Saturday, January 2, 2010

On the first day of the year

It snowed early, then stopped, so I went for a drive down to Newton, New Jersey, the Sussex County seat, and parked near the green with its monument to the Civil War dead, across from the big courthouse, and walked around the corner of Main and Spring down the four downtown blocks, fifty percent of the buildings vacant, for sale or lease, a couple boarded up with plywood -- but who in their right mind would buy or rent down here? -- past the ornate sign that read, "Founded in 1751," the city's former wealth built on iron mines and dairy farms, now a diseased victim of the slash-and-burn economy that lured big box retailers to a flat strip of land out of town along Route 206, where those sizeable dairy farms used to be. I passed a Spanish kid dressed in combat boots and pajama bottoms, two rummies straight out of Skid Row central casting, and a cruising cop car. A gray face of indeterminate sex stared out of a second story window above a closed consignment shop. I could hear strains of Sinatra coming from the room behind the face. Happy New Year Newton.

The pizzeria was open, and a Spanish grocery store across the street. The old brick movie house was playing
Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. I guess it's supposed to be a kiddie flick. I saw two or three cars parked down a side street, but nobody moving around. The liquor store back toward the green was open, inside a couple of elderly ladies in thin coats were buying lottery tickets while a skinny guy with half a beard mopped the wet linoleum floor. The temperature had reached the upper thirties by mid-afternoon and much of the New Year's snow had melted into slush. What once was the train station had been turned into an antique flea market. The effin gravy train stopped running out here a long time ago. An immobile turbaned chap sat next to the pumps at the only gas station in town, eyes closed, catching some rays. The old and obese in their electric scooters now had to travel more than a mile along the shoulder of 206 to reach the Shop-Rite and Wal-Mart, along with the poor, who had to walk in the street to avoid the snow. At least they had two Dunkin' Donuts to choose from once they got past the body shops and car stereo dealer.

I hadn't been in Newton for a long time. It was shocking to see the state the city was in, and realize how the potential moment of revitalization -- when wide-eyed entrepreneurs were opening crystal and yarn shops, spas, craft galleries, a book store and a fair trade coffee bar -- had come and gone. They all went out of business. And those days were not gonna come back anytime soon, with real estate in the toilet and so many people out of work. Meaning the structures would further deteriorate, cheap vinyl siding keeping the weather away from those huge, dying wooden Victorian mansions and those drafty sheetrock apartments partitioned out of the upper floors of the formerly grand Richardson Romanesque commercial building now home to a vacuum cleaner repair shop, county health services, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and a store called Good Vibrations which seemed only to carry holiday costumes and masks. As befits a county seat, there were half a dozen buildings housing lawyers' offices, but even they looked shabby. Once a downtown reaches a certain level of dilapidation, ain't nothing gonna bring it back. I thought to myself, there is so much honest work to be done around here -- everywhere you turn, someplace is crying out for care, begging for a determined citizen to hang in there and not walk away, someone who isn't gonna leave their trash, empty storefronts, and busted dreams behind.

It would be a wonderful thing to see these communities -- god knows there are thousands of Newtons all over this country -- get the attention they deserve, and the investment dollars, instead of having the real estate developers rape more farmland for the quick buck. I like these old towns, and the sad, but tough, people that live in them. On New Year's Day, I prefer their awkward company to that of the well-heeled and well-educated, those who forget that the privileged life is an unearned gift, not a right, and can be taken back at any time, without warning.

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