Mindy Fullilove on ‘The curse of border vacuums

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I grew up in Orange, NJ, in the 1950s. The city and its schools were segregated, a matter that got my mother Maggie stirred up. Maggie is a bulldog, sinking her teeth into a problem and then holding on until she wins. My father had a choice: death or fight school segregation. He was an experienced civil rights organizer and won that fight handily. This meant that I had to go to a new school, leaving the sanctuary of Oakwood Avenue School for the unknown of Heywood Avenue School. A big part of this process was crossing South Center Street. The neighborhood on the other side had been developed by wealthy people who wanted to move off Main Street, away from the hoi poloi, the madding crowds, the common people. They got Frederick Law Olmsted to design the area. The border was reinforced by a sharp change in the layout of the streets. My block conformed to the grid. Across South Center, the rules changed. The blocks were much longer, the houses widely separated, and the streets started to curve. I like to take different routes through this foreign land. One route took me by a modern house with Japanese garden. Another took me on a shortcut through the yards of several stately Victorians. A third was a simple one-turn route, under massive trees and past the Beard School where really wealthy girls emerged from chauffeur-driven limousines.

Although I had to cross South Center Street four times a day going back and forth to school, I never crossed it on the weekends or in the summer. Nobody in my neighborhood did. We played in Orange Park, which was right across from my house. We went to Central Avenue and Main Street for the activities and goods we couldn’t find in our neighborhood. South Center Street was, as Jane Jacobs described, a dead end. The people who lived in there didn’t cross over into our neighborhood, and the people who lived on our side didn’t cross over into their neighborhood. The territories were sorted out and everyone traveled around in a manner that meant to keep them that way.

At that time, the Seven Oaks area was all white. It slowly became a racially mixed neighborhood although it remained an upper income area. As the city evolved, the people of that area turned away from any connection to Orange, preferring to follow the curving streets to the village of South Orange which was both spatially contiguous and socially identical. But along the borders – to the north, east and west – the houses, apartment houses, stores and businesses have frayed over time. Buildings have been lost here and there and the parts of the city are threatening to leak, one into the other. Two years ago, a large church proposed to turn the vacant lot, once occupied by a mansion, into a multi-purpose religious and social science building and large parking. The Seven Oaks neighborhood rose up to protect its integrity and homogeneity and property values. But the fraying is widespread, and I doubt that they can protect the whole border surrounding the area.

While I think that vacant lot was a dubious site for the proposed center, I am equally skeptical about the border and the vacuum it creates. The integrity of the city was broken by the development of Seven Oaks, to the detriment of the whole. That fracture was compounded by others: the raising of the rail line, the bisecting of the city by Route 280, and the loss of massive industrial and service infrastructure with the closing of two hospitals and many industrial sites. The city lies in pieces, weak and confused.

American cities, segmented by race and class and lifestyle and age and sexual orientation and religion and a million other factors, have many borders, all cursing the city. It’s time to undo those harms. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, the negative effects of borders can be managed. We can treat them like zippers, instead of walls. The University of Orange, working with the local community development corporation, HANDS, Inc, has developed a plan for the center of the city, the “Heart of Orange Plan.” The plan focuses on reknitting the fractures in the middle of town. As those are repaired, we hypothesize, a magnetic pull will be exerted on the residents of Seven Oaks, enticing them north. The borders will be eased by the new flow of traffic, gradually opening opportunities for mending the fractures in other parts of the city. If this work, a new wholeness will emerge, and with it, a new sense of urban health.

One Comment Add yours

  1. David Chapin says:

    Oh, Mindy, this is so lovely and loving. You say so much good sense, crystallized into clarity & light…the same reasons for loving Jane Jacobs.

    Thanks! ::: David Chapin

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