Still Maplewood: Wrong side of the tracks

by Helena Holgersson-Shorter, originally published in The Motherhood Magazine

[Note from Carmen: Maplewood, NJ is known in the NYC area as a very diverse community. However, I felt that the themes discussed in this article are applicable to other communities as well.]

Diversity. Community. These are the definitive Maplewood buzzwords, the ones our already-settled-in-the-suburbs neighbors used to draw us out of our hip urban enclaves for an informational tour, as in, “No, really, it’s not your typical suburb. It’s such a diverse community.”

Race. Class. If “diversity” and “community” are warm and fuzzy, these words are cold and sharp and leave a bitter taste in the mouth. But just as they are intrinsic to any discussion of contemporary American politics and society, they are the unfortunate buzzwords that characterize any realistic discussion of our beloved town.*

What do we mean when we say community? We mean a space that is both geographic and ideological, where people have more in common than they do not. In Maplewood, that space has a rough boundary line: Springfield Avenue.

I was at a Chinese New Year party (diversity in action!) given by a parent at my daughter’s nursery school, chatting with other parents about moving to Maplewood and the endless process of renovating fixer-upper starter homes. As one woman belabored the list of all the things wrong with their house, she concluded,

“Oh well, at least it’s on the right side of Springfield Avenue.” (If you’re having trouble guessing which side that is, I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the side DeHart Park is on.) When I relayed this comment to my realtor she laughed and said,

“Springfield? Please! The real caché in this town is being on the right side of Ridgewood Road!”

Yet, being on the right side of Springfield Avenue is sort of the metaphorical equivalent of “free, white and twenty-one,” a legitimization of the speaker’s identity that implicitly rests on the illegitimacy of the Other Maplewood, or Maplehood, as those of us over here affectionately call it. And while I do not have an issue with not living on the right/white side of Springfield Ave., I do find myself intensely irritated by the assumptions of second-class Maplewood citizenship that my geographic placement within our “community” confers. For example, I live around the corner from DeHart Park. My children also participate in the town soccer program, although you would think from the dialogue stemming from the recent debate around turning DeHart into the Maplewood Astrodome that these two things are mutually exclusive. Every year without fail, I turn up to the first game or practice of the year and I hear clutches of parents standing around and repeating the call-and-response of first-class citizenship:

“Oh my God, I had the hardest time finding this place!”

“Me too! I had no idea that this was still Maplewood!”

My friend Shannon, fellow Maplehood denizen, parent soccer coach and mother of biracial children, snorted as we discussed these routine exchanges. “Really? Where’d you think all the black people live?” Obviously, her comment was ironic: of course there are many black families living in Mainstream Maplewood, just as there are many white families living in Maplehood. Like so many other towns in New Jersey and across America, Maplewood has a genteel district, a middle/upper middle class district and a blue-collar district. It is the American democratization of social stratification: class determined not by heredity but by real estate. However, the ways in which class and race are fused and confused in our town and our collective imagination are indicative of the expectations, anxieties and even fears we have about our identities as members of a “diverse community.”

Carol Barry-Austin, one of the founding members and current Chair of the Board of Trustees of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, notes that the issue at hand is not that friendly 90’s catchall of “diversity” but a far older, and grittier, term: integration. After all, “diversity” is vague enough to refer to anything from race, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality, to the availability of different types of ethnic restaurants. One of the goals of the Coalition on Race is to work to achieve a truly integrated community by ensuring that prospective buyers of all races are shown available homes and are welcomed in every part of our two towns. Some of their strategies include working with realtors and advertising in selected venues to draw new families into areas that seem to be “resegregating” themselves. When I asked her how people’s attitudes about race and place may contribute to these persistent patterns of resegregation, she replied that many people “Come to the community for diversity, but don’t necessarily buy into integration.”

Barry-Austin recalled a New York Times article from several years ago that looked at South Orange and its racial make-up (Preserving a Delicate Balance by Andrew Jacobs: May 18, 1997.) In it, the author cited the words of Professor Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of ”American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass” (Harvard University Press, 1993.) Professor Massey spoke of surveys in which African-Americans respondents describe a neighborhood as ideally integrated when the racial composition is a 50/50 mixture of the two races. To most of the white people surveyed, on the other hand, integration meant more of an 80/20 mixture (heavy on the whites, please.)

I have come face to face with this somewhat startling “diversity” of perception, if you will, frequently over the course of my three years in Maplewood. The question boils down to this: How much diversity (good!) is too much (scary!)? The question is simultaneously private/personal and cultural/political. My baptism by fire into the seamy underbelly of Maplewood cultural politics came when my daughter started first grade at Seth Boyden.

As the children all assembled on the front lawn and fell into their classroom groupings, I noticed a remarkable thing. Ninety percent of the white children in the first grade were concentrated into two of the four first-grade classes (one of which was a first-second grade combination). My daughter’s class had twenty children of African descent, two Latino students and two white children. The other first grade class had just one white student, who immediately transferred into one of the other predominantly white classes. When my husband and I met with the then-principal about the issue, we were told that the explanation was not racial, but political: to get families (insert here, parents from the right side of Springfield Avenue) to opt in to Seth Boyden, certain members of the administration had promised that their children would have the multi-age classroom whose teachers had the best reputation for practicing multiple intelligences (Mel Levine method of teaching, also practiced in Tuscan elementary.) Since there were a finite number of available places in that classroom, the overflow of opt-in children mysteriously ended up in the other first grade class. Now, when the mother of one of the two white children in my daughter’s class, who had also opted to send her daughter to Seth Boyden, went to meet with the principal he immediately offered to transfer her daughter into the other predominantly white classroom where she might be “more comfortable.” (She declined). My husband and I, zoned for the district and black, were offered no such thing.

Due in part to the vociferous complaints of many parents that year, that particular little old-boy’s club entitlement policy is no longer in effect at Seth Boyden. However, lest we all dismiss the issue as being unique to the dynamics of our opt-in/choice vs. the zoned-for/no choice situation, I would suggest they are a microcosm of the issues that categorize our larger community.

If we are honest with ourselves, we might find we, myself included, are no different than the rest of our minivan-driving suburban counterparts in the rest of the country. Diversity is great, but in measured doses. We may like having it flavor our community, but we don’t want it to redraw the boundaries of our comfort zones.

* I am aware that there are all sorts of races and ethnicities in our community. However, the focus of this article is on the relationship of white and black, which not only historically carries the most baggage in our country and culture, but also characterizes the geographic divisions of our community.

Helena Holgersson-Shorter is a breast-feeding, home-birthing fascist hippie with a useless and mouldering Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, who writes high school English curriculum, and parenting memoirs when she gets a chance. She writes a regular column in The MotherHood called “Because I Said So.” Go to www.themotherhoodmagazine.com.

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