Friday, September 23, 2011

Land of Sorrows

New Jersey.  We've lived here for a little over two years now, in Newark, which has long been the biggest city, in a neighborhood that was, not all that long ago -- 150 years? -- a swamp, but has been filled with poor immigrants ever since, and is the one part of the city spared from the destruction that has come upon so many of America's cities.

What do you think when you think New Jersey?  Brash.  Fast driving.  Nasty lawyers. (Yes, they're here!)  Guido's and Guidette's on the beach.  Unpleasant people.

But let's go a little deeper.

Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin famously called New Jersey a "beer keg, tapped at both ends."  That may seem to sum up New Jersey as a place of swill and hangovers, smelling like an "arm pit" (one of the more pleasant evocations of our state - there is actually a campaign that feels the need to cry out "New Jersey doesn't stink!").  But Benjamin Franklin was also the one who said, "beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Early reports of New Jersey are of a paradise, a garden state, a place of rich farms and, yes, great breweries.  I don't know much about the Channel Islands, between England and France, but when I think of old Jersey, I think of a farming paradise -- and that's what this state was like.  It was a keg you wanted to get into.

But it was also a keg tapped at both ends.  New Jersey has always been the land between Philadelphia and New York.  Today we have no media markets of our own -- part of the reason our politics are so screwed up -- because most of the state is part of metropolitan areas centered in other states.  On the one hand, that means money has always flowed in from Philadelphia and New York.  On the other hands, it means we have always been serving someone else.

Today, the state is divided according to which city you commute to, and traversed by I-95, which literally runs across the state from Philadelphia to New York City; the New Jersey Turnpike, which extends from 95 to bypass Philadelphia on the way to Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington, DC; and the Garden State Parkway, which reaches down the Shore, bringing tourists in and out.  Originally, the primary road was the the old Post Road, authorized by the Constitution, and formerly the King's Highway, running from Philadelphia to New York.  We are a state rich in natural resources, but fundamentally In Between.

New Jersey was born of compromise and division.  The Swedes were actually the first to settle, in the southern part of the state.  Then we were part of New Netherlands, along with what is now New York and the western half of Connecticut.  Even then, the Dutch milked this land for resources, without really investing.  New Jersey proper was born of protest.  England's King Charles II -- himself the victor of a Civil War -- purchased the country from Holland, and gave it over to his brother, the Duke of York and the future King James II.  James, of course, was the one deposed by (ironically, the Dutch) William of Orange and Mary.  He was deposed because he was Catholic.  New York was named for this man who might have returned England to the faith of her fathers.  New Jersey split off in protest.  Thus Princeton, the original College of New Jersey, has always been a center of Calvinist Presbyterianism precisely because New Jersey was the land to which all the pious Dutch fled when it appeared that New York might go papist.  I teach in a town called Orange; it is not named after fruit.

New Jersey was the crossroads of the Revolutionary War.  Our city of Newark was founded in 1666.  By 1776 -- not that much later -- George Washington was stopping here as he fled from the massacres that were the British capture of New York City, on his way down to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, from which he would run various raids back into New Jersey.  Trenton eventually got to be our capital in large part because of the glorious battle fought there -- after Washington's famous Christmas crossing of the Delaware, from Pennyslvania into New Jersey, to slaughter the Hessians.  Washington's earlier stop at Newark is famous in large part because it was apparently here that Thomas Paine wrote those famous words (I will quote beyond the famous part, to give the flavor):
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
Consoling words, I suppose--but consolation only in the face of desolation.  For seven-odd years, the armies tramped back and forth over New Jersey, burning farms, raping civilians (the Hessians were especially known for that, though the British were pretty proud of themselves too), devastating towns -- anyone who could, sure got out of Trenton.  If New Jersey was a place of victory, it was only because it was a land of continual slaughter.

The army battles of the Civil War did not hit New Jersey.  But the civil battle certainly did.  Southern Jersey extends south of the Mason-Dixon line, and even up here in Newark, there were very strong business connections to the South.  New Jersey was torn apart.

In the later nineteenth century, New Jersey was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.  Thomas Edison was here, Paterson was the home of the silk industry and the original manufacturers of Colt rifles, and a huge proportion of America's leather products were made in Newark.  Newark also produced the first plastics, had and produced the first electric lights, and, because it was so ahead on these manufacturing things, hosted the birth of the insurance industry in the late nineteenth century.  A rich and prosperous state.

But you cannot understand New Jersey -- or New York City, or probably any of the Northeast -- without understanding immigration.  Wave after wave of Europe's poorest people poured into our cities.  They came here to work, and they did work, and rose from poverty.  But it wasn't easy, and it wasn't comfortable.  More on that, perhaps, in another post.

Eventually the blacks came, too, in the two Great Migrations (first from 1910-1930, then from 1941-1970).  They came here, like all the other immigrants, because New Jersey was a land of opportunity.  But they were not always respected, and the political classes did not treat them well.  The destruction of the cities is a topic I have covered elsewhere; suffice it to say that it was devastating to the millions of blacks who had come to work in New Jersey.  It was somewhat less devastating to the European immigrants, but their communities, too, were destroyed.  Newark's old First Ward, once a truly vibrant, and truly Italian community, was razed to the ground, replaced by government housing projects full of blacks, many of them without much hope of advancement.  Weequahic, the southern most part of the city, went from having at least as much claim to be a true homeland for the Jews as Israel itself, to a place where this past summer a police officer was accidentally killed after two girls -- black, and hopeless -- got in a fight, and one of them sent her boyfriends to gun down the other one's boyfriends in a pizza place.  Newark, and New Jersey, is a place of scars.

The riots were both cause and effect.  To live in Newark is to hear constantly of those July days in 1967 -- and to see the physical scars that remain across the city, the blocks piled with rubble, the boarded up houses and buildings, the ancient billboards advertising a glamourous city that it strains one's imagination to believe could ever have been Newark.  The Italians who stayed, and those who left, remain in shock and terror at what happened to their home, their city.  But the riots were not the beginning - they hardly could have been.

New Jersey, this garden state, this industrial masterwork, this place of opportunity and beauty, has always been bleeding.  It is a true crossroads of America, and like Belgium, that means it has been crossed by every kind of army in every kind of war. For a hundred and fifty years now wave after wave of impoverished immigrant has come, bringing with them the pathologies and desperations of their home countries, the clash of cultures that have never met before, the desperate effort to get ahead.  New Jersey, I sometimes feel, is like we're still on the boat, with everyone gasping for air, stepping on one another to try to survive, and to get to where the land of riches must surely be.  In New Jersey, the rich themselves came from the poverty of the docks of Naples, and continue to act like it.  And meanwhile, every generation looks down on, and does their best to take from, the generation after it: the WASPs have always tried to hold their power, and to get rich off of the immigrants, and each generation of immigrants follows that pattern.  It is a frightful place, because it is a bleeding place.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I love the immigrants, including those black immigrants from America's South -- I choose to live in an immigrant neighborhood, in a black city. I write not to condemn, but to compassionate.  I feel the terror, the frustration, the scars.  And I believe this is America, at its deepest, and richest, and most difficult.

Today is the feast of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, "Padre Pio," a Franciscan friar in Italy in the early- to mid-twentieth century.  He was a man of compassion and of suffering, and for his compassion he was made to suffer, cast out of his community, silenced, abused.  I heard a priest say Mass today who in many ways embodies my understanding of New Jersey.  He talks like a man born and raised here -- but he also says the Italian Mass at our parish, reminding us that he is the son of immigrants, who grew up in a home where they didn't speak English.  He grew up in Newark -- and not our part of Newark, which was spared.  His parish has been bulldozed, his community is gone; the center of the riots was walking distance from his home.  When he comes to say the Italian Mass, we know it is with a suffering nostalgia.  After the riots, his parents moved out to the very borders of Newark, to a kind of hiding place, but still within this beloved, bleeding city.

I don't know the rest of his story.  I know that he had a mental breakdown after his mother died, that he is a man whose holiness -- if I am right in thinking it is holiness -- is precisely in his utter forsakenness, his complete loss of interest in amounting to anything.  Recently we were chatting, somehow, about Monsigniori.  He said, "not for me.  'Monsignor' is for mothers.  My mother is dead."  His preaching, like the way he says Mass and hears confessions, always carries the resignation of a shrug: he does things right, but makes no effort to do them particularly well.

But today he spoke with unaccustomed eloquence about St. Pio.  A man he said he identifies with -- I have NEVER heard this priest say he identifies with anything related to sanctity! -- though he then tried to cover it up, saying we all probably feel some kinship with Padre Pio.  And then he talked about how Padre Pio got nothing but suffering, nothing but rejection, for all the good he did.

A land of sorrows.  New Jersey.