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Amish and their neighbors

Late fall evenings can be particularly shadowy at dusk in the North Country of northern New York. As the last traces of light fade over distant hills, it is not totally dark, but it is not easy to see either.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Nov. 12, 1983, a horse and buggy moved slowly along Fish Creek Road in the town of DePeyster near the St. Lawrence River. In the buggy were a woman and two of her children, from a recently established Amish settlement. The driver of an overtaking car, his vision obscured, drove into the rear of the buggy. Subsequent events illustrate the difficulties that the Amish and non-Amish are having as they live side by side in newly settled areas.

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Many of us have an idealized, romantic notion of the Old Order Amish. We think of quaint dress, a simple agricultural life style, of horses and buggies trotting down tree-shaded country lanes and are reminded of our cultural heritage, a pastoral ideal that includes an unspoken statement of fundamental national values. However, the image held by many Americans living near Amish settlements is often less favorable. They see large numbers of people descending on their home area through group migration, practicing an unusual life style that changes the landscape in ways often not to their liking.

Neither of these perceptual viewpoints is completely accurate. The incident on Fish Creek Road exposed problems that are occurring in many areas of the United States where the Amish are trying to redevelop marginal farmlands.

The Old Order Amish are outgrowing available land in their traditional areas. In moving to other, marginal farmland, such as the North Country of New York, they are bringing abandoned or underutilized acres and farmsteads back into production.

The buggy was driven by a member of a conservative branch of the Old Order Amish Church that refuses to display slow-moving-vehicle warning emblems. These Amish believe this orange emblem constitutes ''decoration'' of the buggy, a practice forbidden by their religion. The buggy driver was ticketed on the basis of a law requiring the emblems, for reasons of safety. The sheriff started ticketing other Amish buggy drivers. Five Amish men refused to pay a $10 fine and were sent to jail for 15 days.

Just as a compromise was to be agreed upon, an unexpected turn of events threw the situation into turmoil. A town board meeting received a petition from over 100 residents asking that the law be enforced strictly for the Amish. The board unanimously agreed.

Dormant feelings long held by residents during the 10 years of Amish settlement had come out in the open. Many people claimed to see inconsistency in Amish life styles through their use of battery-powered tools, public transportation, chain saws, and diesel engines with sawmills.

A minister claimed the Amish were not paying enough attention to the biblical command to love their neighbors. Several citizens, more partial to the Amish, stated that the petitioners' reaction was based on a fear of the growth of Amish settlement. Letters to the editor appeared on both sides of the issue.

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Compromise instead of confrontation is needed in these situations. Even more, perspective is required. Amish redevelopment in neglected rural areas is beneficial, but is not accomplished without problems. Change tends to be that way. However, Americans traditionally have been sensitive to the issue of religious freedom and tolerant of individual differences.

Urban areas have always had more cultural diversity and have tended to be more understanding of it. Rural residents can live with cultural variations when they are recognized as such, rather than as a question of right vs. wrong. The solution will always be found in the same way that the solution to all intolerance is found - through hearts and minds committed to understanding and goodwill.McDonald is director of planning and development, City of Ogdensburg, N.Y.

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