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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

What would Walt Whitman Say?

Air Date: Week of

The celebrated poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "America does not repel the past." But, the congregation of a tiny, historic church in southern New Jersey is wondering if the nation still heeds its Poet. A road-widening project threatens to destroy two old trees which have flanked the church's entrance since the days Whitman himself spent time there. Paul Conlow has this story of how some in a small town are trying to hold off suburban sprawl as it is about to roll over historic places.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
The celebrated poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "America does not repel the past." But the congregation of a tiny historic church in southern New Jersey is wondering if the nation still heeds its "good gray poet". A road widening project threatens to destroy 2 majestic trees, which have flanked the church's entrance since the days Whitman himself frequented the site. Paul Conlow has the story of how some in a small town are trying to halt the juggernaut of suburban sprawl as it threatens to roll over historic places.

(A congregation sings to organ accompaniment: "Oh, come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wild wood Oh, come to the church in the dell...")

CONLOW: The congregation of the Glendale United Methodist Church in Voorhees, New Jersey, sings an old hymn during Sunday service.

(Congregation sings: "... as the little boy in church in the dell...")

CONLOW: Time seems to stand still in this church built in 1855 on what was a sleepy crossroads about 10 miles east of Philadelphia. Farmers gathered sandstones from nearby fields for the foundation. They raised the walls sheathed in white clapboard. And as a finishing touch, they planted 2 tulip poplars to frame the entrance. Today, the tulip poplars tower over the little church, and descendants of the farmers who built it, people like Pete Stafford, continue the long tradition of worshiping here. After the service, Stafford stands outside and points to the remains of an old shed, which served the congregation long ago.

(Traffic sounds)

STAFFORD: This is where they would have put their horses and wagons, at least the first ones that got here. Now remember, they used to come as a group. There'd be a whole family in a wagon, so it wasn't just like today where you have 1 or 2 people in a car. They would have a crowd in these wagons, so you didn't need that much space...

(Traffic sounds increase)

CONLOW: But the narrow road, which once carried wagons, now carries thousands of cars and trucks each day. Years of development have transformed Voorhees from a quiet farming community into an affluent, 11-square-mile suburb with 28,000 residents, shopping malls, office buildings, and lots of traffic.

(Traffic continues)

CONLOW: Every year scores of accidents occur within sight of the tulip poplars. Camden County, which owns the strip of land including the tulip poplars in front of the church, wants to cut down the trees and widen the dangerous intersection. County official Scott Goldberg says no one wants to disturb the historic site, but it's a matter of safety.

GOLDBERG: This is about, you know, the 20th century and all of its ills and all of its challenges coming straight face to face with history. And I think the only answer is that history and progress work together.

CONLOW: But the Glendale congregation opposes the plan, which would put the entrance of their church just 13 feet away from the busy highway. They insist the road can be widened on the other side. County officials say that option would cost an extra million dollars. And public spending is a touchy issue in Voorhees, where taxes skyrocketed as the local economy slumped in the mid-1990s. Like many in town, shopper Helen Chambers of Voorhees would like to see the trees spared, but not if she has to pay for them.

CHAMBERS: A million dollars, I know some parts of that would come from us. And we pay enough around here. So you know, they have to do what they have to do.

CONLOW: But another shopper, Albert Haines, who once picked strawberries in fields now covered by a supermarket parking lot, says he would miss the trees and their springtime blossoms.

HAINES: Very pretty. The pink and white blooms on them and all, it's very pretty. They shouldn't be taken down, I don't think so.

CONLOW: Road projects ignite debates like this one in communities across the nation, where nearly $100 billion a year is spent on building, maintaining, and administering roads. Good roads spur economies, reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, and save lives. But Peter Brink of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says these benefits need not come at the price of the community's historic resources, like the Glendale church's tulip poplars.

BRINK: Roads are there to serve communities, and communities are not there to serve roads. And in this case it sounds like something very precious is being taken out in the name of the road.

(Milling voices)

CONLOW: After Sunday service the congregation gathers for coffee and cake in the church's sun-filled basement room. In 1995 the Glendale church and the tulip poplars earned a place on the state and national registers of historic places, and for good reason. Abolitionists met in this room, and it also served as one of New Jersey's first public schools, where students carved their initials in the hand-hewn posts and sat for visits by Walt Whitman. The author of Leaves of Grass came to the Jersey countryside while recuperating from a stroke. He stayed with the Stafford family, who lived for a time across the road, and often could be found hobbling by the little stream behind the church.

(Burbling water)

O'NEAL: (reading) "I'm sitting near the brook under a tulip tree 70 feet high, thick with the fresh verdure of its young maturity. A beautiful object, every branch, every leaf perfect from top to bottom."

CONLOW: That's Margaret O'Neal, curator of Camden's Walt Whitman House, reading a passage which Whitman penned during one of his visits. Pete Stafford says his grandmother was among the children who watched Whitman stand on a tree stump and recite poetry, smeared in mud which he believed had healthful qualities.

STAFFORD: They were terrified of the man. I mean, he had a long beard, he was smeared with mud, he was acting a little eccentric. And they spied on him but they kept their distance.

CONLOW: A shopping center now occupies the land where Stafford's grandmother grew up. An example of the new development which is helping Voorhees rebound from its recent economic slump. But what's good for the economy, says Camden County's Scott Goldberg, is hard on the roads, which will snarl with even more cars.

GOLDBERG: And these cars, you know, they're moving quickly, they're going to the store, they have to leave to get home, you know these aren't Sunday drivers. These are people on a mission.

CONLOW: The Glendale United Methodist Church also has a mission, says its pastor, the Reverend Charles Lay. Not to discourage progress, but to preserve itself, its history, and the history of the township.

LAY: There's a point at which you have to say enough is enough, this is history. We just want people to stop trying to take this part away from us and from themselves. There's other ways around this; we have to stop it.

(Congregation singing)

CONLOW: The congregation has rejected the county's offer to move the church away from the intersection and will continue to oppose any efforts to take down the trees. Camden County plans to appeal in June to the state's Historic Sites Council for permission to remove the tulip poplars. For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Conlow in Voorhees, New Jersey.



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