How Freedom Rings on the Prairie

Independence, Kansas, offers nickel carousel rides and a wide-angle view on the nation's mood

This prairie town, with its brick streets and soda fountain, seems an unlikely setting for a story about America on the eve of its 221st birthday.

This is rural Kansas, after all, a wind-swept place settled by people who traded comforts back East for cabins made of logs and mud.

There are 44 churches in Independence, but no shopping mall. The interstate is two hours distant. Rides on the carousel at Riverside Park cost what they've always cost - five cents.

But this town's insularity is a mirage. There's a new aircraft factory here, and locals joke that the city flower is a satellite dish. Three local businesses offer Internet hookups, and the hush of downtown is often punctuated by thumping car stereos.

Independence, it turns out, offers a wide-angle view of middle America, one in which the nation's frontier past collides vividly with its wireless future.

It's not surprising, then, that the 10,000 people here share the same concerns as their urban countrymen. They welcome the roaring economy but say they're working harder than ever. They are fiercely proud of America but skeptical of its government. They value family life above all else but feel increasingly alienated from neighbors.

Tomorrow, fire trucks will crawl down Main Street and garden hoses will gurgle all afternoon. The only crises will be ants in the potato salad or beach towels caught in bicycle chains. The traditions of Independence Day endure here, even as its meaning changes.

"I think more on the small scale than the big scale," says Dan Pasternak, co-owner of a local building supply store. "Independence Day means a day off with my family. I won't really sit down and think about the country and where it's been. As long as the economy keeps going like this, I'm going to focus on my own backyard."

Mr. Pasternak's sentiment is not uncommon. In an era of unrivaled peace and prosperity, as the baby-boom generation reaches the height of its earning power, more people seem to be turning inward.

"If I had to choose one word to describe this period of history, it would be 'quiet' or 'placid,' " says Karlyn Bowman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "There is more satisfaction than usual," she says, and no single problem seems to resonate strongly.

In some surveys, she notes, Americans say they would prefer more leisure time over a higher income. "It's the sign of an extraordinarily affluent public," she says. "The pace of life seems a little bit more intense when you don't have to worry about other things."

Decline in dinner-table talk

Yet conversations with people in Independence suggest that time pressures on families, though perhaps not new, have taken a different shape.

Marilyn Williams is a registered nurse who, as a child, always ate dinner with her parents. Her own family, she says, eats "wherever and whenever," often in front of the television. New contraptions like video games and computers have given her children a level of distraction she never knew.

"I think a lot of people are really upset about their family life," Ms. Williams says. "Both parents have jobs these days, and we're all so busy trying to keep up. Life is a circle of work and bills and rest and work again. I think the kids kind of suffer for that."

Ken Zelhare, a machinist who's nearing retirement, says the rise of the two-income family has had an effect on neighborliness. People don't have time to help each other out, he says, "and that includes me. I'm as bad as the next one."

Chuck Empson, a local doctor out for a walk with his Labrador retrievers, says there haven't been any block parties in his neighborhood in years, and there's been a general decline in socializing. The culprits, he says, are the jet skis, big-screen TV, and personal computers everyone strives to afford.

"People are more independent now than they have been," he says. "Whether that's a measure of independence, I'm not sure. We have less freedom than we used to."

Shirley Brown is a member of the St. John Missionary Baptist Church and a youth coordinator for the city of Independence. She's pleased about the economy. She welcomes the Cessna aircraft plant and the jobs it brought to town.

But Ms. Brown says she's seen a rise in petty thefts. She's noticed that fewer people say hello to her at the grocery store. The children she works with lack discipline and direction. She blames the influence of television and a celebrity culture that holds up Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey as heroes. She blames the self-absorption a steady job can bring.

"If I'm in need, I should be able to come to you," she says. "If I have a problem, you should be able to tell me about it, but you can't do that anymore. People don't want to hear about it. There's no village left to raise the children."

Yet by any standard, Independence is still a closely knit community. Each October, 400 volunteers stage a 10-day harvest festival called Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards). In addition, the town hosts an annual drama festival in honor of Independence-born playwright William Inge.

In recent years, after the Arco Pipeline Company left Independence for Houston, a coalition of civic leaders persuaded Cessna to open its new light-aircraft assembly plant here. Residents approved a county sales tax, which will finance Cessna's tax abatement, by an 88 percent margin.

It's this side of the community that matters most to John Mash Jr., who opened a pizza parlor here just last week. Mr. Mash, a young newlywed, is part of a wave of urban transplants who have moved to small towns like Independence in search of personal freedom.

Norman Rockwell security

To long-time residents, these young families bring with them an urban-style insularity that gives the town a less friendly feeling. To Mash, however, Independence offers a pace of life and an aura of safety that provide an ideal setting for family life.

Indeed, the tranquillity that drove previous generations of young people to the cities seems to suit today's young families just fine. It's the sign of a prosperous nation more interested in values than riches. It's a sign of self-absorption, and a testament to this nation's resilience. The story of America, perhaps, is the story of Robin Mullin, who's just finished her shift at Cessna.

"I think we have enough independence," she says. "I'm 23 years old, I have a good-paying job, and so does my husband. We haven't come up against anything we can't handle."


Polls show that Americans in general are feeling a bit more optimistic about their own futures, but their views about the future of their country are more mixed.

* Fifty-one percent of Americans expected 1997 to be better for them personally than 1996 was; 40 percent expected it to be about the same and 5 percent thought it would not be as good. This optimism reached its peak, 56 percent, in 1983, but the latest figure represents a slight improvement over 1996 (47 percent) and 1995 (45 percent).

* Americans' sense of economic well-being has more than doubled since late 1992. Seventy-two percent now say the economic situation is either very good or fairly good.

* For the country as a whole, though, Americans were less optimistic than in recent years. Thirty-two percent said 1997 would be a better year for the country than 1996 was, and 54 percent said it would be about the same. A separate poll, however, shows that 50 percent of Americans now believe the country is on the right track - the most optimistic measurement since 1990. Just six months earlier, only 40 percent of Americans said the country was on the right track.

* Almost three-quarters of citizens believe the American dream is "very much alive" or "somewhat alive." But the 1995 survey also shows that 63 percent believe it is harder to attain than it was a generation ago.

Sources: Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., Gannett News Service, and Gallup

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