Redlines, artists, and mobsters by
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(94 Stories)

Prompted By My Hometown

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I have two hometowns, the first, Verona, New Jersey, where we lived until I was 11, and then North Caldwell, New Jersey, where we lived until I went to college. In most ways they were typical for those times. As long as I could remember, I felt stifled by the conformity demanded, and I didn’t fit in. Perhaps it was more the era itself and every town would have elicited the same feelings. I don’t know. Thinking about this prompt, I recalled a lot of interesting events and characteristics of the towns, along with some fun memories.

All seemed very normal in this town, as long as you stayed in your lane.

But, I was very glad to leave these towns, New Jersey, and the east coast in general when I got the opportunity. When my father had a job transfer to northern California and said I could stay on the east coast or come along, I thought about it for five seconds and replied that I was out of New Jersey. Coming to Oakland, California, was a revelation. I felt that, for the first time, I could breathe and be myself. Would I ever go back to live in either of my hometowns again? Absolutely not. After almost 50 years, I am truly a Californian.

In Verona, we lived in a new development of tiny split-level homes. In the entire quadrant of blocks lived Jews, with the sole exception of the Comisky’s, Irish Catholics. Two houses down, where the development ended, began a more elegant, older neighborhood where the Protestants lived. There were a few black people who were restricted to small areas on the other side of town. Italians populated another section, most likely nearer the large church, Our Lady of the Lake (which the kids called Old Lady’s Laundry). At the church, many of the Italian kids attended the parochial school, where they were subjected to the old-fashioned discipline of the nuns in their full-length black habits.

The church was near a good-sized lake, where I enjoyed learning to ice skate. The town center had a municipal building, a library, and a pretty park. Also downtown was a shopping street with a small department store, a soda shop, a five and ten, and a shop that sold tobacco, candy, and magazines. As a child, I enjoyed the park (except for the mosquitoes), looked forward to library trips, and of course ate candy from the tobacco shop.

All seemed very normal in this town, as long as you stayed in your lane. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood what redlining was and that it had determined which neighborhood we lived in. Within the group you belonged to, your family was a certain way (working dad, stay-at-home mom), your religion was determined (a specific church or synagogue), and even your leisure activities controlled (where you vacationed and what you did). Deviation was discouraged, and you rebelled at social peril. People didn’t move around much, and memories were long. Whatever you were like as a child, you were categorized that way for life.

The summer before I entered sixth grade, we moved to North Caldwell, where there were no shopping streets or public facilities, just homes on large lots–the classic bedroom community. My mother had long wanted a home larger than the tiny split level, and the schools in the North Caldwell district were excellent. North Caldwell turned out to be more interesting than Verona, in that there were inklings of social movement. We were only the second Jewish family in town, which created some mild rumblings. Fortunately, we were blue eyed (the real estate agent said that helped), and our surname could be mistaken for German, which quieted people.

All was still not well for anyone not a white Protestant, though. Country clubs and swim clubs, where most residents spent a lot of their summers, were restricted. For a few years we went to a Jewish swim club a few miles out of town, where I endured day camp, weaving lanyards, and making potholders. The only redeeming activities were tennis, swimming, and the Junior Life Saving course I passed. By age 14, I boycotted the club, and my parents joined another one, which was less regimented. Times were beginning to change. Both Christians and Jews were allowed at this club. Not all was perfect, though. In high school I had to explain to some non-Jewish friends that I couldn’t come with them to one particularly awful club, run by members of the John Birch society, nor would I want to.

One of my favorite parts of North Caldwell was a skating pond, which its private owner allowed the town to use during the winter, and I loved coming home from school, grabbing my skates, and spending time whirling around the ice. Across from the pond was a 17th-century Dutch stone house, the oldest in town. I was fascinated by its quaintness and the beautiful landscape around it, although no one else seemed to notice. My mother, who was an artist, told me that the house belonged to Lawrence Wilbur, a respected painter, which intrigued me. Later, when I studied poetry, I learned that Lawrence’s brother was Richard Wilbur, a poet renowned for his imagery and elegance. Wilbur’s nature descriptions perfectly fit my memories of the North Caldwell outdoors.

The biggest change in North Caldwell became noticeable during my high school years, when a lot of new homes were built in the town. To the consternation of more conservative residents, wealthy Italian families began to move in, a whole group of them up the block from us. Their homes were brick and had floodlights in the front yard, and kitchens in the basement.* We tried to be friendly, but the people politely kept to themselves. Black Cadillacs began driving up and down the block. The police told us that if we saw black Cadillacs, we had nothing to worry about. The mob had made it to the suburbs. Turned out they were great neighbors, and we could leave our houses and cars unlocked and remain safe.

A generation later, television’s Tony Soprano lived in North Caldwell, where the scenes of his home were filmed. When people asked me if I watched The Sopranos, I explained that I didn’t need to, because I’d already lived it indirectly.

My high school classmates stuck close to home. Even if they went away to college, they came back to the area. Only four people who I know of out of a class of over 200 left the state for good. I have been back periodically and enjoyed visiting relatives, but I experience those echoes of conformity. Many of my cousins and classmates behave more like our parents’ generation. And, within their group, people dress the same way, eat the same food, and do the same things as the others. Admittedly, I live in a Bay Area bubble now, but gratefully so, with the freedom to step out of my lane every once in a while and try something new.

*The family of the one close Italian friend I had from high school, the daughter of a mob lawyer, had a kitchen in their basement, the purpose of which was to protect wives and children from active threats during mob wars.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    “All seemed very normal in this town, as long as you stayed in your lane. ” So true, Marian. I grew up in a similar setting in which I thought everyone was Jewish as a kid. Like your town, there was a Catholic presence dominated by a large church, but I didn’t meet these kids until high school. In retrospect, they probably attended parochial school. I never met people of color until they were bused into my high school in the early 60s. I enjoyed reading your description of your second hometown. I never knew about basement kitchens.

    • Marian says:

      I did know some of the Italians, Laurie, mostly at high school. My one close Italian friend had been thrown out of Catholic school, a story in itself. Interesting about the bubbles in which we live.

  2. Wow Marian, Interesting to learn of the mob scene – the REAL mob scene – you witnessed in Jersey!

    It seems several of you Retro folks have transplanted westward – I have friends and family out there, after our crisis has passed I’d love to make another California trip!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    So interesting to read about the segregated world you grew up in, Marian. I suspect my world was much the same, I just didn’t realize it, as it wasn’t quite as pronounced. I think we all kept to our own kind, but I wasn’t aware of housing restrictions, though they probably existed.

    There were (and still are) clubs that cater to certain ethnic and religious groups (both in the Detroit area and the Boston area). At this point, it is probably illegal to deny entry based on religion, but the clubs were certainly founded that way.

    Thank you for this interesting story and your addition of your own CA bubble at the end. We still feel comfortable where we are, don’t we?

    • Marian says:

      Yes, Betsy, we can find a place and remain there when we are comfortable. The planned community I live in now is very dense and walkable, with shopping down the block, so it feels less like the 1950s suburbs. Perhaps that’s why I like it.

  4. It’s unfortunate that what made us different made us feel like we didn’t fit in, be it religion, race, personality, or a physical characteristic. It seems like most of us felt that way at some point. Today it seems like kids are much more likely to embrace differences β€” at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the case of my granddaughters. Pretty much anything goes, and of course I just love that. Or maybe it’s the California “bubble.”

    • Marian says:

      There’s definitely something to the California “bubble,” Barb. I think so many people have come here for a new start, whatever that meant to them personally, so, at least when I came here, more people thought of themselves as different to begin with and wanted to celebrate that. I agree that all over the US, kids are much more open minded now. Thank goodness for that!

  5. Suzy says:

    Mare, I love your story because it validates my feelings about North Jersey. Great to know that you felt the same way. And we both ended up in CA, about as far away as one can get! The Italians in Belleville didn’t have basement kitchens though, because they weren’t the wealthy mobsters, they were the blue collar Italians who worked in the local factories. We did see the mobsters with their black Cadillacs and diamond pinkie rings when we went to the Italian restaurant on Route 21 that I’ve written about before. And I laughed out loud at your comment about not watching The Sopranos because you’d already lived it indirectly – I felt the same way!

    • Marian says:

      It’s very revealing, Suzy, that our experiences were so similar. Verona had many working class Italians. Also, there was a burger and shake place in the town next to North Caldwell that we were sure was a money laundering site. Each evening at 10 men in dark suits came in with briefcases, and the kids had to leave. We didn’t stick around.

  6. Risa Nye says:

    What an interesting story! A former colleague of mine grew up in the area also and we were huge Sopranos fans, so I guess not everyone felt the way you did about having lived there! Maybe all the Californians can meet up some day when it’s safe to do so. As a California native (born in San Francisco), I love reading about the towns where other folks who ended up here come from. (Black Cadillacs in the nabe! Whoa!) We, of course, had redlining in the Bay Area as well, a shameful part of our history indeed.

    • Marian says:

      I’m afraid redlining was just about everywhere, Risa. I, too, like finding out how people got to California and where they started. Funny with New Jersey, you either loved it and stayed put, or disliked it and fled. If I’d stayed on the east coast, I would have had to move to New York City or Boston to keep my sanity.

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