Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Two Tubes of Toothpaste

Amanda and Joe got married this past weekend, and as a wedding present I gave them two little travel-sized tubes of toothpaste. You may think this is a rather strange gift, but I think it was a very important one. The card I gave them with it should explain why. It said:
There are two types of people: those who squeeze their toothpaste from the middle, and those who steadfastly believe that you should squeeze it from the end.
I say that each person should get their own tube.

When I first tell people about two tubes, they argue that that will cost more money because you’re buying two tubes instead of one. But it’s not really true. You’re actually still buying the same amount of toothpaste. The difference is that instead of buying a tube a month for two people to share, you’re buying two tubes every two months so each person can have their own. Either way you’re buying two tubes every two months.

But there’s much more to this than a simple lesson about shopping.

So many marriages fail these days because ask too much of it. Yes, you saw that right, we ask too much of marriage. I’m all for the bride and groom being each other’s best friends…I think that the best marriages are built on friendship rather than passion or hotness, the latter two of which will eventually fade away. Cheryl and I are each other’s best friends, but just as we each need our own tube of toothpaste – and different brands too – we each need our own circles of friends to hang out with every now and then. Sometimes those circles will overlap, and sometimes they won’t; but the moment that one of us expects the other to be our everything, and to “complete us,” we’re in trouble.

And that goes for everyone. Everyone needs a little time and space to themselves in a marriage, otherwise life together gets claustrophobic. And when things get claustrophobic, you find yourself screaming and clawing to get out.

We also need our own activities and interests to be involved in…which may not necessarily be shared by the other. If he likes Shakespeare while she prefers science fiction (in which case I’d wonder how they ended up together in the first place), he shouldn’t have to be dragged to every Star Trek movie by her, nor should she be dragged to every production of Macbeth by him. It’s OK to have separate interests, and not to constantly inflict them on each other.

Now, that being said, he should understand that he’ll get serious brownie points for suggesting that they go to see the latest sci-fi flick together. The same applies to her for not only suggesting that they go see Kiss Me Kate, but for also understanding that it’s a modernization of The Taming of the Shrew. But she shouldn’t get upset, and think that he doesn’t love her, just because he doesn’t want to go to the All-Night Star Trek Festival. That’s what her other sci-fi friends are for.

I don’t know how or when this trend started toward looking at our spouses as our “soulmates,” or of looking for a “soulmate” to marry, but I think it sets us up for expecting too much. Me? I was just looking for a nice girl who I shared some of the same interests and values with, who was nice to me, was smart, and funny, and was “low maintenance.” It’s important that when I met Cheryl, my first thought was that she’d make a great friend…and later, a friend that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Too many people expect perfection in their marriages, and are devastated when they don’t find it. My advice to everyone is to expect less, and you’ll be amazed at what comes your way.

And while you’re at it, get separate tubes of toothpaste.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Black Like New Jersey

There are a number of misconceptions about New Jersey and people from there. Some come from people who aren’t from there, and others come from those of us who grew up there.

The first is that it’s a vast industrial wasteland. Now this is understandable if you’ve only ever driven along the New Jersey Turnpike, that 122-mile swath of highway that runs from just outside New York City to just above the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The entire point of the Turnpike was to move goods quickly from one end of the state to the other. And with only 18 exits along the entire route, it’s more of a route through the state than for it.

And yet, New Jersey is officially known as The Garden State, and while this may not be seen as easily from its other major highway, the Garden State Parkway, with almost 90 exits over its 172-mile route, this road for the state takes you through slices of suburban and rural New Jersey that people who only drive the Turnpike, mostly outsiders, never see.

But there are a few other misconceptions about New Jersey, and one of them is that everyone from New Jersey is like the people in North Jersey, or Northeast Jersey, just outside of Manhattan, to be specific. But the people who live in Southwest Jersey, near Philadelphia, might have a different view. And then there are the people who live in the shore towns, or in Northwest Jersey. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no one way to be from New Jersey. The people from Passaic are just as much from New Jersey as are those from Phillipsburg or Cape May or Camden. The people who order “pizza and subs” are just as much from New Jersey as those who order “tomato pie and hoagies.”

And you don’t have to love Springsteen or the Four Seasons in order to be a legitimate Jersey Person.

What’s my point? For my birthday, my daughter gave me Baratunde Thurston’s book How to be Black. After jokingly asking her if she was going to read every other chapter (my wife is white), I sat down to read this book myself.

I couldn’t put it down.

This was the book I wish had existed when I was in high school back in the early 70s. The problem was that Thurston wasn’t born until I was in college. This book pointed out that there are many ways to be black. To some people being black is about being from the inner city. To others it’s about being from the south. To still others it’s just about what ethnic group they are, even if they much prefer Rachmaninoff to rap.

In other words, there are as many ways to be black as there are to be from New Jersey.

I could’ve used this book when people, mostly my classmates at Ashland Elementary School and East Orange High School, accused me of “not being black” or worse, of being an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside), because I didn’t fit their narrow notions of what it meant to be black. This is a book that I’m certain many kids could use today, as they find themselves accused of “trying to be white” when they’re merely being black in their own particular way; one that looks more like the view from the Parkway than from the Turnpike.

And this is a book that I believe everyone, black, white, or purple, should read, before you go on making assumptions about what is and isn’t “legitimately” black, Asian, or even Irish.

My name is Keith, and I’m from New Jersey.

I’m also black.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gentrification and Blockbusting

I had heard the term gentrification long before I moved to the apartment in Jersey City. To me it simply meant that middle-class people were coming into a previously run-down neighborhood, and were slowly improving it by their presence and efforts.

Others didn’t see it in quite those terms. They saw gentrification as something evil that pushed the poor out of affordable housing, either when landlords realized that they could charge more for the spots that existed, or when investors tore down entire blocks of what had been substandard housing, and replaced it with newer units for people who wanted to live near Manhattan, but not pay through the nose for it.

A few years ago, as we took a trip on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, we passed through my old Jersey City neighborhood, and I didn’t recognize it at all. 25 years later, the transformation had been that complete. The slightly dicey neighborhood I had lived in for a year was now beautiful, and I probably couldn’t afford to live there now myself.

However…I didn’t have the history with Jersey City that I had with my hometown of East Orange. I hadn’t lived there during its “better days,” if it had any, so I didn’t know quite where it came from before the gentrification started. As a result, I didn’t have an answer for those who thought that gentrification was evil because it displaced the poor. But looking at East Orange, where it came from, where it fell to, and my hopes for its future, gives me a whole different perspective on the whole gentrification issue.

And my new perspective is that gentrification and blockbusting are two sides of the same coin, with the former possibly being a correction of the latter.

Now, for those of you who are two young to be familiar with the term “blockbusting,” it’s really quite simple…and truly evil. It was the act of scaring the current middle-class residents of an area into selling their homes at a loss, and moving out, because “those people” are coming; and then selling, or more likely renting, those homes to “those people” at a profit. In the years after the 1967 Newark riots, a lot of blockbusting went on in East Orange, and a lot of the middle-class, both white and black, moved to “safer” places like Scotch Plains, West Orange, and Montclair. As more of the middle-class moved out, more of the poor moved in, and it became a repeating death spiral, to the point where what was once one of the wealthiest towns in the state has almost a 20% poverty rate.

But this trend can be reversed. East Orange can be saved, and it can be saved by something that has run right through the middle of town since about 1836. I’m talking about NJ Transit’s Morristown Line. As young professionals moved out of Manhattan to Hoboken and Jersey City in the 1980s because of its convenience to the city via the PATH line, East Orange, just a few stops away on the Morristown Line, may be the next stop for the Gentrification Express, as those two cities become almost as expensive as Manhattan.

“But what of the poor?” you might ask. “Won’t the influx of all these professionals displace them by making housing there impossible for them to afford?”

This is where I see both sides of the equation. Because I know where my hometown came from, I can see that while gentrification may indeed displace many of the poor who are there now, it would not be artificially and unfairly raising property values, but instead, would be bringing them back up to what they would’ve been, had the blockbusting and middle-class flight of the 1970s and 1980s not occurred in the first place.

And I can see so many reasons why a mass influx of the middle-class back to my hometown would be a good thing for everyone.

But that’s something to talk about later on.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of towns, it is the worst of towns.

Well, maybe I overstate both cases a little, but my how my hometown of East Orange, NJ has fallen. I discovered a book, East Orange, by Bill Hart (ISBN 978-0-7385-4549-3), that says that at one time East Orange was one of the wealthiest cities in the country. It had some of the best schools. It had a great park system. And when Andrew Carnegie donated money to build a public library, some of the residents were insulted, and one stated, “We are a wealthy community able to provide for our own library.”

I don’t remember East Orange being a wealthy town, but I do remember it being a proud and beautiful one. It was a town that regularly won awards for its cleanliness, and a town with a thriving middle class. I’ve mentioned before that East Orange was a small town even though it had 77,000 people because it was physically small. We were only four square miles in size, but with no height restrictions, East Orange was the home of many beautiful apartment buildings. In fact, according to Hart, we were once known for having more apartment buildings than any other East Coast community. But I also remember the beautiful homes on Ampere Parkway, Woodland Avenue, and Brookwood Street.

In the years since I left for college in 1974, East Orange seemed to start going downhill, and actually, the spiral had started while I was still there. East Orange is no longer the beautiful town it once was, and the school system is one of the poorer ones in the state.

What happened? Newark happened. But no, Newark is not the second city in this tale. Specifically, the Newark riots of 1967 happened, causing white and general middle class flight from both Newark and East Orange and an influx of some of the poorer residents of Newark. East Orange now has a black population of 89% and a 19% poverty rate. So much for being one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

And then there’s Bayonne…and Harrison and Belleville while we’re at it. These towns are also right next to Newark, but neither have the huge black population nor the poverty rate that East Orange does. I wondered why it was that those towns didn’t take in as many “refugees” as East Orange did. I had theory; I was betting that it was easier for poor blacks to move into East Orange because of those apartment buildings we were known for, and that to move into Bayonne, Harrison, or Belleville would’ve meant buying a house.

I tested my theory by asking a friend from Bayonne, a town with a 6% black population and a poverty rate of 10%. He said that not only had I hit the nail squarely on the head, but that in the 60s, Mayor Fitzpatrick intentionally had block after block of old apartment buildings in Bayonne torn down and replaced by one and two-family houses. Many people complained that this was blatantly racist, and forced the poor to move out of Bayonne…but they also said that it “saved” the city.

Wow. Could East Orange have been “saved” by tearing down some of the many apartment buildings we were known for? Now before you call me either racist or insensitive, I’m neither. But perhaps a better distribution of people…a little more diversity…would’ve done everyone some good. Perhaps East Orange could’ve torn down some of the apartment buildings and Bayonne could’ve left some standing.

On the other hand, maybe some of those apartment buildings in East Orange are the next stop for the young professionals who find that they’ve now been priced out of Jersey City.

But I'll talk about that next week.