Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Brass and percussion days as Hazleton, Pa., prepares for July 4

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June 28, 2007

c.2007 Newhouse News Service


HAZLETON, Pa. _ Salvadore DeFazio, the poet laureate of Hazleton, is on deadline. In the days leading to the Fourth of July, his hometown is celebrating its 150th birthday. The centerpiece of the commemoration is a history pageant DeFazio is furiously working to finish. He is searching for an ending, though he has settled on a musical theme in Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

    It’s a perfect fit, DeFazio says: “Hazleton is a fanfare for the common man.”

    Not everyone is thrilled with the choice of music.

    “Fanfare for the Common Man burns me up,” says Joseph Palaggi, 80, who has played clarinet with the Hazleton Philharmonic Symphonic Orchestra since its founding in 1954. Palaggi is the son of a shoemaker who came here from Italy at the age of 16. Having worked most of his days in shipping and receiving, his common man credentials are impeccable. But the Fanfare, he complains, was written for brass and percussion. At the sesquicentennial performance, he and the other woodwinds will be mostly idle with “all those measures rest.”

    For better or worse, these are the brass and percussion days in Hazleton.

    A year ago this little city nestled high in the depleted coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania put itself on the map by enacting a law to fine landlords and employers who provide shelter or employment to people who are in the country illegally. It was July 14, Bastille Day, and Hazleton itself felt under siege by an influx of newcomers, some of them illegal immigrants. Mayor Lou Barletta complained of violent crime, drugs, gangs and graffiti, and a burden on the school system and hospital that the community could not bear.

    Overnight, Hazleton literally and figuratively became a Lou Dobbs special, wildly cheered and just as passionately condemned, the ordinance emulated by small communities across the country even as its constitutionality is being weighed by the courts in a case that may eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.

    But beneath the fanfare, Hazleton is also a small American town celebrating the Fourth of July. And more than most, it remains a timeless American place _ a throwback to an America before mobility and globalization exalted the new, the ersatz and the interchangeable over the settled, the staid and the distinct.

    Parochial, perhaps, but, small as it is, Hazleton has its own poet laureate, symphony, and Liberty Band. The band _ like the philharmonic, a volunteer assemblage _ traces its history to the Civil War, when it reputedly provided the soundtrack of Lee’s surrender to Grant outside Appomattox Courthouse, playing “Auld Lang Syne” (a number they will be reprising for the pageant).

    As remarkable, Hazleton still has a drive-in with nightly first-run double features.

    Hazletonians ought to know better than most that America has always been a melange. The town’s multitude of church spires are monuments to its thick wickerwork of contending ethnic communities.

    In the pageant script, DeFazio quotes a magazine from the 1890s, describing in lurid terms the fate that befell communities like Hazleton amid an onslaught of undesirable new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe: “One of the richest regions of the earth overrun with a horde of Hungarians, Slavs, Polanders, Italians, Sicilians, Russians and Tyrolese of the lowest class; a section almost denationalized by the scum of the Continent.”

    Or, as Mayor Barletta puts it, “Hazleton was built on diversity.”

    Like today’s diversity, it was driven in part by demand for people willing to do work under conditions “Americans” would not _ in this case excavating the hard anthracite coal so prized because, though slow to ignite, it would burn longer and hotter.

    The coal is gone. Hazleton rests on a hollowed core. By 2000 the Census described an aging city of only 23,000, about 93 percent white and about 5 percent Hispanic. Nearly nine out of 10 Hazletonians were native Pennsylvanians.

    Then Hazleton was unexpectedly reborn in the ashes of Sept. 11. The only Hazeltonian to die in the attacks was a Puerto Rican man by the name of Efrain Franco Romero, who worked as a painter at the World Trade Center. Romero lived during the week in Jersey City, N.J., and on weekends joined his family in Hazleton, where they had moved to find a better life.

    After Sept. 11, many Hispanics, including many immigrants and especially Dominicans, moved their families from New York and New Jersey to Hazleton. They were drawn by jobs, lower housing costs and Hazleton‘s quiet, small-town atmosphere, by word of mouth and family ties with the Latino community already budding there. They opened more businesses.

    Hazleton’s population swelled to more than 30,000, about a third Hispanic, according to the mayor, who estimates that among the immigrant population (which is not exclusively Hispanic), about 3,400 were not in the country legally (some of them left after the ordinance was enacted).

    The immigrants were an answered prayer, says Amilcar Arroyo, a Peruvian immigrant who married a Hazleton woman he met working in a factory here, and who now runs the city’s only Spanish-language newspaper, El Mensajero. “Downtown Hazleton five or six years ago was a ghost town,” Arroyo said; now, property values have soared.

    But it also meant that little Hazleton was contending in microcosm with the kind of demographic change the nation is encountering over a period of generations, all in less time than the series run of “The Sopranos.”

    “It happened too fast,” says John T. Medashefski, 51, a native-born artist and proprietor of a cafe and gallery, who lives in the house where he grew up.

    “That’s my covenant. That’s my blankie,” he says of the family homestead, from which he flies an assortment of American flags (which also serve as a recurring theme in his art). “It’s my heritage.”

    He explains, in the plain-speak of Hazleton: “I’m not a Polack, I’m an American.”

    This is something of mantra here. Antonio Rodriguez believes he was Hazleton‘s first Hispanic. He a married a local Irish girl and moved here nearly 40 years ago. But Rodriguez only wants to be known as an American.

    He left Puerto Rico for the first time when he joined the Army, and when he arrived at basic training, one of nine Puerto Rican recruits, the sergeant separated them. “He was making us Americans,” Rodriguez says. “I’m glad he did it. If you want to become American, you have to change.”

    That used to be the national consensus, DeFazio laments _ “Ozzie and Harriet weren’t hyphenated Americans.”

    But even as he roams the hills and dales of the city assigning parts and delivering shards of script _ a school marm, a newsboy, a Lithuanian miner marching to his death in the Lattimer massacre of 1897 _ the poet laureate is still looking for Hispanic kids to embody the latest wave of immigrants.

    Perhaps he will find them at the Correale Little League Stadium. A couple of years ago, some Hispanics moved to create a separate youth baseball league. A furious public reaction put the kibosh on it, and today the Little League games appear casually integrated.

    The stadium and its fields, framed by a giant blue water tank on one side and a gaggle of radio towers on the other, are situated at what appears to be the highest point in the city. It’s a blustery, heavenly remove from the turmoil below.

    In the moonlit dusk of a recent evening, a young ballplayer with brown skin and a Latin lilt to his English dared his lighter-skinned friends to race. “The last one … ” he began, then hesitated to find the right word to describe the stakes to be placed on this competition.

    He thought, he beamed, and then, confident, reissued his challenge: “The last one stinks.”


Written by jonathantilove

October 28, 2008 at 12:32 am

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