The Re-Making of Newtown: Will Tragedy Make It Stronger?

It was a quaint town until Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now Newtown is in the middle of a media maelstrom. How will it emerge?

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Mike Segar / Reuters

A mother embraces her daughter as they stand near a makeshift memorial close to Sandy Hook Elementary School for the victims of a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012.

At the entrance to the Newtown United Methodist Church on Sunday morning, Steve Agnew directs traffic into and out of the small parking lot out front. A member of the church, which resembles an old schoolhouse that appears to have been built onto over the years, he has strict orders from inside to keep the cameras out. At 8:45 a.m., a sole videographer is across the street, waiting for a shot of parishioners leaving the first of two ceremonies. Three others join a short while later.

It’s the least that Agnew, 45, thinks he can do for the community in peril that he calls home: “It just got to the point where I had to do something, so I came to the church and said: ‘Guys, what can I do?’ And they said: ‘We need help getting our parking lot under control.” Two days after a lone shooter killed his mother and then forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School about a half-mile away to gun down 26 of its students and staff, he recalls the town’s stop-and-chat innocence that, with the pull of a trigger, was replaced with a just-keep-moving mentality.

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“Usually, when you would say you were from Newtown, people would say: ‘Oh, that town is like a Norman Rockwell painting. I love the flagpole in the center of the road,’” Agnew says. “Now we’re going to be associated forever with this tragedy.” He’s right: in the matter of a few minutes last Friday morning, Newtown joined a list of American communities that were rocketed into the national spotlight by carnage: Littleton, Blacksburg, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora and Oak Creek.

And just as it did for people in those areas, Newtown has metamorphosed from a quaint New England society where everyone knows one another to a madhouse of unrelenting microphones and cameras. On Friday, dozens of satellite trucks rolled into town and set up camp at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church for the large evening vigil. By Saturday, most of those trucks joined others at Treadwell Park, where a long day of press conferences ended with the victims’ names being released. On Sunday, the town managed to confine them to actual parking lots, rather than the grass had they occupied earlier.

The impact was visible on Church Hill Road, the main passage through Newtown. Earlier last week, the mile-and-a-half span from the sky-high flagpole on Main Street down to the sole traffic light in Sandy Hook was about a three-minute drive. On Sunday around noon, the cars had slowed to a 25-minute crawl. Agnew says he hasn’t been to the steadily growing vigil at the traffic light yet, but he raved about the pancakes and “stuff that sticks to your insides” at the nearby Sandy Hook Diner: “You’ll need that on a day like today.”

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Inside the diner, which is an old railroad car that has been outfitted with a kitchen and an attached dining room, Ellie Lewis pours a glass of orange juice for a guy seated on one of the dozen black leather bar stools at the end of the long, traditional counter. With a simple greeting and warm smile, she takes orders—and, if a computer is placed on the counter, she’ll silently hand over a meal receipt with the wireless Internet username and password. Lewis, whose shoulder-length blond hair is partially pulled back and who’s wearing a dark blue apron over a magenta shirt, has owned the diner for two decades. Her clientele changed immediately after the shooting.

“This sure isn’t our norm, huh?” she says to another waitress in a Santa hat. Instead of just locals, they see a mix of loyal customers and press, who lay their smartphones on the counter and sip coffee as they recount what they’ve seen so far and what they still need to. When one of the regulars, Bob Hickey, opens the red door, hangs his coat on a white hook and sits down for breakfast, Lewis exchanges niceties with him and takes his order: a large strawberry and banana pancake with syrup.

Hickey, 67, has lived in Newtown for more than 35 years and worked for more than two decades in the septic tank pumping business around the region before retiring. Aside from a gruesome murder a generation ago, he was stumped trying to remember any event that had changed the community so much and so quickly. Hickey was driving back from White Plains on Friday afternoon when he first heard news of the shooting on the radio. “It’s like when you dream of something and you can’t get it out of your head. You just can’t get to sleep,” he says. “Like with a bad dream, you’ve got to get up and do something to get rid of it.”

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At around 10:45 a.m., a friend of Hickey’s walks in and sits down next to him at the counter, laying out a stack of local and national newspapers with in-your-face headlines and front-page collages of the school-age victims that they begin perusing through. “It’s not going to be the same, ever. It’s just like Columbine,” he says. Despite all that’s changed over the past few days with the townspeople he calls family, the emotions around Newtown are just as raw and fast-moving as they were on Friday.

“Once those little guys are buried, it’ll slow down,” he adds, trailing off as he flips a page to another photo of the victims. “Everything changed. Life goes on.” Moments later, he waves goodbye to his friend and the waitress, then leaves the newspapers for someone else to read. A minute after walking out, he comes back in and places two dollar bills under a porcelain coffee mug for Lewis.

A few hundred feet down the street is a growing memorial and a police checkpoint set up on Friday that blocks nearly all vehicle traffic from getting anywhere near the elementary school. The closest anyone can get is the volunteer firehouse up the hill: the walkway in the road is dotted with orange caution cones and is a bit wider than it has been all weekend—a subtle nod to the amount of visitors who have been there.

Adjacent to the firehouse is one of the most budding memorials around town. The meaning lies in the location: it’s on Dickinson Drive, up the block from the still-closed-off elementary school. What began on Friday as a modest drop-off point for stuffed animals, bouquets and candles at the vintage Sandy Hook School sign has transformed into a main hub where mourners and supporters come together and remember the victims and their beloved town, now unrecognizable from the one they lived in last week.

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Several dozen people are largely silent as they walk up and the crowd here stays pretty tight, only breaking up when someone places some flowers or lights a candle under the two orange tents that protect most of what’s been accumulated from the light, constant rain. There is colored wax on the pavement where the old candles burnt to the ground and were replaced with taller, fresh ones. Off to the side, Kristen Brassard and Kat Donohue are laying strings of silver beads on each of the trees lined around the memorial—one for each victim at the school. Both young women know families directly impacted by the shooting.

“This isn’t what our town’s about,” says Donohue, who attended the elementary school. “We’re all just completely shocked by it because you think something like this wouldn’t happen here.” The 22-year-old from Sandy Hook is trying to comfort Brassard, 21 and from Newtown, who’s fighting back tears after decorating the trees: “They all need to look nice. They all deserve a Christmas.”

Over the span of two days, Newtown has become a town full of hope and remembrance. Whether it’s a church service, an elaborately decorated intersection, or even a large poster tied to a bridge, people here have begun to express themselves in a way they’ve never had to before. On a day when many people in town normally go to their houses of worship, even more appeared to have retreated to familiar pews in order to escape the weather and seek guidance on how to make sense of their tragedy. And during the afternoon, even as a purported bomb threat cleared out the Roman Catholic church that had dominated the media hours after the shooting, a young man in a silver Chevy Blazer made a statement by driving slowly with his windows down and blasting “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood.

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In the early evening, groups of people streamed along Berkshire Road to Newtown High School, where President Obama would speak that night at an interfaith vigil. People are walking toward the school in the rain and darkness, passed the dozen television crews setting up for their live-shots throughout the night, holding flowers, teddy bears, cameras or whoever they’re with. Just after 8:30 p.m., the president takes the stage and a few hundred people standing outside the main entrance begin listening from a loud speaker to the man they hope will prevent another tragedy like this from happening again.

As the president speaks, Lee Boyle is thinking about a family she knows who lives close to her home. She came out to support the community and is clutching her purse in her hands as she swings back and forth in an attempt to stay warm, listening to him. “Newtown—you are not alone,” he says, before calling the community “a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America.”

On Saturday, before the names of the victims had been released by local officials, Boyle, 55 and of Newtown, found out that friends of hers had lost their daughter in the shooting. The giveaway was the police cruiser stationed in their driveway. Each family that lost a child has one blocking their home off to anyone they don’t want to see. Boyle says the family is inconsolable, as expected, but thinks the old Newtown will eventually return: “I think it’s going to be an even tighter community.”

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