Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Naming "Benjamin F. Jones Place - In Honorarium"

Benjamin F. Jones (see post 4/1/08) was the first African-American elected to City Council in Orange, NJ. Yesterday, the City of Orange Township named a part of Cleveland Street in his honor. Asked to speak at the ceremony, I reflected on a story he loved to tell of a confrontation with my father, Ernest Thompson. Ben was not active in politics, though he was an accomplished professional. My father thought he should be, and would harangue him when they met at the Harmony Bar. One day Ben got tired of this. He threw some money down on the bar and told the bartender, "Set my man up with drinks, I'm out of here." My father ordered him to come back. "Ben, never walk out on Black folks like that. Furthermore, I don't need your money or your liquor without you." For Ben, this was not simply a dispute in a bar, but a deep moment of truth, as if God had spoken to him through Ernie Thompson, sitting on a stool in the Harmony Bar. From that day on, Ben accepted that he had responsibilities to the community that had raised him. He became a student of politics, adding to his innate sense of diplomacy new skills in campaigning, negotiating, developing program and delivering for his constituency. Ben became a man of honor, worthy of having a street named for him, and worthy of being remembered in the annals of Orange.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Making the Just and Beautiful City

The University of Orange is a free people's university on the web and in Orange, NJ. The University opened in October 2008 and held its first graduation yesterday at the historic Orange Public Library. The graduating class is pictured here on the Main Street steps. It was a busy first year, with courses on AIDS, making a Christmas stocking, displacement, and urban design, among others. In addition to attending courses, students were required to vote (all elections count!), attend a city meeting, volunteer and recreate with neighbors. One student reported that being part of UofO had inspired her. "I've lived in Orange for 22 years, but I've never been as involved as I have been this year." In addition to conferring the degree of "Be Free" two inspiring people were awarded the Doctor of Freedom, the university's honorary degree. Margaret B. Thompson helped to start the fight for school desegregation in the 1950s. Benjamin Franklin Jones served as a councilman in Orange from 1963-1982. They were the oldest graduates of the day. A'Lelia Johnson, at 13, was the youngest.
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Jury Duty on Main Street

Last Tuesday I reported for jury duty to Room 404, the Bergen County Justice Center, 10 Main Street, in Hackensack. A step-by-step video instructed us in what to expect and then we got to get coffee. As we flocked to the little cafeteria, a staff member hollered, "The bus is here!" and then chuckled. Ha ha, make that joke every day. Coffee was excellent, and I took it with me to the quiet room. I read the NY Times inch by inch and finished it all. Then turned to The Baltimore Book, and had finished that when my name got called for a jury pool. We were led to the court of Judge Lisa Firko. She explained that her trial was short, she had air conditioning and it was, therefore, a good way to do our civic duty. I reflected on this, and decided to go with it. The jury selection process followed the video almost to a tee. First we all filled out a questionnaire. Then the judge asked potential jurors to come to the sidebar where she reviewed the questionnaire with the two lawyers listening. Some jurors had a reason they couldn't serve, and therefore were excused. Finally seven people were seated in the jury box, and Judge Firko said, "I'm going to ask a series of questions so we can all get to know a little bit about you." One of the questions was, "Do you have any bumper stickers on your car that aren't about politics?" I was surprised that nobody did -- it seemed to me there were more "Proud to have an honor student at ___" around than that, but maybe I was just noticing those stickers because I have one. Back to business. After we got to know everyone, the lawyers were allowed to exercise their peremptory challenges, those they can exercise without giving a reason. The case related to an injury as a result of a car accident. The first lawyer challenged two people with only high school education. Ah ha, I thought, a complex medical issue is involved, and the lawyer wants people who can handle the science -- I'm a shoe-in if I get called (although I do have that bumper sticker -- I wasn't clear how that would play...). On the other hand, I reasoned, the lawyer might not want a doctor. It was not always clear why the lawyers were challenging -- probably notes they took during the earlier sidebar conversations. After each of the challenges, a new person was called, and the process of sidebar-conversation-getting-to-know-you-conversation was repeated. A couple of times the new juror was challenged, and it all started again. Before we were had managed to pick seven people, lunch recess had arrived. I had never spent much time on the south end of Main Street, where the Justice Center is located. I got lunch at Limon Fine Foods, which has a delightful hot/cold salad bar and nice tables in a bright window. Then I strolled down the street to Hackensack Riverkeeper, where I got pamphlets on nature trails and other activities. The photos were so lovely that I wanted to walk right over to the river and sit and watch birds, but jury duty is serious business. I went back to Judge Firko's courtroom, where we finished jury selection. I was quite disappointed not to be picked, when all was said and done. We went back to Room 404 and I settled into my old seat in the quiet room until we got dismissed. Bergen County is a "one day, one trial" county, so having served my day, I am done for now. I can now spell peremptory, know a new meaning for sidebar, and have a book of nature walks in the glove compartment of my car: a good day, I say.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Festival on the Main Street of the Valley

Orange, NJ and West Orange, NJ meet in the Valley. An area of dense settlement and heavy industry, it developed its own Main Street, Valley Street, sometimes known as Valley Road. This Main Street has sagged with deindustrialization and disinvestment in the area, but it has not given up. On Saturday, June 13, the street was host to the Valley Arts, Music and Poetry Festival, sponsored by Valley Arts, the City of Orange and HANDS, Inc. There was an on-again-off-again rain falling which moved people in and out of the open, the bands, for example, moved under an overhang at Ricci's, a soon-to-be-reopened restaurant. One vendor had the idea to sell toys, bubble machines and yo-yos and Spiderman balloons, which meant that the rain was full of sparkly bubbles. In the middle of the afternoon several fire trucks arrived and firemen gathered for a short ceremony. The City of Orange is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of its fire Chief, Martin DeMarzo, who died during a routine hernia operation. He was 50 years old. He grew up in the Valley, attended Our Lady of the Valley High School, and loved the area. He was a great supporter of the growing arts district, which is helping to revitalize the area. Karen Wells, one of the organizers of the festival, led a ceremony to plant a bush of bright red roses by the Catholic Veterans Monument. The firemen joined in shoveling the dirt, with smiles and good hearts. Indeed, Marty's whole family was soldiering on, Hallie Bondy reported in the Star Ledger. "Marty would have wanted us to go on," said his brother, Eugene DeMarzo. Valley Street/Road will be a good home for Marty's Roses.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Middle East Baltimore Stories

In June 2005, I had the opportunity to tour East Baltimore with leaders of Save Middle East Action Committee, SMEAC, a group challenging impoverishment of the neighborhood by development-induced displacement. At that time, the project, proposed by Johns Hopkins Medical Center and led by the East Baltimore Development Corporation, was preparing to level the first phase of the project, a 20-block area adjacent to the medical center. during the tour, I had the opportunity to see the project area, and to talk to some local children who were playing in a fire hydrant. "We're having fun," one boy assured me. SMEAC's approach was to fight for relocation benefits that would actually be sufficient to support relocation; the right to return to the area; and protection from environmental hazards during the demolition. It was a true David-and-Goliath story: Giant Johns Hopkins literally towered over the battered neighborhood, which had suffered grievously from disinvestment.

On a second visit a few years later, I drove by and the children's play area had been torn up and all the houses were gone.

On this visit, I had the opportunity to tour with Leslie Lewis, one of the displaced residents and a leader of SMEAC. Leslie explained the long fight SMEAC had waged, still struggling on issues identified years ago, but also confronting others that had come up in the course of the fight. For example, SMEAC was aware of environmental hazards of demolition, but had not been as cognizant of the effects nearby construction would have on old brick houses. As the displacement played out, SMEAC was becoming more and more aware of what was at stake: the costs of moving, the difficulty in maintaining connections, the problems people faced in getting established elsewhere, and the possibilities that existed in other neighborhoods.

The change in the area was dramatic. Some of the glossy new buildings had gone up in place of the old houses. A very large grassy area stood vacant. Signs were everywhere, proclaiming the "New East Baltimore" was a place of vitality and culture. I didn't know all that much about the neighborhood, but I thought the signs bordered on insulting the old East Baltimore -- wasn't THAT a place of vitality and culture? I was to discover the answer on East Monument Street.

Leslie, Pam -- another SMEAC activist and area residents -- and I stopped for lunch at Northeast Market there. This market has been rated the "best public market" by City Paper, which prized its genuine atmosphere. I was thrilled to tour the place with local peoplewho could explain the food and the scene. Pam said her mother, who lived in the neighborhood, had been in earlier that day. Northeast Market is a crossroads of the neighborhood, a place of good cheer and connection. Peopl were greeting friends and neighbors on all sides. It is sometimes difficult for an outsider to appreciate the reasons for clinging to a neighborhood that has suffered disinvestment as serious as that facing East Baltimore. I instantly understood that the marker, with its lively and humorous vibe, provided a better insight than anything else I had encountered. Who wouldn't want to live near there?

East Monument Street is one of the Main Streets in Baltimore's Main Street Program. It is festooned with Main Street Banners, and is a very lively shopping district. The Main Street website orients the visitor to think of that Main Street as connected to Johns Hopkins and the new biotech center. But the reality is that it is the thriving center of the black community that took root there 50 years ago and which today is still active and devoted to the area.

My sense of that local connection was deepened by the opportunity to attend the launch of the book, Middle East Baltimore Stories: Images and Words from a Displaced Community, a book created by Art on Purpose with support from the Annie E. Casy Foundation. This event, held in the beautiful Reginald F. Lewis of Maryland African American History, celebrated the lives of people whose homes lie in the redevelopment area. The 240 people who came to the event were deeply committed to affirming the vital history of their neighborhood. In a time of contested images, I appreciated Beth Barbush's photographs of people posed in vacant lots holding pictures of their houses which had once stood there. You can listen to an hour of the stories on Marc Steiner Show, WEAA-FM. You can order a copy of the book by sending a check for $20 per copy (shipping included) to: SMEAC, 2111 Ashland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21205.