Monday, April 14, 2014
Notes On A Trip To Branch Brook Park
Spring has finally sprung here in New Jersey, which meant I spent a lot of this weekend with my daughters outdoors. On Saturday my wife and I decided to take them to Branch Brook Park, a massive, beautiful landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Newark that juts into neighboring Belleville. We were married in nearby St. Lucy's church and had our wedding photos taken in the park, so it was a sentimental journey of sorts. Although the park has lost some of its glory over the years (I remember the photographer having to get a stray condom in the grass out of the shot,) it's still a wonderful place, and still draws plenty of people. We walked our giddy daughters along its path, saying hi to the other strollers and enjoying an island of fresh air in north Jersey's tangle of expressways and traffic.
Instead of taking the Garden State Parkway to Branch Brook, we decided to explore the backroads through South Orange, Orange, and East Orange. (Northern New Jersey is a bewildering patchwork of towns akin to the Holy Roman Empire.) I began to notice that these towns, like Branch Brook Park itself, were the product of the period between 1890 and 1930. I began to feel sentimental because that also happened to be the heyday of my rural Nebraska homeland before its long slow decline. The architecture of these towns too reminded me of my hometown: elegant yet tidy. There were flourishes, cornices, and bits of whimsy among the brickwork that modernism later killed in favor of sterility.
The industrial growth of the time was cruel and sometimes horrific in its inequalities, but at least it left behind some nice things. Enough of a public-minded spirit existed to build something like Branch Brook Park in the first place. If such land was up for grabs these days I am sure it would be turned into a subdivision, corporate office park, or a line of strip malls. Many of the old buildings in impoverished East Orange have fallen into disrepair, but beneath it all their lovely bones live on, and the city still has its gorgeous city hall it can be proud of.
We live today in a new Gilded Age, one of ridiculous wealth next to grinding poverty. However, public-mindedness has not persisted, and public institutions are under increasing attack, especially schools. The new wealthy do not build elegantly, but in a vulgar and ostentatious fashion. Our era is alarming in it frivolousness and impermanence. When we are dead and gone there will be little built in our time left around. I'm still willing to bet that Branch Brook Park will still be there, though.