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.

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