For decades, the towns of Derby Line, Vt., and Stanstead, Quebec, have functioned as one community.
They share a sewer system, emergency services, snowplowing duties and the border-straddling Haskell Free Library and Opera House, where a skinny black line across the hardwood floor of the reading room marks the international border running through the property.
Work began Thursday, though, to erect of a pair of 5-foot-tall steel gates across two previously unguarded residential streets — a project that is dividing the towns physically but uniting them in displeasure.
Border authorities call the gates a necessary evil to stem smuggling and illegal alien crossings. Locals say there's enough security — surveillance cameras and patrols by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — as it is.
"I've always considered Derby and Stanstead like brother and sister," said Mary O'Donnell, 57, of Stanstead, walking into the library to use a computer Friday. "We've always been on friendly terms. Now, suddenly, 9/11 hits and everybody in the U.S. freaks out. So we're now going to get some really ugly things at the end of the streets that I don't think is going to serve much of a purpose."
The remote-controlled steel gates, which are in the process of being installed, will open for emergency vehicles, border agents and snow plows, but they will cut off automotive access by civilians on Phelps and Lee streets, which run perpendicular to the border.
"Over the years, we've noted that criminal smuggling organizations are bringing people in from all over the world to use those roads in the Derby Line area to smuggle people into the U.S. from Canada," said Mark Henry, operations officer for the U.S. Border Patrol. "People are also using those roads to smuggle people into Canada from the U.S."
Many who are caught smuggling aliens across the border using the streets have been found to be in possession of maps — downloaded from the Internet — showing the layout, officials say.
Last month, an alleged con man who had confounded authorities all over the world was caught here. Juan Guzman-Betancourt told the Border Patrol he had unknowingly walked across the border into Vermont from Canada after his car broke down.
But by then, plans were already in the works for the gates, which will hang from two granite-faced steel posts on either side of the roadways.
One gate is being paid for by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the other by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They'll be maintained by both countries.
Splitting the community
Locals don't question the need for border security.
"The USA has the right to take the measures, as a sovereign state has the right to take the measures it deems necessary to protect its borders and its people," said Andrew Preston, 70, of nearby Baldwin's Mills, Quebec. "But some of the fallout from that, unfortunately, is that it harms communities like these," said Preston, who was using the library Friday.
It's the psychological impact of tightened security that bothers some.
"We really don't consider the border a border," said drugstore owner Roland Roy, who sits on the three-member board of trustees for the Village of Derby Line. "We consider the village as all one. These gates split the community."
Two existing border crossings — one on Route 5 in Derby Line, another along Interstate 91 — handle most of the international traffic. The unguarded streets are used primarily by locals, many of them familiar faces to the border authorities.
For now, Church Street — which runs parallel to the others and leads to the front door of the Haskell Free Library — will remain unguarded, and with no gate.
"Church Street is unguarded, but that doesn't mean it's unwatched or unpatrolled," Henry said. "If we see there's a problem, we'll see what we have to do about it."