Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Tag: New Jersey

The James Howe House: A Local Manifestation of the Failure that Was Reconstruction

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The James Howe House, also more commonly known as the (misnomered) slave house at 369 Claremont Avenue, is largely agreed upon as the first piece of property in Montclair to be held by a freed slave. Howe’s story may offer a touchstone of understanding of race relations in this town, which is largely known as having made great strides towards integration, despite  its checkered past. Even though New Jersey is north of the Mason-Dixon line, neither it — nor Montclair — was a stranger to slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude. Holding slaves was commonplace in New Jersey until as late as 1866, when the adoption of the 13th Amendment made it unlawful for one man to hold another as property. In fact, in 1690 nearly all the inhabitants of (a much less populated) northern New Jersey owned slaves, according to historian Simeon Moss (See The Persistence of Slavery and Involuntary Servitude in a Free State (1685-1866)).

Unfortunately, Montclair was not innocent to the slave trade, although no mention of this unseemly aspect to its history is mentioned on the Township website historical page. Yet most of the members of the founding Crane family held slaves as did the Speer family, of what is now Upper Montclair. According to one town historian, Ken Cleary, the English and Dutch settlers encouraged the purchase of slaves to support the foundation of the colony and handle the hard labor. Moss goes even further to argue that the slave trade was actively encouraged by the crown to make for a healthy, hearty and prosperous — albeit amoral – Royal Africa Company.

In the 18th Century, the main port of entry for slaves in eastern New Jersey was at Perth Amboy, now a gritty old port town, about 30 miles south of Montclair. Moss offers a grim picture of their entrepôt:

Negroes were brought from Africa to the West Indes where they were seasoned, that is, acclimated to the more temperate regions, instructed in the rudiments of the English language, and shipped to the American Colonies. On their arrival at the port [of Perth Amboy] the slaves, usually chained in groups of two, were led into a large barracks where they were kept until auctioned. Slaves were usually imported in small numbers, consequently they created no problem at the ports of entry. Here they were sold soon after their arrival.

In later years, as the War for Independence approached and the influence of the Quakers from Western New Jersey and Pennsylvania grew more influential, anti-slavery sentiments became more widespread. In 1792, the Quakers were the first group of people to protest to slavery on humanitarian grounds. Governor Livingston unsuccessfully urged the General Assembly to pass an ordinance for mandatory manumission. He personally freed his own slaves during the Revolution.  He saw avowedly Christian slave holders – those, who he said, “almost idolized liberty” — as particularly odious. (Moss, ibid). There were also economic arguments against slave holding, mainly ones that came from the Raritan and Minisink Valleys, where large plantations were on the out because their owners could no longer afford to keep a large number of slaves.

Howe was purchased by one of the descendants of Montclair’s (formerly Cranetown) founding family, Major Nathaniel Crane, in 1813 for $50. It is unclear if Crane had other slaves at the time or afterward, but the wording of his 1831 last will and testament, as paraphrased here by Philip Doremus in his 1908 book Reminisces of Montclair, suggests that Howe was a survivor of former slaves of the family, and perhaps others were freed:

He made provision for his old colored servant, James Howe, who was a survivor of the former slaves of the family and was known as Uncle Jim. He gave him a good tract of land on the north side of Clairmont Avenue running west from North Mountain Avenue, where he lived many years. A part of the house he occupied is still standing. As children, we used to enjoy visiting the old man who had become blind, and listening to his stories of our ancestry. Major Nathaniel Crane had no children and made the West Bloomfield Presbyterian Church the residuary legatee of his estate, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars. This fund the will requires to be held in trust by the church and the annual income to be used in support of the gospel in this church. He died April 18th, 1833. In recognition of his gift to the church, The Society erected a suitable monument over his and his wife’s graves in the Rosedale Cemetery. (<em>Reminisces of Montclair</em>, by, Philip Doremus. 1908. Excerpt can be found at Rootsweb.)

Although Livingston’s pioneering efforts to outlaw slavery in the Garden State were premature, the Legislature eventually addressed the problem, although it continued to recoil from outright abolition.  According to Moss, New Jersey passed  a series of three Acts with the goal of gradually abolishing slavery by making manumission easier for slave holders.  Through these piecemeal efforts the number of people held in bondage in1850 New Jersey diminished to about 200, still a deplorably large number but an improvement nonetheless.  Crane’s act was not unusual in the grand scheme of things, although it is also speculated that Howe held an entirely more intimate connection to Major Crane in that he may also have been his son. ( “Montclair’s Hidden History,” by, Stacey Patton.)  Doremus is clear to point out that Major Crane had no children with his wife, Hannah.

New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Stacey Patton, who is also a history professor at Montclair State University, says “the house itself is an uncomfortable remnant of history for a town that has regarded itself as the epitome of a progressive suburban racial utopia.” She has unearthed scathing recollections about what is largely construed as the failure of Reconstruction following the Civil War, where the freed slaves were discriminated against out of fear they would swallow up jobs, amongst other cruel and inconceivable arguments. Montclair wears the shame of having segregated restaurants in the 1950s and 60s, although was never considered a Jim Crow town. Churches were also segregated, and blacks were known to “break off from white churches that made black parishioners sit behind black curtains and in basements during services.” (Patton, ibid).  While no one today equates Montclair with the cruel depravations of what we like to think as Southern-style segregation, Jim Crow was alive and well in Monctlair.

This de facto segregation ultimately led to legal action.  In the 1960s a discrimination suit was brought against the Montclair School Board, seeking to correct an unjust imbalance in the composition of the schools. The result is a nationally-lauded magnet system that has attempted to integrate our schools. The concept is that providing a forward-thinking curriculum makes the requisite bussing inconsequential, since what’s at the end of the ride is so appealing. Yet even today there is grumbling about the tracking of students that is unfair to our black population. Integration has not been fully established. (Please see Lise Funderburg’s “Integration Anxiety” from the New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1999).

The James Howe House is a tangible example of where we went wrong in properly addressing the full story of an entire section of our society who was struggling to find their way in an entirely new world after the Civil War.

As recently as 2008, there existed a heated debate about the fate of the physical structure. Formerly known as the Washington Wayside House because General Washington himself passed it on his way to another Crane-held property further down Claremont on the corner of Valley Road during the Revolution, 369 Claremont Avenue is now a rental property belonging to Robert Van Dyk. Van Dyk also owns an adjacent nursing home and expressed an interest in donating the structure to the Montclair Historical Society, freeing up the land for a more substantial, lucrative structure than the 800 square foot James Howe House, which currently houses a mother and her young son.

The Montclair Historical Society wanted to move the structure to its present grounds on Orange Road. And the society has experience with such big moves.  In 1965, the Society moved another Crane House which originally was situated on Glenridge Avenue and had a colorful past. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Crane House was the “Trinity Presbyterian Mission for blacks who left Virginia and North Carolina in search of better lives in this northern suburb.” (Patton ibid). In 1920, it became an African-American YWCA, serving a variety of civic purposes. Patton notes that W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington all spoke here, and most astonishingly, the house even served as a dormitory for black female students who were denied housing on the campus of Montclair State University.

The Historical Society has been criticized amongst many of the more liberal minded citizens of Montclair for having failed to relay this important piece of the Glenridge Avenue Days of the Crane House’s story to visitors patronizing its present site on Orange Road. It instead has been more of a showplace for antiquities; the second floor is now a reconstructed one room school house that caters mostly to students from the elementary schools. Many feel that an opportunity to educate our school children of the full story has been missed.

Most of those against moving the structure simply argue that moving James Howe’s home, bequeathed to him by his master, next to his master’s family house would be a cruel irony. They also contend that moving the house might jeopardize its structural integrity, and that the historical significance is best understood on the original site. Those in favor of moving the house point to the problems with the current site, which is now a busy thoroughfare, its five original comfortable acres swallowed up by suburban development and encroached by other structures, and with poor accessibility and parking.  The Montclair Kimberley Academy owns the land behind it, playing fields destined for improvements over the summer, and leaving the back of the seemingly inconsequential James Howe House closed to the public.

Seeking to preserve this piece of living history, the Township Council passed an ordinance in January  2008 designating both the house and the property as landmarks.   Some contend that this amounts to an unlawful seizure of property, imposing an unreasonable hardship on the present owner who clearly bought the property to provide rental income or to expand his business.

Today, the house looks rather forlorn, not exactly well maintained, but dignified in its old age and significant past. Its 19th century inhabitant was finally given what he must have strove for all his life: liberty. What remains of his former domain has great potential to educate our citizens to the story of our town.  It is a story that may not be easy to hear, but most certainly should be told. The failures of Reconstruction that are evident in the segregation stories in our own seemingly cosmopolitan town, where blacks struggled to find their own way in society without much help. They arrived here against their will and yet were never officially given the start in a free life that they most assuredly deserved.


Nostalgia on Edgemont Pond

Before there was Uncle Sam, predating Lady Liberty, there was Columbia, a personified symbol of America not unlike Marianne of France or Britannia of the United Kingdom.  A maternal beauty with a buxom figure, she is clad in classic Greek robes, flowing untaylored around her able, athletic and youthful form.  Her feet are strapped into classic sandals, but there is a hint of aboriginal American features to her cheeks, her sloped liberty cap that falls forward in a nod to something once plumed.  Often her vestments are adorned with the stars and stripes, holding a shield or flag representing the Union.

First coined by of the author of The Gentleman’s Magazine in England as a code name for America, Columbia is the female version of the name Columbus, the reputed discoverer of America (which is a falsely endowed distinction, as outlined previously on this blog in Lenni Lenape Day).  As reports on debates in Parliament were illegal to publish in the United Kingdom, Edward Cave worked around this rule by using a thin guise, calling them “fictional” Reports on the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput.  Columbia frequented those pages until 1746.

It is only natural that our English-turned-American colonists would adopt the coinage in more glorified terms.  The maternal imagery of Columbia personified suckled a fledgling country as it weaned its way to more adolescent ages, searching for an identity all its own.  Phillis Wheatley, an African slave of Boston who was educated by her owners, encouraged to write, and even published in England and New England, was the first to poetically refer to Columbia as our nation, powerful and righteous against Britannia’s long-seeded strength:

One century scarce perfom’d its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!

Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While rond increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!

Lament they thirst of boundless power too late.

Phillis Wheatley in a letter to George Washington, 26 October, 1775.

Columbia became a very fitting symbol of our new country, its spirit and idealism during the American Revolution, and ironically was brought forth with grace by none other than a Bostonian slave whose real home was Senegal in  West Africa.The slouchy cap that became standard issue for Columbia derives from Roman tradition, used by priests to present to freed slaves and now regularly used as a symbol of liberty. What hope must have burst in the heart of Phillis Wheatley, a woman who did find personal liberty in 1774.   (http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sectionfront/life/hail-miss-columbia-once-a-us-symbol-shes-lost-out-to-uncle-sam-lady-liberty-385432/).

Columbia later lent her name to the prestigious Kings College in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan, as the name of our nation’s capital district, as well as many other city names throughout America.  Film Companies, recording companies borrowed its renowned name.   Columbia reigned, and  Hail Columbia tolled as our national anthem from 1777 until 1931.  A Library of Congress recording can be heard here, and remains a tribute piece to announce the Vice President at State Dinners.

She sadly, or perhaps justly, fell out of favor after World War I, a conflict that left our relatively new nation painfully understanding the costs of that Great War.  Disenchanting after a conflict with no real justification, the same pleading Columbia from propaganda posters that urged our citizens to take up arms and to buy war bonds looked tarnished and lacking in her original righteousness.

Montclair, New Jersey lost seventy-one of her sons during the misnomered War to End All Wars, a devastating loss incomprehensible to a generation of people who have gratefully not known war on that same gruesome level.  To pay deserved tribute to those fallen, the townspeople collectively raised funds to pay for the towering monument that now is lent to our township as its trademark.  Its surrounding park acts as a quasi-town green, welcoming its citizens to enjoy a swath of land that was bravely defended, indirectly, by those 71 dead, amongst many others.

Appropriately, Columbia graces the monument and is forever perched at the base of our obelisk, a nod to America’s former image.  On the original program of the Unveiling Ceremonies is her description, a mother figure to a young nation whose eyes were painfully opened to the dangers of nationalism:

As her sons press eagerly forward where duty calls, Columbia, wafted as though on the wings of the morning, follows, her countenance aglow with love for her children, her great mother heart reaching out to encircle and protect them with the power of her might – the Shield of the Union, carried on her outstretched left arm, even while with a light touch of her right hand she urges them on in the cause of Freedom and Right.

Description of Charles Keck’s sculpture of Columbia and her two Dough Boy sons, Edgemont Memorial Park’s WWI Monument, Unveiling Exercises program, November 11, 1925.

Now she stands unrecognizable to most who pass her, an aged figure with an oxidized complexion.  Columbia was once America personified, but now stands as an historical reference, less powerful than Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty, but righteous all the same.  Her original purpose can be rediscovered, rather like a scorned politician who history has treated well, but whose legacy has to be researched in a long-forgotten text book.

A book about her story is forthcoming, from Ellen L. Berg, an affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland.  A sneak peek into her research can be found on the Opinionator Blogs on the New York Times web site.

The Unbreakable Branch

We Montclair townsfolk are no strangers to bad storms and their crippling aftermaths.  In the last six years we’ve had four “storms of the century”, resulting in days-long power outages and expensive clean-up.  Generators whir a rhythmic, annoying hum while wood chippers noisily chew up the remnants of the violent tempests.  Centenarian trees in our parks that once stood stately along our roads now lie exhausted on their sides.   Their feet of roots, tired and compromised by their neighboring pavement, stuck in swaths of earth that have torn patches of turf a dozen feet wide now seem to defy gravity in a crazy perpendicular angle.

This week our nemesis Sandy brought four such trees down in our beloved Edgemont Park, and left ominous cracks around a half dozen others.  Weary, un-showered neighbors walk gingerly and curiously to survey the damage, to find comradery amongst other storm survivors.  It was reported on one television station that Montclair saw the highest winds of the debacle, a window shattering 88 miles per hour, which obviously took its toll on our trees, smashing cars, fences and swing sets, and in one case, a classmate’s entire house on Essex Avenue.  One can see the teenaged boy’s bedroom exposed to the elements, eerily opening the private world to the gawking public one, astonished by not only horrific news reports out of neighboring, watery Hoboken, but in the darkened houses of our own leafy town.

There are no reported deaths from Montclair, yet we all stand stunned as the death toll in surrounding communities rises.  Certainly the New Jersey Shore or New York City was not vulnerable to the same devastation Cuba or the Dominican Republic was: our infrastructure is stronger, our physical structures better built.  Yet we still read shocking stories of babies being swept away in storm surges right out of a mother’s arms, trees falling on teenaged boys, outer burrough basements, seemingly protective from high winds, becoming watery graves.

Many feel the vulnerability has existed all along.  The New York Times reported that Staten Island had become over developed in the last 25 years, dangerously covering up their protective “sponge” of sand dunes and grasses with homes, hardscaped malls and parking garages.  Long Beach Island, a narrow barrier island perhaps should not be as populated as it is.  To paraphrase Joni Mitchel: we paved Paradise and put in a parking lot. But the parking lot was not as protective in sustaining human life than the more bucolic sand dune, ironically.

The inevitable debate about Global Warming will continue.  We will speculate how climate change is making our storms more severe; perhaps it even caused that wonky wave of a Jet Stream take a sharp turn to the north, attracting our tropical pisser of a storm.  That Irene spanked us East Coasters just one year ago are making us all question: are strong tropical storms the new norm for New Jersey?   If that is the case, the new and improved New Jersey Shore might have to bow more respectfully to Mother Nature and her power.  Think more sand dunes and less parking lots.  Think more reverence to all-powerful nature.

James Wright, a well respected contemporary poet of the last century, wrote a compilation of poems in awe of nature and its ability to protect man in 1959, entitled The Branch Will Not Break.  Peter Stitt, editor of The Gettysburg Review called this work his happiest, and one whose “major affirmation [is] – the faith that nature will endure and continue to sustain man.”  One might guess that the same respect is necessary to pay Her in return for that sustenance.  He writes:

In a pine tree,

A few yards away from my window sill,

A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and

down,

On a branch.

I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do

That the branch will not break.

From “Two Hangovers, Number Two: I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again”, The Branch Will Not Break, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1959.

The metaphoric branch remains unbreakable, regardless of the physical mess that greets us at Edgemont Park.  We birds will have to judge which are the righteous ones on which to jump.  Meantime, joggers will tip toe over the extension cords that run from lighted houses on Edgemont Road to the darkened ones across the street, a symbol of the giving creatures we are at core.  We will pray for those who were hit the hardest and hope that recovery has ended.  While we wait in long lines for gas to power our generators we will remark at how lucky we all are for precious gifts that were ours all along, but perhaps faded to near unrecognizable in the glare of electric light.  We will rebuild, with a reverence for that which is larger than us and with knowledge that the branch, if respected, indeed will not break.

A Neighbor of Epic Proportions

Paterson, New Jersey is a strangely situated city, nestled in between leafy suburbs of New York City, and is largely unexplored by its neighbors. One might never know its existence if it weren’t for the presence of the award-winning St Joseph’s hospital there, with one of the only true pediatric care units the area. Less than 6 miles north of the Center of Montclair, its a physically close neighbor, yet Montclarions rarely visit. Perhaps they have been guided by their GPS hosts north on McLean Boulevard on their way to a friend in Glen Rock or Ridgewood and were dismayed by the squalor that existed there, boarded-up store fronts of independent junk stores, discount clothiers and bodegas. City busses in this third largest city in New Jersey choke residents that line the streets, leaning up against the walls of an abandoned entrepreneurial waste land, smoking cigarettes and eating their lunches from paper wrappings.

great falls waterfalls of passaic river peaceful tranquil scenery brige over waterfall paterson new jersey

View of the Passaic Falls, Engraved by J. Sands after Artist WH Bartlett

Indelibly placed on the map largely due to the 77-foot Great Falls there, the largest on the East Coast second only to Niagra, Paterson was — and is — a place of beauty. In the 18th century, before America was even established as a country, before Paterson was established a town, George Washington himself came to admire the falls during his extensive travels through New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. It is said that he even carved his initials and date on one of the faces of basalt . He enjoyed picnic lunches here with LaFayette and Hamilton.

The picnickers had greater visions for this powerful force of nature, and as such, Paterson can be construed as the seat of the industrial revolution. Its powerful waters once harnessed for its energy, mills sprung up along the Passaic River thanks to the efforts of our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who chose the Great Falls as a natural place in which to turn newborn America’s rich natural resources into goods of their own, forever shifting our economy from agrarian to capitalist. By founding the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, Hamilton permanently removed Mother England’s shackles, and the fledgling United States began to fend for themselves and thrive as an independent economy. Silk, cotton and duck cloth for sails, locomotives, submarines and guns: Paterson provided an array of lucrative products that buoyed our new society, changing the face of a social order. The average American won the ability to earn his fortune with hard work rather than by gentry.

Evenually, Globalization and the shift of American manufacture to foreign locales, and the exodus of more successful retailers to the newly conceptualized shopping mall left Paterson in squalor. Factories were left to decay, smaller businesses moved in as the market price for residences and businesses plummeted. What is left along the falls are eerie but beautiful monuments, roman ruins of a collossal giant of American manufacture. Their gorgeously arched industrial brick facades are ripe for preservation.

Little by little, Paterson has shown signs of renewal thanks to many hard working residents past and present who are breathings new life to its districts. Suburban neighbors who have renovated their kitchens might be surprised to learn that their Parsons cabinetry is crafted in a vintage Paterson mill. Alfaro Furniture is centered in Paterson, linen manufacturers, rental companies, movers and storage companies.

Most notably, however, is the recent recognition of Paterson’s heritage and the desire to preserve it. There are numerous sites in town that have recently been placed on the National Register of historic places, and in the case of the Falls themselves, Paterson is now home to America’s 397th National Park. A development plan has been established and is said will take years to come to completion, The Paterson Museum most ably educates those interested in the history of this unique and historically significant seat of American manufacturing, and the birthplace of American capitalism.

Always home to immigrant populations who found work here, Paterson is also a notable seat to African American history. The black Yankees played baseball at Hinchliffe Stadium here and black pilgrims seeking a congregation in which to worship God without the stigma of segregation set up the First AME Zion Church, where the city’s first Colored School was founded in 1855. The church and school has just been declared an historic site and will be preserved by the town government.

Paterson has also been muse to many novelists, essayists and even poets. Allen Ginsburg famously posed high above the Falls, double entendre well intended, and was even issued an arrest by the mayor of Paterson after a poetry festival in which participants smoked marijuana to enhance their sensory experience of the powerful rush of water. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence. Paterson also served as setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Juno Diaz novel, The Brief and Wonderoud Life of Oscar Wao. But most eloquently, there exists the epic poem by Rutherford doctor and Pulitzer Prize-winner himself, William Carlos Williams, who penned his epic Paterson as a response to the “anti-epic” Waste Land by ts eliot. James Breslin, who authored a biography of Williams, outlined the contrast between the two great works and serendipitously also describes what many believe to be the future of this great New Jersey city:

The Wasteland is a kind of anti-epic, a poem in which the quest for meaning is entirely thwarted and we are left, at the end, waiting for the collapse of Western Civilization. Paterson is a Pre-epic, showing that the process of disintegration releases forces that can build a new world. It confronts, again and again, the savagery of contemporary society, but still affirms a creative seed. Elliot’s end is William’s beginning.” (source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/William-Carlos-Williams).

The renaissance of Paterson is imminent. This singular city with a rich history is in the early processes of a great renewal, which will forever change the face of it but with a new purpose, a reinvigorated goal.  A visit in the near future is suggested, before the mysterious façades of the old mills are scrubbed clean, and their secrets are washed away.

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette Slept Here (and So Did George)

In the Spring of 2003, there was ample coverage of the animosity felt between Americans and the French over the Iraq War in The International Herald Tribune. Manifestations on the streets of Paris were not unusual; one of the more memorable “manifs” was grand marshaled by an individual in a skeleton costume burning an effigy of George W. Bush. On more than one occasion, complete strangers in French cafés recognizing my American accent would ask me if I had seen Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 and what I had thought about it. Conversely, I heard reports from back home about talk of a boycott on French wines, parties where individuals dumped their perfectly aged, liquid investments into the rivers for the media to see. Freedom fries, instead of french fries were served in American cafeterias.

The French were protesting the unilateral waging of a war without international support in a global community, and jumpy Americans, still licking their bleeding wounds sustained in the massive attacks of September 11th were slowly starting to understand just how successful that attack was, terrified and debilitatingly imagining weapons of mass destruction bound for their borders, believed to be cleverly hidden under Saddam Hussein’s stolen Kurdish tribal rugs.

Other than an incident of my son’s baseball cap, a casquette, that was stolen off his head, cursed with an epithet reserved for we Yanks, and thrown into the garbage in the cour of the école maternelle, we survived unscathed. Startled by the intensity of the demonstrations on the street, perhaps, by their boisterous and loud presence, we simply understood them to be a culturally genetic trait of a society formed at the broken ramparts of the Bastille. Vive la France! No offense taken. Many a sympathetic American would have take up banners beside you. We just weren’t among them.

It was not long after that my parents came to visit and see how their grandchildren were faring in the Land of Gaul amongst all this perceived animosity. A military history buff wanting to see the beaches of Normandy and the museum in Caen, my father would often enliven our dinnertime conversations with the inevitable present day politics, but also that of the past. We once enjoyed a very tight American – French alliance, one that was integral to our formation as a nation.He told a terrific story about the World War I Commander-In-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, who later went on to serve as the Army Chief of staff and author a Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography.

Pershing was called to duty after the Americans declared war against Germany, arriving at a time when American presence was a much-needed lift to the French psyche, which had understandably suffered a fierce blow embattled in the trenches for three years, suffering innumerable casualties. On July 4, 1917, the city of Paris amiably and with honor celebrated the Day of American Independence, featuring a parade which concluded at the Picpus cemetery. Pershing was to lay a wreath at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, but not being fluent in French, asked Lt Colonel Charles M. Stanton make the brief remarks. He reputedly said upon facing Lafayette’s grave, “Monsier le Marquis de Lafayette, nous sommes arrivées!” They had come as Patriots to endeavor to chink away at the enormous debt of gratitude that we as a nation owed Lafayette by aiding France in arms against Germany.

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General John J. Pershing saluting the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, Cimetière de Picpus, Paris, July 4, 1917.

The debt was huge. Most Americans know that Le Marquis de Lafayette was 19 years old when he came to America in 1777 to take the post of General George Washington’s aide-de-camp. Most can report that the French gave financial support to a fledgling America not-yet-born, a gesture that was invaluable to our success in forming a new nation. We simply would not have won the war for independence without their support. What many don’t know about Lafayette was that he was an Idealist, a military mind who believed so deeply in the cause of American Independence that he actually had to find passage via Spain to get to America, as the French monarchal support had not yet been garnered, putting himself at great personal risk. Because British spies were paying close attention, he had to disguise himself as a woman. Because the cargo ship was bound for a trading stop in the West Indes, he bought all the cargo in the hold to avoid stopping and eliminate the risk of discovery. He fought ably and with distinction against the British on American soil for no pay for years. Yes, he was an aristocrat, but he actually helped fund the cause with $200,000 of his own fortune, paying the salaries of many military hands. During the two year hiatus (1778 – 1780) he spent in France during the war, he helped Benjamin Franklin lobby King Louis XVI for more financial support, supplies and men to be sent to America.

I dare say that with no Marquis de Lafayette, there may not have been a United States of America. Incidentally, while browsing an antique book fair in the Place Saint Sulpice in Paris, I came across the first map ever printed of the New World, referring to that eastern chunk of North America as “Les États-Unis d’Amerique.” The book seller told me that it was the first ever printed with our new country’s proper name, and it was optimistically printed before we actually won the war. Merci beaucoup pour votre confiance, nos amis!

Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette returned to America in 1780, right around the time when General Washington was fighting to keep his New Jersey stronghold and Benedict Arnold infamously defected to the British. In October of that year, the two generals had their temporary headquarters here in Montclair. In 1938, the Eagle Rock chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the stone that was the doorstep of that house in a nestle of shrubs, marked by an American flag at the site of the house that once served as Lafayette’s headquarters. It is located just next to 551 Valley Road, presently home to a photography equipment shop, Photo Cullen. About a mile due south is the site where Washington garnered his own headquarters, on the north west corner of Valley Road and Claremont Avenue, on October 26, 1780 “while on the march from Totowa now Patterson to support Lafayette’s expedition against the enemy on Staten Island.”

Chez George has long since been torn down, too, but the plaque commemorating the events is embedded into a boulder in front of a Dutch Colonial that was built some 150 years later. Interestingly, “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” once listed it as The World’s Smallest Park, a coveted title now bestowed on Snow Park in Tampa, Florida. Ironically, Snow Park is located on Kennedy Boulevard, a rue that was formerly known as Lafayette Street.

Lafayette went on to have four children, two of which are named for his very personal American friends, cementing and indelibly marking his great fondness not only for the individuals, but the ideals they represent: Georges Washington Lafayette and Virginie Lafayette, after the home state of Thomas Jefferson. He even has two barrels full of Boston’s Bunker Hill soil on that grave of his in the Cimitière de Picpus in Paris, fulfilling his wish to be buried on American soil.

So I, in the interests of Patriotism and love for the Marquis, kept the fleeting politics of 2003 out of my better opinions, understanding that the same society that burns effigies can produce the most brilliant and loyal idealists. I am proud that if even for just a brief time, Lafayette called Montclair, New Jersey “headquarters” for the cause that so inspired this great Frenchman, and great American. For Lafayette was made an honorary United States Citizen posthumously by Congress in 2002, one of only seven in our country’s history, and one year before Georges Dubya sent troops to Iraq.

Thomas Edison’s Beautiful Failure

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A Well-Travelled Diner

My husband spent most of his boyhood in the quaint suburban town of Westfield, New Jersey, 25 miles west of New York City.  The town is your typical sleepy bedroom community offering all the benefits of situation: a 30 minute train ride to Penn Station and a 60 minute drive to the bucolic towns on the Delaware River, offering extensive hiking trails and antique shops, and Revolutionary War era homes.  My mother-in-law joked that Shangri-La had New York City on its door step and the bucolic counrtyside in its back yard.  That was practical reality in Westfield; but  one needn’t look further than Westfield itself for charm, as is true for many of these bedroom towns of Northern New Jersey.  The existence of the commuter rail allowed Westfield to evolve into an independent, free-standing town with a fantastic downtown, its own diversions and gorgeous housing stock reflecting a host of different architectural styles.

Although many of the mom-and-pop stores and restaurants of their superb downtown have given way recently to more chain establishments, the Westfield of my husband’s childhood had it all: independently run hardware stores, clothiers, and restaurants located conveniently within walking distance of the train station.  One of his regular after-school haunts was the Excellent Diner, a classic example of a Jerry O’Mahoney dining car featuring a long, narrow yet sleek design, a stainless steel façade and interior.  O’Mahoney built about 2000 of such dining cars between 1917 and 1941, and only 26 remain in the United States.  The Excellent is not one of them.  It’s much more cosmopolitan than that.

After almost fifty years of serving up the hamburgers and hot dogs in Westfield, a German family bought the Excellent and had it shipped over seas to their town in Aalen, about 200 kilometers north of Munich. They retained the name, The Excellent Diner, and presumably amended the menu to read frankfurters instead of hot dogs.

While living in Paris, my mother-in-law told us that local news tabloids recorded the Excellent’s next move sometime in 2000.  After presumably doing a mediocre business in Aalen, the Diner found a more fabulous home in Marne-la-Vallée, a 15 minute drive outside of Paris, and best known for being home to Euro Disney’s theme parks.  The worldly Excellent had taken up residence in the studio theme park,  and rejected its American roots, changing it’s name to the more fabulous “Café de Cascadeurs” (Stuntman’s Café).  The menu, however, is decidedly American and simple: burgers, hot dogs, and chips, salads as snacks, brownies and ice cream for dessert.  You can even wash it all down with a Coca-Cola.

The online French reviews of the Cascadeurs are almost universally positive, but not one mentions the authenticity of the design of this American classic, a true antique and relic to the past.  There was one that raved about the jukebox though.

We never visited the Café de Cascadeurs while living in France, as our list of true European destinations we wanted to visit was simply too long.  Having a limited time in France, we figured we’d see FRANCE while there and not the a little patch of America on French soil.  Yet my husband is curious to know if the wait staff still wears the same aprons, wether the chef still wears a tall paper hat, and if there is a new playlist on the jukebox.

The Excellent Diner in its original home in Westfield, New Jersey.

The Excellent Diner - now the Café des Cascadeurs in Marne-la-Vallée, France.

Namaste from Iselin, New Jersey

I dare say: New Jersey is becoming more cosmopolitan than Manhattan. With the price of the average apartment rising steadily even in these tough economic times, we suburbanites seem to be benefitting from the settlement of those seeking more affordable housing in New Jersey. I had the pleasure of attending a meeting with 50 suburban women recently to train as coaches for Girls on the Run of New Jersey East, and couldn’t help but remark to myself that there were a whole lot of gorgeous accents in the introductory voices. Their faces reflected different shades of nationality and they were all well spoken, fit, enthusiastic and friendly.

I don’t get the same feeling whilst walking on the Upper East or Upper West Side of Manhattan anymore, and it feels as though every interestingly gritty neighborhood of Manhattan has been gentrified: TriBeCa, SoHo, The Meat Packing District, even Hell’s Kitchen-turned-Clinton is looking pretty spit shined these days. Recently, I went back to my old neighborhood that is Chelsea and was dumbfounded by all the art galleries that have sprung up on many side streets, that the Indian bodega on my corner is now a french bakery with rattan baskets of baguettes, les epis du pain, croissants and gallettes in its gorgeously designed window. The run-down brownstone next door to my old apartment has been renovated, the kitchen on ground level for all to see: reclaimed wide board pine floors with a center island in soap stone, gleaming copper pots hanging from the rack above it. The rat that used to scuttle about in the garbage cans in front long gone, a new row of perfect boxwoods having taken their place.

We suburbanites are benefitting from the flight. Last week, my 12 year-old son took a school trip to Iselin, New Jersey to visit a Hindu temple, have a curry lunch and browse the Indian jewelry shops and mendhi parlors. Most of the children came home with intricate henna designs on their hands. In connection to the comparative study of world religions, the trip excited an appreciation for the rich culture that exists within our own home state. According to the 2000 census, New Jersey ranks 3rd in most heterogeneous states, approaching California and New York for the top spot.  You can get it all here: aside from the Indian treasures to be found in Iselin, a friend who enjoys Asian cooking loves to visit Edison, where the yellow pages have forty seven listings for Japanese grocery stores.  Even our own Montclair boasts an integrated, magnet school system that has made it attractive for families of all backgrounds. When choosing Montclair as an alternative to what we couldn’t afford in New York, it was advertised to me as “Brooklyn West:” a place where our children would live and flourish with racial and cultural diversity. Although I know our little hamlet is far from an inter-racial Utopia, it has provided us with a rich community made up of villagers of all backgrounds.

My son’s trip to Iselin left me craving chicken tikka masala, so I shot up a half mile to Brick Lane on Valley Road and bought myself some. I could have walked, but I drove instead. This is suburbia after all.

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Mehndi design from Iselin parlor, a temporary skin decoration made by dying the skin with a paste made from henna. Traditional in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is meant to symbolize the awakening of the wearer's "inner light."