Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Taking A Drive on Springfield Avenue

I've been working like crazy on moving this week, which has also meant saying good-bye to living in Newark and the Ironbound.  Of course, I will continue to come visit, and we won't really be living all that far away.  In fact, the fastest and most direct way to get from our new house in Maplewood to our old apartment in Newark is to take a drive down Springfield Avenue.  It's a drive that also displays the grim reality of life in America today, and can bring tears of rage to my eyes.

In Maplewood, Springfield Avenue cuts through the town's lower-middle class/working class section (where we will be living) and is lined with some humble businesses, along with a few vestiges of Maplewood's trendier sections, such as yoga studios and the like.  Crossing the border into Irvington, stores remain, but are decidedly downscale.  Liquor marts and dollar stores prevail.  Irvington, because of its relatively small size, is less well-known than Newark, but is in worse economic shape.  That's reflected in its violent crime rate, among the worst in New Jersey.  As if to grimly underscore that point, early this Christmas morning three people were killed and two wounded by a shooter outside of a strip club.

Driving through Irvington can be a frustrating experience, mostly because there is only one light with a protected left turn, despite the fact that Springfield Avenue goes through block after block of commercial zoning.  It's as if someone somewhere decided that the people who lived there weren't deserving of decent traffic flow. 

That, of course, is the least of people's worries in Irvington.  Whenever I've been there (which is where my wife's grandfather lived until his death four years ago and where she lived until age ten) I've had the feeling that it's a place abandoned by the rest of New Jersey and rest of America.  Its problems and the lives taken by them don't really seem to concern anyone else.  That feeling only grows once you cross the border from Irvington into Newark.  Springfield Avenue becomes, in places, a kind of moonscape.  Derelict buildings look ready to collapse, empty lots are choked with weeds.  It looks worse the closer you get to downtown, where there are actually weed and grass covered hills that form a barren wasteland where high-rise housing projects used to be.  

Springfield Avenue had been the city's main commercial thoroughfare until the riots of '67.  It's a little known fact that many of the businesses were not torched by rioters, but were destroyed by National Guard troops who shot up businesses owned by African Americans, who had put signs attesting to such in their windows to ward off looters.  If you drive through the worst-hit parts of Springfield Ave today, you see that devastation with over four decades of neglect added onto it.  Every time I drive through this section, the anger begins to well up inside of me.  Anger over the oppression that led to the riots in the first place, anger over the abandonment of Newark by suburban New Jerseyans and Americans alike, and anger that so few people outside of Newark seem to care.  Case in point: a recent car-jacking at the tony Short Hills Mall that ended in murder has captivated the state, but the over 90 murders in Newark this year have received scant attention outside the city's borders.  You see, a rich white person isn't "supposed" to get shot at a ritzy mall, but poor black people in Newark and Irvington are expected to get shot from time to time.  Their lives are cheap.

The drive into downtown on Springfield Avenue ends with a glimmer of hope, although it may well be false.  The area right next to downtown is getting developed, complete with shiny new apartments and an Applebee's.  It appears, however, that this is a project of gentrification, rather than regeneration.  There are a lot of attempts these days to bring young people to downtown Newark, but so little to improve the lives of native Newarkers, who have pretty much been left to fend for themselves.  With the departure of celebrity mayor Corey Booker, the little positive attention that Brick City has been getting will be cut off.  Springfield Avenue will still be devastated, and will still be the street that says more about the reality of the American Dream than any other.  

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