Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I Like Living in the Ironbound

Editor's Note: Although my neighborhood gives its name to this blog, I really haven't written about it that much.  I figure it's time to talk about why I live here and why I think it suits me.

The fact that I live and love the Ironbound and want to stay here would seem pretty unlikely on the surface.  This is a crowded urban neighborhood in Newark where a majority of its residents are native speakers of Spanish or Portuguese, with immigrants hailing from Brazil, Portugal, Ecuador, Spain, Uruguay (I've seen them celebrating in the streets after big soccer victories), Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere.  I am a very tall, pale, red-haired guy from a small town in Nebraska.  Needless to say, I stick out a little bit.

I came to settle here because of my wife, who has been living in this neighborhood for over a decade, although she was born and grew up in other New Jersey towns.  We keep talking about places where we want to buy a home, but I just can't see myself living in another place.  This is a unique place, and one where I think we both feel at home because it is so unlike the mainstream of American life, where my wife and I feel very uncomfortable.  There's also the added bonus that since I am so unlike the vast majority of my neighbors, I never have to worry about "fitting in," because there's no way that will ever happen.  As someone who tried and failed miserably at fitting in growing up, it's wonderful to be relieved of that pressure.

The places where a person of my background is "supposed" to live have never felt right to me. I find the suburbs to be boring, culturally dead, and full of the kind of people I spent my adolescence hoping I would never have to talk to again once I left home.  On the other hand, the type of urban neighborhoods where a lot of educated folks like ourselves settle don't suit me, whether it be their ridiculous prices, unbearable pretentiousness, or gentrified artificiality.  The Ironbound has become more prosperous in the last few years, and I fear the onset of gentrification, both for the livelihoods of my neighbors, but also for my own petty tastes.  (Not very important in the grand scheme of things, I know.)

The Ironbound just suits my sensibilities more; I suspect because I grew up lower-middle class and prefer high-quality lowbrow pleasures over bourgeois luxuries.  The Ironbound compares very favorably to much trendier places.  I don't want to get pastries at a cupcake shop, I want to go to the corner Portuguese bakery.  I don't want a liquor store that has all kinds of overpriced single malt scotches, I want a place that sells inexpensive yet delectable bottles of Spanish table wine.  I don't want to eat froo-froo "fusion" food served by cooler-than-thou waiters, I want giant skewers of meat barbecued Brazilian style.  I don't want chain fast food, I want tacos wrapped in corn tortillas where you can taste the lard.  The Ironbound feels like a totally different place than either suburbia, or the many Portlandias and bobo havens sprouting in America's big cities.

The Ironbound has always been a place apart, and remains so today.  It has long been a neighborhood of immigrants, first Germans, then Italians, then Portuguese, and now from all over Latin America.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Newark grew and flourished as a city of factories, foundries, tanneries, and breweries, and the Ironbound (named for the railroad tracks that form its borders) was where many of them were located.  That's a romantic way of saying it.  Philip Roth, born and raised in the more residential Weequiac section of Newark, referred to it as an "industrial slum" in his novel Nemesis, set in his home city in the 1940s.  Located on the far side of downtown, it often seems cut off from the rest of the city, and even the world since the river, railroad tracks, and the New Jersey Turnpike all form walls like those of medieval cities of yore. The Ironbound sits on low ground next to the winding Passaic River, and still floods with regularity during rainstorms.  For that reason, Mayor Cory Booker had his headquarters at a diner down the street from me during Hurricane Irene to be closer to the worst-hit areas.

The Ironbound's isolation and industrial nature might very well have protected it, however, from the misguided urban policies of the postwar period.  It is maybe the only part of Newark to not have been subjected to the upsetting process of urban renewal.  No neighborhoods and tenements were razed to build freeways and housing projects here, and it was left pretty much as is.  In fact, the Ironbound represents everything that postwar urban planners detested.  They wanted to separate residential, commercial, and industrial parts of cities into different spaces.  Here in the Ironbound I live above a bakery and a large iron goods warehouse sits less than a block away on a residential street. The buildings are defiantly old and above the streets you see massive tangles of wires because they were never put below ground.  None of it is laid out how the experts advised, but it is so much more vibrant and alive than many urban areas in the rest of America because the streets are the people's front yards, not just something to be driven on.  My neighborhood pretty much proves the Corbusier-inspired destroyers of traditional neighborhoods wrong, just one of many reasons why I like living here.

Neighborhoods are more than masonry and asphalt, they're really a collective of people.  Since so many people here come from outside of the United States, there's less of the crass stupidity of American life on display.  Without fail, when I've been hassled by someone in the streets, it's been by a suburban soccer fan in the neighborhood before going to a game at Red Bulls Stadium across the river.  There's a real friendliness, too.  Often, when I am walking our dog, little kids will run up to pet her and ask me questions about her.  Two winters ago, after a major blizzard hit, I was trying to dig my wife's car out of a snow drift with a piddly garden shovel, since that was the only kind I could find at the corner store.  Seeing my problem, the guy who was shoveling the walk of the cafe across from where the car was parked pitched in with his snow shovel, and then let me borrow it once he was done with the walk.  That kindness reflects the true spirit of this place, a spirit I wish more of this increasingly self-centered, vulgar, and materialistic nation possessed.


michelle said...

I found my way to your blog via Chauncey DeVega. I live across the bridge in Harrison, but my family and I often walk across the bridge to Ironbound for food, food and more food. I also like to bike across the bridge to the Newark Museum with my little one on warm-ish days. I really love what you have to say about living in Newark. It's an amazing city with great people and deserves better treatment than it gets.

I hope that what's happening over here in Harrison doesn't turn the neighborhood into another soulless hipster wonderland. Thank you for eloquently expressing the beauty that I see living in the area.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

We go over the bridge to Harrison ourselves, mostly to get Polish meats and to shop at the Goodwill. Like the Ironbound, it feels like a place where a now bygone way of city living has survived.

michelle said...

Yes! We love B&B. That Polish deli is the truth. I agree. I think my instant love and familiarity this are is probably because it reminds me of where I grew up in Queens. I often wonder if there are local policy actions that can be fostered to preserve the great things about the community.

Robin M said...

Your reasons for loving the Ironbound mirror mine. My husband and I would love to live there and we are planning to start looking for a place this summer. We started going there 20 years ago - we had breakfast at Riviera Bakery on Ferry for the past 20 years until it closed about a month or two ago. We are currently 'shopping' for a new place where we can become regulars. Our children were adopted from Brazil and spending time in the Ironbound makes us feel a little closer to Brazil. Thank you for summing it up!