Monday, March 03, 2014

My Little Town

I asked Baxter if he wanted to post but he said he isn't ready yet, as he needs to catch up on current events a bit before deciding on a good topic.

So, I'm here again instead, to talk about something that occurred to me Sunday morning as I was lazing in bed trying to get up the energy to get up. My father-in-law was coming for breakfast, and it made me think about the differences between where he lives and where we live.

DH's dad and mom bought their house in Holmdel, New Jersey, when DH was about 5, and they were about 30. The house was not completed yet, so they went every day to watch it being built. At that time, Holmdel was the wide open country; their housing development was built on the site of an old orchard, and the road that their house faced was a country road with little traffic.

Now, 57 years later, that road is very busy; the farms in the area are all gone, replaced by highways and strip malls...

Holmdel is grouped into neighborhoods of 1950s homes like my father-in-law's modest 3-bedroom, split level/1 car garage house, tracts of slightly larger homes built in the mid-60s, and new neighborhoods filled with expensive McMansions in more exclusive locations, with an occasional original farmhouse scattered here and there.

(House photos courtesy of

The top picture above is the house next door to Dad's, which was recently sold. If you look at that picture you can't tell it sits on a busy road, but believe me, it does. As you can imagine, people who live in the neighborhoods that have houses that look like Dad's do not interact with those who live in neighborhoods that have houses that look like the second picture. At all.

In earlier days, when DH was young, and his parents were active in their church and community, they knew their neighbors and had friends in the area, as well as siblings and cousins. Everyone had moved to the area at around the same time; their kids were all growing up together, and families had similar jobs and incomes.

But as everyone aged, their friends and extended family all moved far away or died, and now my mother-in-law has dementia and is living in a nursing home and Dad lives alone in the house that he and Mom watched being built so many years ago. He visits Mom in the nursing home - about a 20 minute drive from his house - every day, twice a day, unless he is away for the weekend up at our cabin for a break.

I was thinking about how isolated he is living in that house now that all his old neighbors are gone. He doesn't know anyone in the neighborhood. There is never anyone walking up or down his street, not even walking their dogs. There are no stores near enough for anyone to walk to, so everyone uses their cars to go anywhere. And where do they go? Strip malls, big box stores on the highway, and enclosed malls.

I am thankful that Dad does go to the nursing home every day, because at least that way people are watching out for him as well as for Mom. If he didn't show up unexpectedly they would worry and call us.

Thinking about all this, I started comparing his situation to our town. We live in Bloomfield, a suburb of New York, a gritty older town that has been pretty much built out for at least 100 years.

At one time Bloomfield too had farms, and went through its own development into a more populous town. But the housing that was built in the early 20th century was built under the assumption that people would need to be able to walk to stores or public transit. Much of our neighborhood was developed in 1912, so most people did not have cars. Even the north end of town, which is newer, was built when most families had only one car, so some walking was still required.

Many residential areas, particularly in the older end of town, were interspersed with businesses or factories, including the old Annin Flag Factory right down the street from us (visited by George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign). This made it convenient for local people to get jobs in these companies and walk to work.

Westinghouse also employed many local people, who either walked to work or took the train to get there.

Now Westinghouse is gone (torn down, with the land still being remediated due to residual contamination from years of manufacturing as well as residue left from when uranium was refined there during the Manhattan Project). This is one of the few currently undeveloped spaces left in town other than a few parks. Other local factories were replaced with retail stores. Annin Flag Factory has been converted to upscale apartments.

But the town is still laid out to enable people to walk to destinations. Our house is within walking distance to the train station (25 minutes to Penn Station, New York), and there is a convenience store on the corner where we can buy newspapers, coffee, and a good selection of groceries. There are convenience stores scattered in a number of nearby neighborhoods - almost no one is more than a 5-minute walk from a little store, at least at our end of town.

There are also a myriad of very good local restaurants in several areas of town, offering foods of various types, including Greek, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Cuban and many other cuisines.

In contrast, in Holmdel, there aren't even any local or family-owned restaurants except one nearby Italian/Pizza restaurant; the rest are all out on the highway and most are chains.

In our neighborhood in Bloomfield, there is a senior citizens apartment building nestled within the residential homes, two blocks from our local county park, enabling seniors to walk to stores or the park and mingle with other neighbors who they see as they come and go.

The neighbors look out for one another here. Elderly neighbors living alone are a matter of concern to the whole neighborhood. One of our neighbors regularly took an elderly woman grocery shopping and helped her with her bills, since her own children lived far away. She did this until the woman, at age 100, moved to Colorado to be with her daughter.

Many neighborhoods in town hold block parties, which draw new neighbors into the fold and reunite other neighbors who don't see each other often due to their work schedules. People of all ages come to our annual block party and enjoy the food and good company.

Some residents have formed neighborhood associations that try to tackle ongoing issues in town rather than moving elsewhere in defeat.

Ours is a diverse town, with people of all nationalities, races and ethnic backgrounds intermingling. Our population is 54% white, with the rest a mix of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and others. Holmdel, in contrast, is 78% white, with 17% Asian and very few other nationalities represented. I feel diversity leads to strength, versatility, and open-mindedness. Many people move to Bloomfield from places like Brooklyn, and cite our town's diversity as a positive in helping them make their decision to move.

Best of all, at least from my perspective, if you move into Bloomfield, a fully developed town, you don't have to worry about the open space around you being turned into strip malls and highways - the parks are preserved for our use already, and whatever else has happened, for good or for bad, has already happened (such as the Garden State Parkway ramming itself through the middle of town in 1954).

The town center may have a different look now, but the streets are still the same, and the Green on which the local militia once drilled during the Revolution is still there, along with the 1796 Presbyterian church.

When you come to Bloomfield, you know what you are getting. There will be no surprises, as can happen if, as my in-laws did, you buy a new house in a new town surrounded by lovely farmland, thinking it will stay that way.

Bloomfield is continuing to emphasize walkability in town, making its streets even more pedestrian friendly by narrowing portions of one of its main roads and making bump-outs to slow traffic. More bike lanes are planned as well.

I am not writing this to put down Holmdel in any way - Dad's house has a lovely back yard, which is surprisingly quiet despite the busy road out front. The PNC Arts Center is nearby - in fact, Dad goes there to walk in the open space and woods on their grounds every morning for exercise. His town is convenient to the Parkway (to come visit us!) and the Jersey Shore. When they were younger, Dad and Mom used to go Sandy Hook State Park regularly to ride their bikes or attend concerts on the beach.

But the lack of a downtown of its own or a culture of walking and interacting with neighbors is a downfall of this type of community, built during the peak of America's love affair with the car. It is particularly problematic if a person is elderly and alone because of the lack of social support. Dad is 87 now, and still drives. But what will happen if he can no longer drive?

Does Bloomfield have its problems? Hell, yes. The racial diversity that works well most of the time can also lead to friction; there is a perception that those who live in the north end of town look down on those in the south end of town, which tends to skew somewhat more to the minority population.

Our town has managed to drag out a redevelopment of the town Center for well over a decade due partly to a lack of savvy, poor decisions and dissension among the township officials, with a couple of lawsuits thrown in. The project is finally getting off the ground and other parts of the downtown are also being redeveloped. However, many developments taking place are opposed by some of the residents.

The last few years have also seen their share of big controversies in town unrelated to redevelopment. The Bloomfield Health Department and the Board of Health were embroiled in one over the fate of a pit bull named Memphis. The controversy continues to this day, as the dog was sent out to South Dakota to be "rehabilitated" by a person purported to be a trainer - and remains there to this day.

The police department has also been roiled by dissension, with disagreements over who should be police chief, claims of political interference, and most recently, accusations of police misconduct.

But, for all its ups and downs, my little town really IS a "little" town - despite its population of almost 50,000 - because people know each other. We meet up with neighbors in the local stores, at the park, at the restaurants and at town meetings. We discuss our concerns on Facebook, on online forums, and in the Letters to the Editor of the local newspapers (there are two). We are a community.

We may not always agree with each other on various issues, and emotions can get heated at election time, but we are all Bloomfielders. And I'd rather live in Bloomfield than out in the sterile, suburban sprawl of Holmdel any day.


Amanda said...

Bloomfield sounds delightful even with the little snags it's hit. Granted, I'm nailed down to the south because Brent views any temperature under 70 as a cold snap... plus as a native of Louisiana he'd be utterly unintelligible north of the Mason Dixon line. But I've always loved the thought of moving north, and of living somewhere you could just walk anywhere you wanted to go; and somewhere with decent mass transit for when walking was less practical.

vicky bell said...

Love this- although we have to move out of NJ, what we will be looking for is a walkable neighborhood, with small businesses, and sidewalks, similar to Bloomfield, which was such a great place to grow up and still is a good place to live. Well said.

yellowdoggranny said...

my friend Shady Lane's parents used to own a bar in Bloomfield..don't know if it is still was Called Rob's...I sent them a poster of the heart of snake handlers with guys kissing cobras and holding rattlesnakes..wonder if it is still there. your town sorta sounds like West.

Sherry Peyton said...

I think people yearn for that kind of smallish town atmosphere where people walk places and know shop keepers and neighbors. We live on the outskirts of town in a small neighborhood and no businesses. I'm sure it too will change over time. If you are around Detroit, you can find the odd farmhouse on 8-mile that is surrounded by buildings and so's hard to know what to do these days in finding a "home" that will stay that way and not become what all too many do--urbanized. I wonder what the future holds..

Mauigirl said...

JackieSue, do you remember where Rob's was? Right now the bars I'm most familiar with are Gloria's (which was originally The Feedbag when I first moved to Bloomfield in 1987 - it is on the left side of Broad Street right after you turn off of Bloomfield Avenue); Obal's (on Broad Street farther up near the North Center, has been there a long time); and
The Town Pub (which apparently was once Gansers and a number of other names). There is also a small bar called Core's (pronounced Corey) on Franklin Street and a few others that I can't think of but none named Rob's. Oh, there used to be the Firehouse Pub on Glenwood Avenue but it is closed.

Mauigirl said...

Sherry - the fear of unexpected urbanization is one reason we bought our cabin in the Adirondack park rather than outside of it. At least we know the land surrounding us won't be developed into highways and strip malls. However, they do log the forest "sustainably" in our section of the park. Better than a Walmart though!

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