A Jersey Story
One thing I have learned from canvassing is that you can tell a lot about people based on their house, yard, neighborhood, and car. For example, a Prius driver is either a progressive person who wants their progressiveness to be obvious or a racist who dislikes Arabs (seriously). Neighborhoods with porches are usually more friendly than neighborhoods without them. The more beige the houses, the more beige the people. And of course, a neighborhood that went up in the sixties and consists of split levels and cape cods will be filled with old people that hate me.
These post-war neighborhoods are old enough that the kids have grown up and moved on but not old enough that anyone has died and moved out. As a result, the maze-like suburban neighborhoods are lined with rows of barren, childless homes with poorly cared for shutters. The inhabitants tend to be in their mid-late sixties. Usually, there are no walkable shopping districts near these types of communities, and they depress the hell out of me.
On Friday evening, in the rain, I was making my way through my own personal split-level hell. Boring houses opened their doors to reveal even less interesting people. I was nearing my breaking point when I came to one house that was noticeably older. It had a porch, interesting architectural features, and mature trees. An older woman answered the door and listened politely to my explanation of what I was doing. After a moment, she cracked a smile, becoming the first person all evening to do so.
"I was just in Florida, and 45 degrees is frigid to me. Why don't you come inside?"
The interior of her home was cramped but cozy. Old, solid wood beams lined the ceiling. I asked her the story of the home and the neighborhood, so she explained:
"In 1919, a man bought the property this house sits on for $125. Can you believe that? He built it one room at a time which is why it looks a little odd from the outside. I actually just had the town inspector here today."
"I needed a certificate of occupancy for my new bathroom. It was built in 2000, and they are just getting around to inspecting it now."
"Did you live in a tent in the backyard until today?"
[laughing] "Oh no. I didn't. But I suppose legally I was supposed to have."
"When was the rest of the neighborhood built?"
"In the late sixties, the split levels went up. All of the families moved here at one time, and we are all still here for the most part. Years ago, these streets would be crawling with kids on bikes. We had the only backyard basketball hoop on the block, so all of the kids came here. I used to tell them, 'Call your parents and tell them where you are!' You used to be able to walk to the corner store when you needed milk, too"
"When did the strip malls go up?"
"Hmm... maybe fifteen years ago? That was one of many changes. Now when I need milk, I need to walk down what's nearly a highway to Kings. I suppose Kings is my corner store now."
"Wow! A lot has changed!"
"Yeah, this was a wonderful place to live once. All the families knew each other. I still know everyone, which is nice, but the physical neighborhood itself changed. All of this [gesturing outside] was woods when we moved here. I remember one Christmas, it must have been years ago, we looked outside, and there were deer creeping into our backyard from the woods. There were always animal footprints in the snow."[Here, she smiled slyly and opened her rear curtain. Her backyard now opens into a used car lot.] "Now, on beautiful days, I can gaze out my window to see the new cars being delivered on trucks."
"So, when everyone moved here, it was completely different?"
"Oh, I would never move here now. You guys have to win. It's so important that this not happen to other New Jersey communities."
The neighborhood looked different to me now. Instead of wondering at the type of person that could possibly live in this hell, I wondered at the people that approved the destruction of what had been a vibrant community. Yes, few young families would choose to move here now, but the older residents who were there had chosen to move to something completely different from what they now found themselves in. What was once a neighborhood isolated by woodland was now a neighborhood isolated by massive parking lots and four-lane roads. On the other hand, it was some of the original sprawl. Once you carve your own suburban paradise out of the Jersey woods, there is no guarantee that developers will not just keep on carving up more parcels of land around you. It was still sad, though, and I gained a new respect for the people living there. They did not choose to move into a depressing and boring neighborhood. They were trapped in one.
"Can I use your bathroom?" I asked.
"Yes, but please don't move in. I have not received my certificate of occupancy yet."
"I promise not to move into your bathroom," I laughed.
When I stepped outside, the rain had stopped.