I have something of the conservative temperament. I prefer the familiar to the unknown, the near to the distant etc etc. I read about Rod Dreher’s return to Louisiana with envy. People know his family. What is that like? But other parts of America turn neighborhoods over so quickly, sometimes the roots never get very deep.
Yesterday I had the occasion of going to the gravesite where everyone that I shared a house with as a child (mother and grandparents) are awaiting the resurrection and general judgement. It is in Bloomfield, New Jersey a suburb of Newark and New York.
Until I was twelve years old we lived in that town’s Halcyon Park, a planned community of tightly packed bungalows, with a central park-like area we called “the green.” My grandparents had that house for decades and it was a treasure. I remember that my whole future seemed to be defined by New Jersey institutions. We went to the Jersey shore for vacations. I was supposed to grow up and go to Seton Hall prep school, owing to my good grades. And then to Seton Hall or to Rutgers. Maybe I’d live in Nutley. None of this proved desirable and none of it happened.
The neighborhood itself was dominated by 2nd and 3rd generation Italian and Irish immigrants. The way people talked and acted it seemed as if the social contract that had built the place went something like this: you Irish be the occasionally crooked cops, and the Italians will be lovably criminal. Those two spheres unite at church things and also to prevent blacks from Newark from moving into the neighborhood. Around the corner there was a liquor store, a gas station, a (very good) pizza parlor, and a convenience store. The essentials. Even at ten years old, I frequently walked a mile to school, passing under the Garden State Parkway between exits 148 and 149.
Our family ended up leaving for Putnam County NY in 1994. IBM had closed down the Jersey office where my mother worked and offered to set her up closer to White Plains and Somers. Also the old neighborhood was getting just a little dodgy. Kids were loitering on our corner at night constantly. Cars were stolen. There was an armed robbery at the convenience store. And some crazy Italian couple got into a fight on the green and the girl fired a weapon. I remember feeling very relieved to move into a townhome development.
Every few years we’d have a reason to go back to the old town and Halcyon Park seemed like it was in terminal decline. Summer afternoons that previously showed a park crowded with kids playing whiffle ball and running bases were now deserted. The beautiful hedges that my grandmother had cultivated for decades around her home were replaced with a chain-link fence by a family that had little English.
But at some point in the past half decade, I noticed a big turnaround. There are still a few of the older Italian folks in the neighborhood, but there are many more black families and Eastern Europeans. Whatever the old social contract was, it has been replaced. And the place is thriving now. It is more pleasant than it was when we left.
Yesterday I parked the car there and walked around, by the old pond that we’d sometimes jump our bikes into. A young black couple flashed me that curious look that you give loitering strangers in your neighborhood. And over at my grandmother’s old house, just beyond the chain-link fence there was a middle-aged Polish man, carefully tending to the flower beds around that house.
I thought it was beautiful. I recognized none of the names on the familiar mailboxes. No one would remember my grandmother’s name. In fifteen years the turnover is incredible. New residents mean new bonds, new paint, new conventions about the little pond. It brims with life. But nothing about it feels like home. Except for the pizza joint, it could hardly be more alien to me if the federal government had evacuated all residents and turned Halcyon Park and the three towns surrounding it into a manmade lake.