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.