of the job President Bush is doing, though most also say they'll wait to see whom the Democrats nominate before deciding how they'll vote in 2004. They're even more supportive of the military, though some offer differing views of the Iraq conflict.
Marge Goodfellow, who served in the Women's Army Corps in World War II as a medical technician, followed the Iraq war closely from the day it started, and is deeply proud of the efforts of the US military.
"For the first time in history, I think we had a war that was efficiently run and saved lives," she says.
But while most people say they agree with the overall purpose of the war, several also wonder if Mr. Bush proclaimed the end of combat too quickly. And many are dismayed by the reception US troops have gotten so far from the Iraqi people.
"We're over there giving them their freedom, and they're acting like they don't want it," says Wade Simmons, who works for the Postal Service in York, and is running the Ravens Fan Club stand at the carnival.
"I think we were a little misled," says Vada Wales, eating lunch at the senior center with her husband, Norman. "It seems like every day somebody gets shot or blown up. I think we're going to be over there for a long time."
The senior center is just one of many tangible signs of how New Freedom has changed. The building used to be the town's high school - where Vada and Norman met every day by the water cooler. "We graduated from here, and now we're back," he jokes. These days, one high school serves four neighboring towns. This year's graduating class had more than 200 kids, and every year the classes get bigger.
Similarly, one of the town's biggest factories has now been turned into a retirement complex. In its industrial heyday, seniors here recall, New Freedom actually employed more people than it housed, between a giant plastics plant and factories for furniture and sewing. A canning plant drew more business in the summer months, and at certain times of the year, it left the entire town smelling of onions.
Most trace the turning point to the 1970s, when a flood washed out the railway bridges. "The railroad never really came back after that," Mr. Shuchart says. Bit by bit, most of the local industries went with it.
Still, there's a certain optimistic, can-do spirit. Despite the struggles local businesses have had, two new shops have opened downtown in recent months: Bonkey's, an ice cream and penny-candy shop in the town's old movie theater, and Sara's Country Store, which sells groceries and prepared food in a converted warehouse.
Jerry Herbert, who owns Sara's, is busy installing air conditioning in the building, and already has plans for expanding the business. He knows he faces steep competition from the big supermarkets outside town, but he believes there's a market for what he's offering. Older people want to be able to shop without having to drive in traffic, he explains. And despite the ongoing bad news about the economy, he has trouble believing much of it. "There's a lot of work out here," he says. "I'm short people."
But many others here tell a different story. Bill Miller hasn't worked since February, when he was laid off from his job at York Barbell. Bouncing her best friend's new baby at the carnival, Dana Goodfellow (Marge's granddaughter) says this is the third summer in a row that she's been laid off from local factories. Dee Blouse, who's watching her granddaughter, Deena, says her daughter has been searching for work after being let go from the Pizza Hut in nearby Shrewsbury. "It's been really tough," she says. "Jobs are hard to find."
The biggest concern for many, though, isn't jobs. It's housing prices, which have been rising at a dizzying rate, as new condominiums spring up on the outskirts of town to keep up with the influx of people.
Amber Winter, who grew up in New Freedom and now works as a claims rep in Baltimore, would like to raise her family here, "if we can find a house that's affordable," she says. The character of the town may have changed somewhat - people lock their doors at night now, she notes. Still, she says, "it's a wonderful town."
For Marge Goodfellow, who has been watching over New Freedom since moving here in 1947, change simply presents new challenges to be met. Worried that kids watch too much TV, she's been running a day camp for local children each summer. She also has planted gardens downtown around the old rail tracks, trying to beautify the town's public spaces. In recognition, the town named its park, where the carnival is held, after her.
"Life will never be like we lived it," she says. But like many here, she's intensely proud of the efforts of this community - and the nation as a whole - to adapt to new circumstances. "On the whole, I do believe this country's right on target," she says. "I think we're doing a pretty good job."
Americans are a bit less upbeat about the economy and president Bush than a year ago. Readings above 50 are considered 'positive.'
Today/A year ago
Economic optimism index
Presidential leadership index
National outlook index*
*Includes views on America's moral direction and standing in the world along with economic optimism and presidential leadership
Source: Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll June 2003 and June 2002.