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In the booming Poconos, city folk become country folk


LEHMAN TOWNSHIP, Pa. - The 2000 census is out and it's official: New York's fastest-growing suburbs are Pike and Monroe counties. Don't go scrambling for your New York state map. They are in Pennsylvania.

That's across the Hudson River, across New Jersey, across the Delaware River and into the Pocono Mountains. If you keep going, you could end up in Ohio.

"We actually had cousins who lived in New Jersey and we called them country folk," said Lisa Scarponi, who came here from Brooklyn nine years ago. "Pennsylvania was beyond country folk."

No more. It's city folk, and they're coming in droves, doubling the size of rural Pocono towns where houses are cheap, schools are good and the amenities - from skiing to swimming to horseback riding - are to die for. Well, at least to commute for.

By 6 a.m. it is tough to find space in the Stroudsburg park-and-ride lot, which holds 650 cars. Martz Trailways brings about 1,500 passengers a day to New York from the Poconos.

Natives watch in quiet horror as vinyl-sided homes and dreaded "commuters" multiply exponentially. It's one thing to decide to move to Levittown, and quite another to have Levittown decide to move to you.

"It's wild that people made the conscious decision to travel four or five hours a day to work," said James Frutchey, a telephone company manager who has lived here all his life. "Was New York that bad?"

In the frantic struggle of the mortgage payment vs. another bedroom vs. class size vs. the daily commute, this working-class resort of time shares and honeymooner whirlpools shaped like champagne glasses just seems like a better option.

"I'm a New Yorker at heart," said Ray Rivera, 58, who fixes computer printers on Wall Street. But he's a Pennsylvanian by wallet. He came here from Queens two years ago, paying $132,000 for a three-bedroom chalet with a Jacuzzi and two fireplaces on three-quarters of an acre. "Where can you get that in New York?" he asked, exiting the bus the other night.

That is why ads in New York newspapers screaming "Live BIG for less" are working. The population of Pike County, just north of the Delaware Water Gap, grew by more than 65.6 percent since 1990, to 46,302. Next door, Monroe County grew by 44.9 percent to 138,687. (Putnam County, the fastest-growing suburban county in New York state, grew a mere 13.1 percent.)

As New York's manifest destiny pushes into a fourth state, the city folk are typically charming.

"They're not friendly, not everyone," said Rob Rohner, the secretary/treasurer of Lehman Township. "You get tailgaters. They cut you off. They give you the finger."

Plus they want schools for their kids. "We just completed two elementary schools, two new intermediate schools and a second high school," said Patrick W. Forney, president of the East Stroudsburg school board. "We're in the process of planning a new elementary school."

Far-flung exurbs and long commutes are nothing new, of course. But the mountains of Pennsylvania feel as familiar as spelunking to many New Yorkers. When Lisa Scarponi, a mother of four, moved from Brooklyn in 1992, she was shocked to occasionally see deer hanging out in her back yard like Brooklyn corner boys.

Her husband, a plumber, commuted to New York for nine years before starting a business here. He awoke at 4:15 a.m to beat the Route 80 traffic, returning home at 6:30 p.m. To communicate with each other as he drove, they bought CB radios and even gave themselves "handles." He was Toymaker. She was Spider. (Don't ask.) "I'm on the CB, 'Toymaker, are you out there?'" she recounted. "'I'm coming, Spider.' I'm like a Bensonhurst girl. Now, I'm on a CB. I felt like a hillbilly."

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