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Adam Smeltz: On State Patty's Day Weekend, Two Faces of State College

on February 27, 2012 2:29 AM

Two faces of State College showed themselves this weekend.

One turned out just before 4 p.m. Saturday on Highland Avenue, where a college-age man, eastbound on foot, encountered two college-women, both westbound on foot.

"Hey," said the man. "Want to play Frisbee?"

"No," said the first woman. "But I'll show you my (expletive)."

She dropped her pants, laughed, reassembled herself and carried on. The man appeared nonplussed.

About 20 minutes earlier, less than a block away, police said a pedestrian walked out into Beaver Avenue traffic without looking. An oncoming Nissan SUV took him down.

He went to Mount Nittany Medical Center with non-life-threatening injuries -- one of more than 400 incidents that State College police handled over State Patty's Day weekend.

We'll call that -- all of that -- the town's wild face: part risque and bawdily fun-loving, part reckless, part dangerous. It's the face that sees a bundle of public attention this time of year. It's the face that plants State College among the most party-happy college towns in the U.S. -- with justification.

I'm not here to judge. Without going too personal, let's just say the late, lamented Phi Psi 500 is no stranger to my family tree. Our beer-chugging gene is well established.

So, yes: There's the town's wild face.

But on Friday evening, at the State College Municipal Building, our more cerebral face showed up, too.

Madness and mayhem had begun to stir just outside. Inside, on the second floor, some 40 people gathered to help build a better town.

They talked for nearly two hours, drawn by an invitation to strengthen "community connectedness." Students, including a first-year fraternity brother and a senior bound for law school, made up at least half the crowd. Others included some middle-aged parents, more elderly folks and a cross-section of borough municipal and community leaders.

Led by organizers with the Penn State Off-Campus Student Union and State College (Borough) Neighborhood Services, they formed small-group discussions around semi-abstract questions: What crossroads are you facing in your life? What kinds of sacrifices are you willing to make, and for what ends? What brought you here tonight?

Conversations were remarkably personal, respectful and effective. They connected longtime residents with students they might have talked with only fleetingly otherwise -- and vice-versa. Folks walked away with a renewed sense of their shared humanity, their shared struggles and accomplishments. People sounded humbled.

The session, called "Neighborhood Dialogues," was part of Community Volunteer Weekend, a borough- and student-supported antidote to State College's wild face. Participants also conducted sober walks through town, cleaned up on Sunday and helped with energy-efficiency efforts in the borough, among other causes.

It's the kind of work that would have made the late Mayor Bill Welch smile with pride. Many times, he expressed deep displeasure at the idea of perpetual "drinking until your brains fall out."

He wanted State College to be better than that. He knew that it could be -- and that it was.

Of course, that doesn't mean mischievous, bawdy fun has to disappear from our college-town culture.

It doesn't mean that high-minded idealism and "Kumbaya"-style hand-holding should become our universal norm, either.

Somewhere between the laudable ideal of conflict-free community life and the dangerous stupidity seen on State Patty's Day, there's got to be an acceptable middle ground, right?

There's got to be some practical in-between, some happy medium where pedestrians won't walk into traffic and longtime residents won't expect monastic silence on Saturday nights, right?

We're a two-faced town, a community with a split personality. Our challenges aren't new; they aren't exclusive to us, either.

But as long as we keep talking about them -- with reasonable expectations on all sides -- we can grow only better adjusted in our communal personality disorder.


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