Sunday, February 24, 2008

Visiting Main Street with Guru Rod


Dr. Rodrick Wallace is one of the great human ecologists in the United States.  He was willing to take a couple of hours out of his busy schedule to visit NJ Main Streets with me.  We started off from the Columbia University Medical Center where his office is located.  Journalist Molly Rose Kaufman and public health student Laura Gabby joined us.  

First stop--Fort Lee
Fort Lee, once a center of the movie business, is a bustling urban center and the NJ terminus of the George Washington Bridge.  Towering Miami Beach-type condos dot its riverfront skyline. Main Street, however, reminds of us an earlier time.  The old wooden building that houses the hardware store stands out against the backdrop of highrises.  The welcoming post office anchors the comings and goings of local residents.  Like other Main Streets it has found uses in providing banks, restaurants, and clothing stores.  It proudly boasts a major bookstore, Border's, carefully set along the sidewalk to fill the urban tissue.  It is an active center, invigorating a city bisected by major highways.  



After a quick walk up and down the street, we got back in the car and headed out towards Hackensack.  Main Street changes its name as it travels through different cities.  Along the way, we crossed of Grand Avenue, which serves as Main Street, Leonia.  This is a reminder of Joe Getz' point -- Main Street is found at the intersection of Main and Main.  

Second stop--Bogota
Main Street runs north and west from Fort Lee, mostly through residential areas.  It becomes Main Street again in Bogota, a small city with a one block locus of commercial activity that boasts a post office and an excellent candy store.  We walked one block off Main to see the civic center -- city hall, library, senior center, with the police and fire stations nearby.  On our walk we saw a stately Victorian house.  We appreciated the homeowners' sense of whimsy expressed in a sculpture made of old lawnmowers.  "That's the house I thought I'd live in when I grew up," noted Rod.  He left the suburbs, however, for the city and apartment life.  

Third stop-- Hackensack
We drove just 5 more minutes to get to Main Street, Hackensack.  Like Grand Avenue, Main Street, Hackensack runs perpendicular to the road we were on.  Somewhat like a movie set, Hackensack respected the buildings that fronted Main Street, but scooped those behind.  One would guess, given the history in what remains, that many historic structures were demolished and made into parking.  We stationed our car in this vacant area and found our way onto Main Street by passing through an aromatic Asian grocery store.  By this time, the crew was ready for coffee.  A coffee shop next door to the library had good java and eats for us.  Afterwards, we took a minute to visit the library, a spectacular building erected a hundred years ago and recently expanded.  

Whether it was the old slate sidewalk in Bogota or the statue of a Native American in the library in Hackensack, our trip along Bergen county Main Streets revealed layers of history. Rod commented, "It's important to know this history because it is also the future of the city."   

1 comment:

Laura said...

While there is much that could be written on each of the main streets we visited in New Jersey, a few major points stood out to me. Bogota, which had the smallest stretch of “main street,” struck me as very similar to a neighborhood that I lived near in Spokane, WA called Browne’s Addition. Browne’s Addition was originally the most elegant, expensive neighborhood to live in and had all of the huge Victorian houses. However, throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, buildings began to be abandoned and burned down. Additionally, much of the nearby downtown area emptied out with the opening of a huge mall on the north side of Spokane. The area became associated with drugs and violence and most of the remaining housing became overcrowded. Even so, it still had the most beautiful houses in the entire city and my mother and I would occasionally wander up and down the streets looking at houses and end at the Elk, a soda fountain that had the most original drinks in town. The houses near Bogota seemed similar to me – old beautiful houses, some of which were in use and well maintained but a few beginning to see some damage and one boarded up because of a fire. The nicest house we saw in Bogota had a yard filled with artwork and pottery, however, the statue that was the most intriguing to me was hidden in the backyard behind a row of bushes. It was a statue of multi-colored people holding hands facing outward in a circle, and it seemed like something that would be beautiful in an open space such as a park.

The other major thing that stood out to me was a seeming trend between the three towns. Fort Lee, the town that was closest to Manhattan, seemed to be the most “full” in the area surrounding main street. Stores filled up all of the space on main street and lots of areas nearby and large housing high-rises were very close by. However, there seemed to be only a small and seemingly disappearing thread to the town’s past, as many of the stores were new and there was only a small area where houses hadn’t been replaced with high-rise buildings. The next town over, Bogota, did not have the large high-rise buildings and similarly had fewer stores that looked brand new. It seemed to have a stronger thread to the town’s past, as many older homes surrounded main street. However, it seemed to be suffering from more abandonment than Fort Lee, as some storefronts along main street were not occupied and a home at the end of main street was boarded up from a fire. Finally, Hackensack felt the least “full.” High-rise buildings were away from the main street and the area surrounding the main street was almost completely emptied out for parking lots. It seemed very difficult to tell what might have been there before, as no older homes were left surrounding main street. The main street itself seemed to be the most diverse mix of old and new and multiple uses. However, it seemed clear that a lot of the older stores were on their way out while a lot of the newer stores seemed to be prospering. This didn’t seem surprising, as it is hard to imagine where the original Hackensack residents, who lived in the houses that were replaced by parking lots, now live. So the general trends seemed to be increasing density as you moved towards Manhattan and increasing gentrification as you moved toward Manhattan, with the exception of Bogota, which seems to be an exception because it was not carved out by urban renewal for high rise apartments to go in.

~ Laura Gabby