Thursday, April 27, 2006

Downtowns

Amazingly, the fine for my 4 year old parking ticket was just about what I thought it should be, $76. It's unfair, really, that it got my license suspended & I still have more hoops to jump through. I also found a nifty baseball cap for a dollar at the rummage shop. But it was an enlightening visit to Rahway NJ in other ways. If you don't know Rahway, this probably won't mean anything. If you do, you'll know of what I am speaking.

Downtown Rahway is in the most awful shape it has ever been in my experience with it, which goes back over thirty years. I know enough of the story not to assign blame for the condition of the place when in fact there many specific somebodies one could blame & also nobody to blame. The current condition is perhaps temporary. Not so with what has irrecoverably changed.

Through decades of various states of struggle & even semi-decrepitude, downtown Rahway always retained a unique charm & attractiveness that was of the place, built into it. One could look at a photo of downtown Rahway from 100 years ago & feel at home in that picture. But to see it now is to know those qualities are forever gone & to realize that downtown Rahway will henceforth be ugly, in the sense that most Jersey downtowns are ugly, no matter what comes of it in the economic sense.

It is easy to live in Rahway & enjoy residing there without paying any attention to the downtown shopping district, which takes up only a fraction of the city's area. One might go downtown for the library, or to take care of a city hall matter, or use the post office, or see the Christmas Tree lighting, or catch a train at one end, or maybe go to the theater at the other end, & avoid it altogether the rest of the time. For a few years I lived about a 1/2 mile from downtown, worked in Woodbridge, & rarely ventured into the city center. When I moved to the edge of the downtown it became my neighborhood for a decade, I had a much closer relationship with it & saw the various social, economic & political energies that were at work & often competing with each other. None of the possibilities I expected actually happened. Downtown Rahway always seemed on the tipping point of some transformation that never occurred. What was occurring through market forces in the single home residential areas just didn't generate anything comparable downtown. This is very sad, because the downtown was reaching for something else for a long time. I have a pretty strong opinion on why this something else failed to happen, although the exact reasons elude me. It was a series of choices, events, business moves, risks & failures, even a fire or two, that slowly added up to the current desolation. On one hand, patience justifiably ran out among many business & property owners. On the other hand, there was not quite enough patience where it would have been beneficial to step back & resist tampering.

Ugliness alone has never dissuaded me from residing anywhere - for a start, New Jersey is generally unattractive; nearly all the good scenery is either blemished beyond repair or inaccessible on a daily basis. I lived in Linden for 12 years & I consider that entire city to be unredeemingly ugly, yet my street was somehow both pleasant & convenient. I lived in Butler & New Brunswick in the 70s, spent a lot of time in Atlantic City in the 60s, they were all ugly. My current address is ugly but if I walk two blocks I'm on a street I find quite appealing. In fact, the newer cul-de-sac suburbs spread out over former cow pastures & pinelands so highly desired by the middle-class are so ugly that I would never buy a home on them if I had the money to do so. I'd rather have a prefab tin box on a treeless street two blocks from the ocean. Anyway, most people who know of Rahway will always associate Rahway with a prison that's actually across the border in an ugly section of Woodbridge called Avenel. I'm more inclined to think of the two interesting rivers that run through it & meet where the tide stops, & I would recommend the city now for it's other virtues. But it has lost its truly original & historically pleasing downtown.

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Comments:
Whoo-boy Bob. I'm holding back my typing fingers now, because if you were here, I'd use them to slap you in the noggin (I kid, I kid!). But be careful, because some vigilante from the Rahway Center Partnership may have to pay you a little - ahem - "visit" for your comments.

Maybe we can devise a new slogan for my hometown:

"We may be ugly, but our people are
beautiful!"
"Our vacant lots are cooler than yours"
"Rahway: Bakery-free since 1962"
"Prison? What prison?"
"Come tour our brickface and stucco district"

I hope you're happy. I'll probably lose my job for this post...
 
I can't imagine who the "Partners" are now in the "Partnership." The new downtown Rahway has apparently been divided between Inman Ave in Colonia (camera store) & Westfeld Ave. in Clark. (International Bakery). I predicted this when our beloved Waiting Room bar closed - that was extremely bad karma. Oh,if only it were as simple as moving pieces on a gameboard. Waiting Room takes over the Back Porch (regular clientele who would follow it there, pool table, outdoor deck). Camera shop to vacant storefront on Milton Ave. Bakery-coffeehouse across from theater next to vestpocket park.
 
I lived in Linden from 1978 to 1984, on a little street called Harding Avenue, off of South Stiles Street, in a building owned by the owner by the fuel oil company next door, who seemed to own the entire block. It was a nice little neighborhood, a block from Linden Airport, within practically spitting distance from the tank farms, and I could see the Exxon flare stacks from my living room window.

That part of Jersey really IS pretty ugly, for the most part.

Bob, do you by any chance remember a restaurant called the Drop Zone in Roselle Park? This was the weirdest restaurant ever. It was run by a WWII fanatic, it was laid out like a military mess hall, and they played Frank Sinatra music all the time. Salad was served in metal bowls like you've seen in movies about Army mess halls, and the food was sort of mediocre-to-passable red sauce Italian.

The other lore I remember from my stays in that part of Jersey (I grew up in Westfield) were the nice little bar at the Cranford Hotel, where you could go with a date and have a drink in front of a roaring real fireplace; Big Stash's; some dance hall that was frequented by Portuguese guys from Carteret; and the hot roast beef sandwiches we used to eat on cold winter days at the Exxon station at the corner of Route 1 and South Stiles Street where I used to work on weekends.
 
I went to the Drop Zone once & only once. The owner would play the National Anthem & expect everyone to stand up & salute. A lawyer who was eating there sued him over it & lost. There were plenty of better inexpensive spaghetti & antipasto joints; Tep's in Rahway (now seafood), one in Cranford that turned into The Office, & of course Spirito's in Peterstown, still there & smoke-free for the first time since 1492.

Cranford Hotel had a rep as a pleasant meat rack for suburban singles. Only hung out there a few times. My brother & I were late returning for the evening session of my father's wake in Elizabeth because we decided to drive over to Stash's for corned beef on rye & beer in his honor (Dad appreciated Stash's) & the place was a bit crowded.

When I went back to college in 1990 I used to study at the Wendy's on Wood Ave. in the afternoon. For some reason they played classical music over the speakers, it was never busy. I'd get a burger & iced tea from the value menu. Be there for several hours & nobody bothered me.
 
That part of Jersey really IS pretty ugly, for the most part.

Jill, you're not helping change the image of Westfield residents as snobs (like Bob, I kid, I kid). We like our industrial area very much, thank you!

But Bob, the Waiting Room is being rebuilt on Cherry Street in the old McCrory's building. I was there last week for a visit and the inside looks pretty cool. The old flag mural that was salvaged from the old Waiting Room is hanging on the wall inside.
 
That is good news about The Waiting Room. Passed there the other day, no idea what was being constructed, caught a glimpse of a flag inside but assumed it was a union job, they do that sometimes.

We all appreciated the Linden GM plant, but then the corporate bosses closed it, a curse be upon them. If you drive from Linden into Rahway via West Blancke St, you know you're in Rahway when you reach the nice shady trees & cross the river with the green grass growing next to it.
 
Yes, we love our trees here in Rahway. Not to brag, but Union County and the city split the cost of planting street trees 50-50. We planted over 250 trees over the past two years and will plant close to 200 this fall. Of course, the state removed about 1,400 trees from Rahway since 2004 thanks to the Asian Longhorned Beetle, but it has been slowly replanting since last year. I just spent a few hours driving around Rahway with our DPW checking out the health of existing trees and scouting locations for new ones.
 
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