Roseto, Pennsylvania was an unremarkable town in the foothills of the Poconos until it shot to prominence in the 1960s. A resident noticed that few people in Roseto showed signs of heart disease and hardly anyone under the age of 55 died of a heart attack. Even in people over 65, the rate of heart disease was only half that in the neighboring communities or in the nation as a whole. This was big news because heart disease was, at the time, the leading cause of death in America. Two doctors, Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn, began a multi-year study of Roseto residents to determine the reasons for this anomaly.
They eliminated all the known causes of heart disease, one by one. First, they discounted environmental factors and access to medical care. The water supply and the healthcare system in Roseto were no different from those in neighboring towns. Next, they discarded genetic factors: Rosetans were healthier than their relatives elsewhere in the country. Nor was diet a factor. The people of Roseto, all immigrants from Italy, had long abandoned healthy extra-virgin oil as a cooking medium; they used lard and indulged in fat-laden salamis, sausages,hams and eggs and they smoked inveterately. After many years of study, the two doctors concluded that the reason for the good health of Rosetans was the town’s supportive community.
To understand this, it is necessary to know some of Roseto’s history. Roseto was founded by a group of men from Roseto Valfortorte in Apulia in southern Italy, who came to America to escape the grinding poverty that had been their lot. Here they labored as peasant farmers for the landed gentry, in slate quarries and, in the case of a fortunate few, as stone carvers. They founded a town on a cheap, open piece of land on a hillside and named it Roseto after the village they had left behind. Their numbers grew as they married girls from the old country and started their own families. Life was very hard as they were shunned by the Welsh, English and Slavs from the neighboring towns. They worked at the most menial jobs, digging holes , throwing out rubbish etc and earning as little as eight cents for 10 hours of backbreaking work. As a result, they became an ethnic enclave , speaking a regional Italian dialect and distrusting the outside world. By dint of hard work and frugality, they eventually prospered. They grew their own food, bought locally and even made their own wine. Families worked together, ate together and members of the community looked out for each other leading to a sense of security and freedom from stress. There was co-operation instead of competition; everyone in Roseto dressed alike and lived in modest homes. This emotionally supportive environment, the two doctors concluded, was the reason for the good health Rosetans enjoyed.
With time, as young people went to college and left Roseto for better opportunities, things changed. People wanted bigger homes, bigger cars and the sense of community eroded. A follow-up study in 1985 by the same two doctors found that the health and mortality of people in Roseto was indistinguishable from that of everyone else.
So what are we to conclude from this? That pre-1960 Rosetto was the ideal community and one that we should emulate ?
For one thing, such a community is, necessarily, insular, suspicious of outsiders and opposed to new ideas and change. Rooted in the past, it is comfortable only with perpetuating the old way of life and is resistant to progress. Not only is such a mindset untenable in today’s fast- changing world, it is bad both for locals and the nation at large. It is very limiting.
There are two things about that society that are worth adopting. First, the close knit nature of the community. Second, its egalitarian outlook. Unfortunately both are very difficult , if not impossible, to develop in today’s America. Communities are not stable; people are constantly moving around in search of jobs, better opportunities, bigger homes. It is difficult to develop a sense of community and belonging when people don’t stay in one place. Also, competition has became the norm as we constantly seek to keep with the Jones and even go one better than them. In the Roseto of old, people believed that flaunting wealth would attract malocchio ( the evil eye) and bring harm to their families. Today, people are not constrained by such beliefs and strive to accumulate and spend as much as they can. Recreating the mindset of old Roseto in which the well-to-do helped out the less fortunate is well nigh impossible, as desirable as it may be.
Surprisingly, in todays America, there are some limited environments which do function like the Roseto of yore. They are the Active Adult ( Senior Citizen) developments which are proliferating as America ages. In such communities where residents are either retired or contemplating retirement, people have more time for each other. Freed from the tensions of the workplace, people are kindlier and more relaxed, more supportive of each other. There are less opportunities for competition. Houses come in a limited range of models and, at this stage of life, no one is contemplating additions. There are fewer opportunities for flaunting wealth and even the desire to do so lessens. Supportive communities, a relaxed environment and egalitarian attitudes… doesn’t that sound like the ” Roseto effect” ?
P.S If you live in an Active Adult community is that your experience too ?