Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Did we cancel Christmas?

As I have been walking up and down Main Streets, I realized that I wasn't seeing the lights and decorations that I expected.  I was missing the joyful shoppers, hurrying with their arms full of packages and contented smiles on their faces.  I was even missing the incessant Christmas carols oozing out of every possible auditory device.  I walk past stores with their windows plastered with "Huge Sale" signs, but hardly an elf or reindeer in sight.  All of this raises the critical question, "How did the Grinch get us?"  I have been thinking that it's time to shake ourselves out of these doldrums.  It's time to find that special, indefinable something that is the essence of Christmas, the thing deeper than cash and presents, the thing that in the face of everything will help us affirm that we will confront these times in solidarity and joy.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Whose street?

"Main Street," according to Wikipedia, is a figure of speech indicating the retail and social center of neighborhood, village or city.  In the American collective imagination, Main Street belongs to the city and its people.  In older times, it's where the teens met at the malt shop and the farmers talked about corn prices.  More recently, it's where Starbucks is or isn't, depending on your town's social status.  What's important is its openness as the market center of a larger unit. In that vein,  Salt Lake City has an interesting counter story.  Several years ago, the city sold a block of Main Street to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a church which is very powerful in the city and in the state of Utah.  The block has become a private park, governed by the Church.  Suddenly the collective thoroughfare is interrupted, and new way of organizing behavior inserted.  This manifestation of the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ is uplifting to members but an imposition to non-members who often feel oppressed by the Church's political power.  When are we entitled to access to that which flows?  To take another example, in a recent decision, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that wealthy landowners could not bar their fellows from the trout-rich stream that ran through their lands.  One of the landowners, Kenneth F. Siebel, was very upset.  He was quoted in the NY Times as saying, "I've put time and energy and love into the property and it's all gone and it's a shame."  Obviously the property was still there, and still in the improved condition to which he had brought it.  What made it seem "all gone" if strangers could visit?  And what about flow in cities -- should we protect the flow of Main Street the way we protect trout streams?

What will the recession do to Main Street?

According to Judy Peet and Jeanette Rundquist, the 234 Main streets in New Jersey are struggling to stay afloat during the recession. With consumer buying power down, businesses are making tough adjustments to their hours and their offerings, hoping to find a formula to make ends meet. On some of the Main streets I visit the "For Rent" signs attest to businesses that have folded. Sales are everywhere. For some businesses, extending hours seems to be the way to meet the challenge. For others, it's cutting back. One shopkeeper in Boonton told the reporters, "We need to work together, but I don't see that happening." Yet cooperation is obviously a key idea. What Main streets have is a rich mix of activities and history. These can be put together in ways that energize the whole surrounding area, making it safer and more fun, at the same time maximizing the turnover of dollars in the local area. This takes imagination and a bit of thinking outside the box. A Main Street business might not think about the neighborhood two blocks over, but those neighbors are certainly thinking about Main Street. There is -- in that possible exchange -- the potential to find a solution that gets all of us through this tough recession.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Long Boulevards: Anderson Avenue

Today I drove the length of Anderson Avenue, which serves as a Main Street for Fairview and Cliffside Park. It is lined by small stores and services. You can find a post office, library, barbecue spot and halal meat market along this street. It obviously serves as a center for organization for those two towns. What is surprising in driving this boulevard is that as one crosses over into Fort Lee, Anderson Avenue becomes a residential street, anchored by Fairway Market at its southern end and Main Street at the northern end. This sudden change in building type requires some explanation -- why should Anderson Avenue be a commercial corridor in Cliffside Park and then not on the other side of the "Welcome to Fort Lee" sign? On an earlier exploration, friends and I had traced Fort Lee's Main Street on its east-west course from the Palisades to Hackensack. Fort Lee grew up along Main Street, which is where its commercial center is located. Its leafy residential sections are away from the hustle and bustle of its center. Anderson Avenue, which is perpendicular to Main Street, heads south, eventually arriving at the Hudson River at Weehawken. The same logic works for Cliffside Park and Fairview that works for Fort Lee -- commerce on the main street and leafy residential streets at the edges -- but the orientation is shifted by 90 degrees. I learned while spending the summer in Paris that pathways often have their logic routed in history. I lived in small apartment on Rue Saint Andre des Arts, a street that has been the site of heavy foot traffic for about 900 years. Originally people were walking from the center of the city to the duty free market outside the city walls. The lively commerce that was started then is still located in the same place and still draws great crowds. Thus history guides our footsteps, whether we're walking the streets of Paris or exploring the major city streets of our hometowns in New Jersey.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Beautiful + What?

I had the pleasure of visiting St. Louis November 14th.  I wanted to visit the site of the Mill Creek Valley Urban Renewal Project, as well as the site of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project.  I was staying at the Hilton at the Ballpark -- a delightful hotel -- and these sites were close by.  I also got to see the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which includes the Gateway Arch.  All of these places turn out to flank a downtown mall, which starts at the Old Courthouse, and ends by Union Station.  What splendor!  The arch is a stunning site and the museum well worth a visit.  The Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott trial took place, is one of the most important places in American history.  Union Station, designed by Theodore C. Link, is a magnificent building, and a major project in adaptive reuse.  And the mall is also an attraction.  Yet, sadly, the magnificence is not well-used.  You would think that such a charming spot would be full of people but everywhere I went, the streets were empty.  There were a scattering of tourists in the park, but that was it.  Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist, made the observation that parks need people.  In general, she was quite skeptical about open space, seeing it as a potential rupture in the tight coherence of occupation that makes a city hum.  She was decidedly opposed to the orthodox view, as propounded by the great park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, that city people are longing for great open spaces.   Evidence on the Jacobs' side: the most active place I was visited with the tiny stretch of historic waterfront, which is full of restaurants, shops and people strolling about.  St. Louis has much of beauty but to make the city vibrant again, its leaders might rethink all that open space that replaced what once was its energetic urban core.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Popular Vote

A huge "VOTE" sign strung across Palisades Avenue, in Englewood, NJ, made me think, "What are the indications of the election on Main Street?" For a couple of days I've walked up down photographing what I saw. There was one sign telling the Obama canvassers that the location of their meet-up had been moved. One sign supporting Obama -- not surprising that this was to be found on the street's black barbership. One sign at Ben and Jerry's offering free ice cream to voters -- I was happy to return on Tuesday with my granddaughter, who helped me vote, and therefore had earned my free scoop. I saw one woman, dressed in a McCain/Palin shirt, who was dancing and holding up her McCain sign for passing voters. There was a sign that voting would be help at City Hall. On the whole, Main Street was a little thin of voting action. Granddaughter A'Lelia and I stopped at CVS to pick up some election party supplies and she pointed to the magazine rack. "How many pictures of John McCain do you see?" I looked more closely and realized what she was pointing out. We took this picture. I've heard of people voting with their feet, but this was voting with their magazines, a truly popular vote.
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Loving Your Lot in Life

I had the delightful experience of visiting Macedonia AME Church in Flushing, NY, on October 30th. This historic black church was established in 1811 and served the black community that grew up in the area. Robert Moses, the great remaker of New York City, bulldozed the area around the Church to create a parking lot, literally he "bulldozed paradise and put up a parking lot," as it says in the song. This accounts for the odd appearance of the Church, with its main door facing one of the parking lot entrances. Mrs. Beverly Riley, who had read my book, Root Shock, and who was struck by its relevance for her church, related what it's like to surrounded by a parking lot. "We had to push back church services, " she said, "because the parking lot used by people for overnight parking on Saturdays and then our congregation couldn't find parking. People would drive around for half an hour and then go home." She also pointed out that the parking lot itself was set to be transformed, this time into apartments. Oddly, as much as an ugly parking lot is something that annoys people, I know that once it is gone, it will be missed. We seem to grow used to what is, warts and all. As a social psychiatrist, I am always thinking about ways in which people could use what is around them as part of their healing. For some reason, "Garden in Transit," the project that applied flowers to NYC taxicabs came to mind. In that 4-month public art project, children and adults painted flowers on removable plastic that was placed on the hoods of taxicabs to make a movable garden in New York City. The image that came to mind was of the parking lot transformed into a flower garden by having a day of public art and painting flowers over the asphalt. It would help people understand their love/hate relationship with the parking lot, just in time to say goodbye. We don't always have that opportunity. I hated the World Trade Center, but later I regretted that I had never forgiven the Twin Towers for their boring modernism.
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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

El Puente's New Bridge

I often go to visit Main Streets outside of New Jersey. On Monday, October 20th, I had a wonderful excursion to the "City of Brooklyn," as Borough President Marty Markowitz called it. I went to see the ribbon-cutting for a new school building developed by El Puente, a community human rights organization serving Northern Brooklyn and beyond. El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice has taken over Transfiguration Grammar School, a Catholic school that had educated generations of people from the Williamsburg neighborhood. Luis Garden Acosta, who founded El Puente in 1982, welcomed a long list of people who had helped in the struggle for the new home for the school. Among them was Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez who shared that she was heading back to Washington to work on the economy. "The country is depressed and you know why. This is a dose of optimism when I really needed it." Political and community leaders rejoiced in that Transfiguration School had been given new life. NYC Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who grew up in the neighborhood, told the youth in the audience, "You are surrounded on all sides by people who want to protect and nourish you. And that is what this icon of a building is: a place to nurture children. If these walls could talk, what stories they would tell of our community." The shining faces of the Academy's students were enough to light up anybody's day. Leaving the event, I reflected back on a speech I heard Acosta give at Body and Soul, the 2008 International Urban Parks Conference in Pittsburgh. At the end of his remarks, he asked the audience to rise and join him in chanting, "The people united will never be defeated!" That ribbon-cutting was certainly a case in point.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wall Street, Main Street, Happy 5769!

The juxtaposition of "Wall Street" and "Main Street" occurs in many articles about the deep financial crisis in the US. While Wall Street has obvious connotations, I'm not sure what they mean when they say "Main Street."

What I've learned in New Jersey is that Main Street is a huge mixed bag. Take, for example, Cedar Lane in Teaneck, NJ, where I had lunch yesterday. Cedar Lane was empty, deserted. It looked like Christmas Day, it was so empty. And it sense it was: yesterday was Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Many of the stores on Cedar Lane are operated by Jews and serve the large, and actively religious, Jewish community that lives in the area. I had lunch with a friend at an Indian restaurant, one of a number of ethnic restaurants that was welcoming diners. Main Street is like that: it takes on the character of the people who live nearby. At the same time, Main Street has services that reach a much larger group. I love to visit Teaneck's farmers' market which is held in one of the Cedar Lane parking lots and attracts a diverse crowd, including people who travel to distance to get great fresh vegetables, bread and other treats.

Main Street is a street. People walk up and down, they accomplish tasks, they greet neighbors, they look at the urban streetscape, they dream about possibilities. Each of these functions will be affected in different ways by the collapse of Wall Street. Main Street, at its best, is not simply the local mirror of Wall Street, but rather it's antidote. My lunch on Cedar Lane buoyed my spirits. I enjoyed the time spent with my friend. I was heartened to think it is 5769 in the Jewish calendar: people have been counting for a long time, and they've made it through worse than this.

"Happy New Year!" from Main Street.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

University Course on "MainStreetNJ"

Fall is in the air, and it's time to get back to Main Street! I had a great summer, visiting some wonderful places. I got to work with some of the greatest names in French city design this summer. I spent 3 weeks working on "Le Grand Paris" -- the Great Paris -- a project started by French President Nicholas Sarkozy to envision the future of Paris. For my part, I toured the cities around Paris and took hundreds of photos for a report I submitted to Michel Cantal-Dupart. Since getting back to the US, I've been to Los Angeles, Ludlow, VT, and Chicago. This weekend I'm off to Pittsburgh for the a conference on city parks. But Main Street is calling and I'm ready to get back to my appointed rounds, visiting 105 New Jersey Main Streets.

What makes visiting Main Street really great is going with friends and finding some great dining in local bistros. So I'm organizing a course through the University of Orange. I'll post the cities and the meet-up spots for all the cities I'm visiting. People interested in joining me can meet me there. We'll look around, take photos, talk to the locals and have a great lunch. The University of Orange, a free people's university, requires that you learn something in order to get your degree in freedom. So take my course -- it's going to be great!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Historic Tour of Main Street Orange

Karen Wells, the unofficial historian of Orange, will be leading a tour of the historic buildings on Main Street, starting at 8 AM on Saturday, June 28th.  The tour begins on the steps of the library, a building designed by McKim, Mead and White (photo).  Other historic stops: the Metcalfe Building, the First Presbyterian Church, the Masonic Temple and City Hall.  Orange has an excellent collection of turn-of-the-century civic architect.   It is one of the assets the city hopes to use to strengthen its economic base and civic life.  Karen's tour is sure to help: her love of Orange is infectious. Everything under the sun links back to Orange and she has a fact at her fingertips to prove it.  Her facts are funny and impressive: whatever you know about Orange, you'll know more after a half hour with Karen!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Roses on Main Street

David Jenkins, a friend of mine who is living with AIDS, told me about losing an aunt. "I took her flowers every time I visited her -- she got flowers in her lifetime," he said proudly. "Mindy, take time to stop and smell the flowers. Everywhere I go, I smell the roses." I promised I would. I had an unexpected opportunity to smell the roses on the way to a benefit for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. I got off the Garden State Parkway on my way to Branch Brook Park, in Newark, and I saw a big sign for Oakeside, the Bloomfield Cultural Center. I thought that would be an interesting place to visit -- as I turned the corner, I found out I was already there and I stopped to look at the garden. A heavenly smell hit me when I got out of my car. I walked all around the grounds of the magnificent Victorian house, spotting clumps of roses here and there. It was in the back of the house that I found what I was searching for -- a small formal rose garden with a luxurious scent. I stopped to enjoy it before getting back on the road. If you're passing by Bloomfield, stop for a moment to smell the roses. David will be so glad!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Main Street, Orange, back in the day

I had the opportunity to visit with Karen Wells, Orange's historian.  She has a collection of maps from 1914.  Their generous scale, beauty and detail offered us a wealth of information.  We could see the great houses that lined Main Street giving way to commercial buildings, as the estates moved to Seven Oaks, Orange's built-in suburb, which was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted according to Karen.  It was fascinating to ponder what was there and what wasn't.  Her house had been built, but my childhood home on Olcott Street had not.  Oakwood Avenue School was there, but Friendship House was not.  Nor had the Parrow Street housing projects been built -- they didn't go up until 1951.  We searched for the major churches.  What we call "Orange" was once the center of a much larger area, and the great churches were centralized in the core.  The churches stayed when the residential areas split off to make their own cities.  Karen pointed out that a number of these historic houses of worship is equipped with a magnificent organ.  We wondered what it would take to create an organ festival on Main Street?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A River Runs Through It

Main Street in Hackensack is pointedly urban.  I hadn't thought much about its river connection until I had the opportunity to get a bird's eye from a friend's apartment.  From the eighth floor of a Main Street apartment building with a panoramic view, I could see the river's curves and grassy banks define a terrain just east of center city.  The contrasting parts of the city -- waterway and street -- had a pleasing harmony in the midst of a jumble of stuff: the NY skyline, steam from a factory of some kind, and the odd patchwork of the Hackensack's urbanism.  My friend said they had taken the apartment for the joy of the view.  "One night there was a full moon reflecting off the river -- it was so beautiful, but we hadn't seen that before."  

Monday, April 14, 2008

Main Street Grits

On Main Street, in Bogota, Lillie Pearl's Comfort Food beckons with a neon sign that blinks, "Coffee." The sign caught my eye as I left the post office -- which is the friendliest one I've ever visited -- and stood scanning the street for my coffee options. On my first visit, I had a very fine cup of coffee and I got macaroni and cheese, barbecued chicken and yams to go. All high on anyone's comfort list, and all were highly rated by my family. I got to meet Lillie Pearl, for whom the restaurant is named, as well as Annette Coleman, the owner, who said as I was leaving, "Be sure to come for breakfast!" My husband Bob is a fan of soul breakfast so we were back the next morning for grits and eggs. "I had the same breakfast in Nashville, two weeks ago," Bob said. "This was just as good, and maybe the grits were better -- creamier and more buttery." You don't always think "Bogota -- I'll to go to Bogota and get some great soul food" but it's there!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Who's Got the Best Program? Orange Picks a Mayor

Ben Jones, first African American councilman of Orange, NJ, welcomed fellow residents to a Mayoral Forum on March 29th. Ben was all smiles as he admired Patrick Morrissy's historic campaign button that read "Win with Ben." People were gathered to meet five of six very impressive candidates for Mayor. The city- one of the Main Street towns I'll be following closely - was rocked by scandal in September 2007 when  Mayor Mims Hackett was arrested on bribery charges. Much is riding on the selection of a strong, honest leader.  I had the honor of moderating the forum which was held at the Appian Way.  The Forum was sponsored by Citizens for Responsible Government, CRG. CRG is a newly reconstituted group, drawing on the leadership of an older CRG: Citizens for Representative Government.  The earlier CRG was founded in 1958 to lead the struggle black representation and to improve the city.  My father, Ernest Thompson, was one of its founders. He told the story of this effort in his book, Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People's Power. One of CRG's early accomplishments was to lay out a 7-point plan for making a better city. That plan addressed: 1) redevelopment and relocation, 2) unemployment, 3) freeway (Route 280 which then on the drawing boards and now runs through the middle of town), 4) school system, 5) civil rights, 6) recreation and juvenile delinquency, and 7)representative government.  Citizens for Responsible Government used this outline to pose questions to 5 of the 6 citizens running for office.  The candidates were articulate and serious.  They gave very thoughtful answers.  The questions addressed different areas of concern, taking the listeners through the key issues of running a city honestly and effectively.  The lively, engaged audience paid keen attention -- you could have heard a pin drop for most of the two hour meeting.  The Appian Way is a remarkably welcoming site.  CRG is to be congratulated for organizing a meeting that helped us all understand how a city is governed while learning about the strategies that the candidates would use.  It was a serious day that ended with great hope for the future of the city.  

From St Patrick to Paterson: A NJ Drive

On Sunday, March 9th, Molly Kaufman, my daughter, and A'Lelia Johnson, my granddaughter and Molly's niece, went to West Orange to see the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Main Street.  It was a fine parade with lovely pipe and drum bands from all over the state, parade organizers in convertibles, and a lively audience that appreciated the fine day and good music.  Just off Main Street, on Park Avenue, we passed a playground and A'Lelia, 12, insisted we play for a while.  The park has an outstanding 4 person seesaw.  A little boy joined us and we four bounced up and down in zigzaggy patterns.  Though we outweighed our little friend by several hundred pounds, he held on tightly, proving he has the talent for a career in horse racing.  We had planned to go straight back to Englewood but that seemed too tame for such a fine day.  After considering many ideas, we settled on driving back on the streets rather than the highways. There is no road that goes straight from West Orange to Englewood -- probably why they built the highways.  The roads stay out of the Meadowlands and follow the course of the Passaic River, which lies between the two cities.  In no time at all, we found ourselves in Paterson.  The southern part of Main Street, Paterson, is a middle Eastern neighborhood.  We stopped for coffee and Turkish pastries at Saray Bakery.  We strolled down the street to Fattal's Market, where we stocked up on their freshly baked pita, and delicious platters of hummus, baba ganoush, olives and stuffed grape leaves.  

If you're in Paterson, you have to visit the The Great Falls, so we drove to the center of the city to see the second largest waterfall in the Northeast, after Niagara Falls. Paterson was an early center of American industry because of the power provided by the Falls. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of the nation, saw the potential of the area and organized its early development -- he's honored by a statue in the park around the Falls.  He made the point that the US should reduce its dependence on foreign products -- proving that what goes around comes around.  The roar of the Falls makes it clear how much power is involved in good-sized river suddenly dropping 77 feet.  Though it was a clear bright day, the water was cold and the spray had frozen in places around the viewing zone.  We were thrilled by the mist and the noise and the icicles.  

Monday, March 24, 2008

A moving story

Last week I moved out of my office of 18 years. This required packing up books, papers, tapes, maps, photographs and all the detritus that can accumulate in a research office over that long a period of time. The hat I got in Detroit, while visiting their Halloween night anti-arson activities. The voodoo doll magnet meant to fend off hostility. The dirt, air, water and light people have brought back as presents from cities around the world. Water from Lourdes has to move as it might come in handy one day. Dirt from Centre and Kirkpatrick in Pittsburgh has to go, because that's the center of the universe. At a certain point, everything goes into a box to get sorted later. The move is a learning experience, too. Our offices were being relocated because of gentrification in the neighborhood. We learn that the men that are moving us are also affected by gentrification, but their company is going out of business, and they are losing their jobs. One of the men who was helping us had been with the company for 37 years and was being turned out without severance pay or any other financial consideration. These forces are affecting Main Street, though the pace of change will likely be slowed by the economic downturn. While it's on pause, we have a moment to think about the future and to ponder how we shape new investment to promote stability and continuity, not simply upheaval and displacement.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What Main Street Maplewood Has (and 57th St Doesn't!)

Main Street Maplewood is an irregular 3 block stretch that lies in the embrace of the train station and its parking.  This tight, useful conjunction of city services and public transit is humming with people.  I visited in the middle of the day, when many of the visitors were pre-schoolers out for some urbanization.  In addition to good eats, there was a supermarket, movie theater, post office, and bank for taking care of business, a candy store for odds and ends, and some interesting spots for shopping.  One might say Maplewood designed its Main Street for its own convenience.  It is not on a major road, the way Main Street Bogota is.  Rather, the voyager has to follow the signs from Valley Road in order to get there.  Tucked away as it is, it is an insiders' locus of transactions.  It is a crossroads of a pleasant town, and it serves as a place of exchange.  This is highlighted by the many, many messages people have put up for each other.  I was struck by the town bulletin board, which was covered with colorful and informative leaflets.  But I also noticed lots of posters and leaflets in the windows of the stores.  The people of Maplewood are in conversation with each other, using the windows of Main Street as a tool of communication.  So what about 57th Street in Manhattan?  A wonderful street in its own right, but not one community bulletin board that I could spot...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Main Street Trip to Fort Lee, Bogota, and Hackensack

A Post by Laura Gabby

While there is much that could be written on each of the main streets we visited in New Jersey on February 21, 2008, 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.

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."   

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Where did Main Street come from?

Last week I went to the CORE training offered by the New Jersey Main Street program.  I attended with the Main Street team from Orange -- I am now an official volunteer with Main Street Orange and a member of the design team.  Joe Getz, a partner in JGSC, led the first day of training.  He focused on "economic restructuring," one of the 4 core principles of the Main Street Program.  He opened his talk with a brief look at the history of Main Street in the US, and pointed out that Main Street represents the intersection of "Main and Main."  In the modern history of Englewood, this was the intersection of the railroad, coming up from Jersey City, and the logging road that brought wood from the Palisades.  In the mid-1800's the train station at Englewood supplied wood and water for 46 trains a day, according Dr. John Lattimore's history of the city.  All things being circular, Dr. Lattimore was one of my professors in medical school and gave the most memorable lecture I heard in all 4 years.  His subject was "How to Practice Medicine."  

Friday, January 25, 2008

Palisades Avenue, Englewood, NJ

Some Main Streets go by other names.  In Englewood, Main Street is Palisades Avenue.  The Ave, as locals like to call it, runs from the Palisades, along the Hudson, to the border of Teaneck, Englewood's neighbor to the west.  The Englewood central business district extends from Grand Avenue to the Monument at Liberty Road.  

The Ave, like Main Street in Orange, has lots of history.  George Washington and his troops retreated from British Army, passing that way.  The Monument honors the sacrifices of men from Englewood who gave their lives in World War I.  The major city institutions are located here, comfortably close to each other and to the old train station.  This Cosmos of Main Things gives the city an inherent logic.  The logic has been weakened by the re-orientation of the city away from the train towards Route 4 and the George Washington Bridge.  Though this wrenching dislocation was years ago, it still reverbates through the town.

The railroad tracks, running perpendicular to the Ave, work with this main street to create a four-part structure to the city.  The quadrants vary by race and class,  reflecting an old system of segregation.  It is not easy to get from one sector to another -- the Ave is very important in the architecture of Englewood because it passes straight through town.  Similarly, Grand Avenue and Dean Street, which parallel the train tracks, are essential for north-south movement.  Other streets just don't make it from one side of town to the other.  It makes me think that, back in the day, people were supposed to stay home.  Maybe they still are?

The interesting division in town is represented on Palisades Avenue by a sharp demarcation. Depending on how you look it, no "people" can be found on the "other" side, meaning none of your "people."  The demarcation, like other things, has altered with time.  
I explored these changes with Sadie Greene-Kaufman, who grew up in Englewood.  Now a college student at SUNY Stony Brook, she commented,  "It used to be that the tracks were exactly where the two sides separated.  On one side, were the cool Colombian restaurants.  On the other side were fancier stores.  Both sides have changed.  The stores are fancier than they were, and the new luxury apartments have replaced many old stores just west of the train tracks.  For my eighth grade formal, I shopped in Englewood because that was where you could find dresses no one else had.  But now the stores have the dresses that you can find anywhere.  I find some of the originality is lost."  

Citizens in Englewood are an active bunch.  The Englewood Report is one excellent site for following local commentary as people consider how to manage the changes for the best.  The Ave, with its potent history and crucial placement, holds the key.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Main Street, Orange, NJ

I grew up in Orange, New Jersey, and spent many pleasant afternoons on Main Street. The library was full of books that I wanted to read. The movie theater had a Saturday afternoon double feature that we loved. My church was located just off Main Street. My doctor's office was located on the second floor of a building on Main Street. The white YMCA and YWCA were both located on Main Street. In fact, much of the life of the city buzzed around Main Street. As we lived on the other side of Central Avenue -- which had a bit of commercial life as well -- I always thought of Main Street, Orange, as the competition. This was not really true, just my loyalty to the local candy store and supermarket.

Last week, Orange was declared a "Main Street City" under the state of NJ "Main Street Program." This is will bring technical expertise to town, as city leaders seek to make the historic street a strong draw for the city. Although the city officials are looking for a better class of store -- let's face it, there's no Starbucks in Orange -- I'd suggest they look off Main Street if they want to make it all work.

Main Street is two blocks over from Route 280, an expressway that ripped out the center of town 30 years ago. Though the highway was sunk into the groung and there are frequent bridges to connect the sides, there's no question but that 280 is a negative force in the heart of the city. On either side of it, the buildings are sagging, some tumbling over. Like a weak heart, this central emptiness can't support the vitality that Orange needs to be the vibrant hometown of tomorrow. Empty lots, dead grasses, and trash add to the tumbleweed look. When I was growning up, the center of the city was functional and occupied. It had a solidity that gave a strong foundation to Main Street AND Central Avenue. In its absence, Central Avenue has withered. Main Street has withstood the stress better. But to make a great Main Street, the weaknesses around 280 must be fixed.

How can this be done? I've visited many cities, and I have learned that vulnerable Main Streets benefit from strengthening the surrounding urban land. The strips of land that run alongside Main Street can be built up with important implications for Main Street. It seems to matter to shoppers and visitors that they can walk a block north or south and the charm and concern are as evident as they were on Main Street, itself.

Such a project offers lots of opportunity for engaging citizens in the future of the city. The more the current residents are enjoying themselves, the more other people will want to come. Orange can make itself the urban village of the future by engaging with the Main Street surround.

In meantime, visiting with Patty Fullilove, I was delighted to find some wonderful food stores. We lunched at Sabor, a Hispanic restaurant serving delicious food. Of course we visited the library. The librarians shared historic maps with us and pointed out features of the historic building, designed by Stanford White and colleagues. I must admit that, as a kid, I only thought about the books, never the building. My favorite library find back in the day: the complete Dr. Doolittle series. I learned something about limits when I tried to carry all the volumes home that day.

Main Street in Orange is a gem and I hope that it will soon have the proper setting for its glories and treasures.