Sunday, October 23, 2011
This weekend my and wife spent a lot of our time immersed in New Jersey's past. (We're full time history geeks, and proud of it.) This had a elegiac quality, since we visited sites and heard stories related to the Garden State's once formidable factories and its once bustling canal villages, turned into ghost towns by the iron horse and flivver.
Friday we went to an event at the American Labor Museum in Haledon, which is located in a house that played a crucial role in the IWW strike by Paterson silk workers in 1913. (The Botto family that owned the house allowed strikers to use it as a meeting place.) The speaker discussed a catastrophic factory fire that took place in a Newark garment factory in 1910 that killed over twenty workers, and with similar overtones of the more well-known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place the next year in Manhattan. A door had been locked, the victims were mostly women, and many of them died after jumping to their deaths. In an especially gut-wrenching detail, I learned that some of these women were impaled on the iron factory gate.
I say this just first just to let you know that the sense of loss I am about to describe in relation to the past is in no way leavened by sentimentiality or misplaced romanticism.
Once the speaker was done, he discussed the site of the factory itself, which my wife realized was right across from a Newark landmark we like to call "the giant pile of dirt." (We were actually married in a church a stone's throw away from said landmark.) We soon learned that pile had once been a Westinghouse factory and a key location in America's industrial history. It housed the second radio station in all of America, for example. The speaker, who lives in the neighborhood, lamented that such an important place would be demolished and then not even replaced. (There are some old factories in the area converted into apartments, and others that are dead-eyed derelicts, beautifully ugly in their own way.) Even someone as obsessed with the past as myself had heretofore only seen the site as a giant pile of dirt, totally unaware of its significance. This idea got me thinking about how the tides of time inevitably wash away all that we know in this world. After all, it is not the thought that I will die that upsets me as much as knowing that everyone I know will die someday, and hence anyone and anything I ever knew in this world while I was in it.
Those thoughts were more pronounced on Saturday, when we went to Waterloo Village, a mostly abandoned ghost town on the old Morris Canal. It's the most well-preserved canal town in the state, although the trust for its preservation is broke and now the village is only open on select weekends. I'm glad we got to go, especially since the aging volunteer docents indicate that Waterloo Village will soon be a ghost town twice over, first as a community, and next as a public historic site. The period of canal-building holds a great deal of fascination for me, since it encapsulates the modern industrial economy's tumultuous nature. The canals, built in the early to mid-1800s, practically changed rural communities overnight, linking them with urban areas. Whole new towns, like Waterloo Village, sprang up on their banks. And then, almost as quickly, railroads began to criss-cross the nation, rendering the canals quaintly obsolescent. (The Morris Canal lasted until 1924, but from what I was told, it was pretty much a secondary means of transport already by the Civil War.)
Wandering about the ruins, I was struck most by the hulking Italiante Victorian mansion owned by the most prominent trading family in the town. Much like some of the newly built yet vacant McMansions in so many Florida sub-divisions, it was a monument to the destructive capacity and unpredictable nature of modern life. Much of what we consider to be completely stable today can turn out to be quicksand tomorrow. In the midst our own current economic bust, so reminiscent of the speculative bubbles and harsh reversals of the nineteenth century, it is worth remembering that we are not living through anything new.
Perhaps this explains why I get so irritated at people exciting themselves over the next "G" of cell phones and Apple products. Yes, they are wonderful toys, but just more symptoms of our own eventual obsolescence, and yes, irrelevance. The universe will keep grinding on in its interminable fluctuations, we and all that we consider to be new and innovative will fade with time, and in not all that much time, either.
This came home to me when we saw a rather odd site on our way into the village: a pay phone disguised in a quaint looking wooden house, built once upon a time so as to make the modern communications technology look suitably rustic in order to keep visitors in the mood. With my iPhone in my pocket ready to take a picture of such a newly rare device, the pay phone had become just as much an artifact of the distant past as the Italianate mansion, the general store, and the grist mill. Someday, perhaps quite soon, even my shiny iPhone, like these others, will be buried under the sediments of time.