Reflections on Race, Poverty and Violence in Orange, New Jersey
It’s a muggy mid-June Saturday afternoon. A large inflatable moonwalk occupies the asphalt, and kids line up for a chance to ricochet into space. The elementary school grounds have been transformed into a block party with games, prizes and a movie-housestyle popcorn machine. I sit at a folding TV tray with an open chair, ready to read fortunes. My tools are a deck of oracle cards and a Magic 8-Ball; I wrap an orange chiffon scarf around my hair for mystical effect. I have a steady stream of clients, mostly children and the occasional adult.
Today, I am a fortune-teller, participating as part of a grant project in the compact, gritty, postindustrial town of Orange, New Jersey (in the United States). We call our project “Reverse Archaeology” and we have received funding from ArtPlace America for our creative placemaking initiative. Usually, archeologists dig into the earth to uncover the stories of the past. In Orange, however, we started from the premise that the city already had a hole in the ground: where Interstate 280 cut the city in half in the 1960s. To build the highway, hundreds of homes, shops and community spaces were torn down, and
many people left Orange for other towns. Our team proposed launching a “Reverse Archaeology” of I-280 to discover the stories of Orange and begin to repair the urban fabric. What was Orange like before the highway? What drew current residents to stay in Orange after many people left? What do people need to stay in Orange in the future? In collaboration with residents, we want to extend our view beyond obvious social and physical divisions to understand Orange as a whole – its past, present and future.
Our objective this Saturday afternoon is straightforward: to recognize, respect, celebrate and magnify the value of this hardscrabble, multicultural community of mostly black and brown people. Only 2.2 square miles, Orange embodies much larger patterns of urban disinvestment, abandonment, demolition by neglect and design, and extremely limited resources.
It is also a bustling, vibrant, global crossroads: a fact that tends to get lost in depressing statistics about unemployment, poverty and violence. We all have roles at this block party. Mindy, Molly and Aubrey are wearing neon orange plastic glasses and engaging children in a scavenger hunt. Rachel is surveying the overall scene, making sure tables and chairs are set up. Our aim is to engage and listen to the community members and celebrate what is working in this town with so many challenges.
“Would you like me to read your fortune?” I offer. Once children learn my services are free, I attract an enthusiastic following. As an opening gesture, before moving to the main event, the reading of the oracle cards, we start off with the Magic 8-Ball. Mattel released the black plastic toy ball in the 1950s, and it can answer yes or no questions through a magic die that surfaces from murky blue water to a window on the bottom of ball. A majority of children I talk to at the fair want to know whether they will be rich when they grow up. Because three quarters of the Magic 8-Ball responses are positive or neutral, most of the
news is good.
The oracle cards open conversations about issues that are important to the viewer. Because my access to the supernatural is limited, it is more effective to turn the fortune-telling over to the client. For example,one card says, “Hope.”
I will ask the viewer if there is something in his or her life now that offers hope. We enter into a conversation about hope — whether it exists now in the present, or perhaps its potential to unfold in the future. In this way, oracle cards function as a kind of Rorschach test, a projective visioning exercise that invites the viewer to interpret the meaning behind cards, which act as prompts.
My first clients are a brother and sister pair: she is finishing second grade and he is finishing fifth grade. Her cards: Forgiveness, Victim and Perseverance. “What do these cards mean?” I engage them in an exploration of meaning.
Forgiveness — that’s easy to understand. “I forgive you,” the girl mischievously tells her brother, resting her fragile arm on his shoulder. He laughs. “Is that your older brother?” I ask. “Yes.” She smiles. “They can be pretty annoying,” I agree.
The victim card was more perplexing. “What does that mean?” she asks. “Victim
means when something bad happens to you, or perhaps there’s been a crime,” I explain. “Oh, I understand.” She nods. “I felt like a victim when my father was killed. It wasn’t his fault.” Was he shot? I ask. “Yes.” Her brother puts his hand on her shoulder.
Gun violence in Orange is rampant, disorienting and corrosive to the fabric of community. The prior month, there were eight shootings in one week, and two people were killed. Although neighboring Newark has chipped away at its murder rate, and Irvington has witnessed a remarkable drop in gun violence, Orange’s gun violence remains stubbornly persistent. This fact is startling, in part because the city is so small and in part because the violence is so concentrated on specific streets in the center of the city. The inability of the police to get a handle on the shootings is a source of great frustration for community members and reflects larger problems in the broken political system.
The City of Orange Township has long been mired in corruption, scandal and political mismanagement. In 2009, for example, Mayor Mims Hackett Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison on state charges of official misconduct, which ran concurrently with a nine-month term on federal bribery charges. In January 2017, the FBI raided Orange’s city hall, pursuing a range of crimes including theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion and money laundering. Two months after the block party and a spate of other shootings, Mayor Dwayne Warren removed the embattled police chief only to install his own brother as acting Chief of Police, a move that inspired little public confidence.
On this day, however, I absorbed the insidious nature of violence: the way it poisoned its way into this young girl’s life; the way she had already learned, at age seven, what it felt like to be a victim, even if she did not have the words to express it. Her father’s murder had become her reality, her experience. This school block party, with dozens if children and parents milling about, eating popcorn, shrieking as they propelled themselves skyward in the moonwalk, is an important assertion of normalcy.
The next card I explore with the brother/sister pair is Perseverance. I start to explain what it means when the little girl interrupts. “That means push on.” Yes, exactly, I agree. “I know what that means because when started at school, it was really hard, but I pushed on.” She pushed on. I was struck by the fact that she was instantly able to translate “perseverance,” while she struggled with the meaning of “victim.”
Now it is her brother’s turn and his cards are Recovery, Joy and Faith. He does not know what to think about recovery. The little sister volunteers: “That’s me! I recovered from the flu.” “How about you?” I ask the boy. “Do you think recovery connects to your father’s death?” “No, we have a different father,” he clarifies. “I was hit hard when my grandmother died,” he offers. “She and I were really close.” “Do you feel like you’ve recovered or you’re still recovering?” I ask. “Recovered,” he decides. “It was a year ago.”
Joy — the meaning is obvious to him. “I smile a lot. I bring joy to people,” he explains.
Faith — is also clear. “I believe in a better future.”
We chose a fourth, additional, clarifying card: Enlightenment. “This means gaining an understanding,” I explain. “He wants to be in the NBA,” the sister volunteers. “So for you, perhaps enlightenment will come when you learn what it takes to get into the NBA!” I suggest. The boy enthusiastically nods in agreement.
Fifty years after the Kerner report, the United States is more segregated than ever. This fact is nowhere more apparent than in Essex County, New Jersey, which is home to the wealthiest town in the state, Millburn, where the median income is $190,625 and the population is 71 percent white. Orange, also in Essex County, by comparison, has a median income of $35, 895 and is 72 percent black. Essex is also the county with the highest murder rate in the state, with most of the violence emanating from Newark and Irvington. Orange, a city of 30,000 wedged in between, is almost an afterthought in discussions about inequality and violence, and yet its struggles are emblematic of a larger national conversation on the corrosive nature of social inequality and the rising toll of gun violence.
Orange developed as an industrial city in the 19th century and was once famous as the hat-making capital of the United States. Its factories turned out that renowned symbol of the American West: the Stetson cowboy hat. By the 1970s, all of Orange’s large factories had shut down. In 1968, a six-lane sunken highway cut the city in half, fracturing its downtown and African-American and Italian middle class communities. Interstate I-280 lies only a block from the elementary school fair, a dramatic visualization of broader social indifference and barriers that truncate children’s potential. In 2004, the shutteringof Orange Memorial Hospital hollowed out the core of the city, exacerbating poverty, despair and its companion, violence.
Much of the gun violence emanates from the streets surrounding the hulking ruins of the abandoned hospital. The mounting death toll is largely overlooked in national conversations of more sensational events.
The statistics on gun deaths in Orange do not capture the way violence extends itself. It spreads through networks of kin and neighbors, friends and bystanders. Although some counseling may be available to immediate family members and survivors in the aftermath of a shooting, there is no recognition of the impact of extreme violence on the social fabric. People withdraw, harden themselves, lose trust. Children are on the front lines. Dawan Alford, a lifelong resident and young activist, commented at a community forum, “I know a 16-year-old boy whose friend was murdered. The kid was up crying all night, but the next day in school he was forced to take the scheduled standardized tests … When a soldier goes to war and sees trauma, they might be sent home on release. Their experience is recognized as PTSD. That’s what our kids are experiencing here, but it’s not acknowledged. Our young people have no wrap-around services. We don’t have psychologists. We are supposed to be accustomed to it.”
My colleague, Mindy Fullilove, has written, lectured, taught and thought deeply
about displacement and upheaval. She coined the term “rootshock” to describe “the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.” “All people,” she writes, “live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us to the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as beings caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages. Because of the interconnectedness of the net, if your place is destroyed today, I will feel it hereafter.” People in Orange are survivors of multiple kinds of displacement, both domestic and international, rooted in political and structural violence, and by both intent and neglect.
A major concern of Mindy and my project colleagues is the rise of the transit-oriented community development model that currently dominates northern New Jersey. This model threatens to displace lower-income residents, including the elderly, working class and new immigrant populations that cluster in older cities for their relatively affordable housing stock and proximity to bus lines. Often politicians and developers devalue existing economic activity and housing stock in postindustrial cities and posit that shuttered factories, transformed into luxury housing with access to rail lines, will attract wealthy outsiders. Rhetoric of urban renewal typically portrays existing lower-income neighborhoods as vacant, devoid of value and ripe for “improvement.” Development is perceived as something that emanates from outside the community, ignoring existing assets, vibrancy and diversity that often characterize affordable urban communities. For the past three years that I have worked in Orange, though, I have come to witness that joy and perseverance, like the oracle cards in my deck, accompany pain and hardship.
As part of my engagement with the community, I have been teaching English as a second language (ESL) for the past two years at Lanbi, a Haitian civic organization in Orange. Lanbi is the Creole word for conch and evokes the image of the Vodou priest Boukman, who rallied the slaves to revolt with a blast of the conch shell. Many members of Orange’s Haitian community arrived after the devastating earthquake of 2010, a catastrophe that Lanbi acknowledges each year on the January 12 anniversary. “After the quake,” noted Lanbi’s President Martial Bonhomme, “the people from the countryside in Haiti absorbed the people from the city who were dislocated and fed them. The media didn’t discuss this much, but the Haitian countryside pulled together to sustain the displaced. This is how it is in crisis: people pull together in solidarity. After the crisis subsides, we revert to old patterns and divisions, that’s just life. But remember the solidarity. It is our [Haitian] culture and history that gives us this tremendous strength.”
My experience with Lanbi and my understanding of Orange as a global crossroads provided me with some context to understand my next fortune-telling client. Although most of my clients are children at this elementary school fair, a few parents stop by my table to have their cards read.
The Fortune-Teller Meets the Ezili
A thin, haggard woman slips into the empty chair across from me. “Ask the Magic 8-Ball a yes or no question,” I invite her. “Will I find a job?” she asks. I rotate the ball. The die rises to the surface. “Don’t count on it,” the ball answers. The woman nods. This is clearly not her first setback, and she absorbs the bad news delivered via Mattel. “They don’t want me to work yet,” she reflects, an answer that surprises me. Rather than moving to the oracle cards, she starts explaining and teaching me about the Haitian spirits that are active and powerful forces in her life.
Ezili Freda is a leading presence. Freda is part of the Vodou pantheon, one of several female spirits who belong to a group called the Ezili. “They like to represent her as white,” the woman explains. “They give us permission to worship her [behind the façade of the Catholic deities],” she notes. Freda is a sensual and elegant, flirtatious and frustrated spirit and is associated with money and luck, love and luxury. My client gives me instructions on how to please Freda:
“You want to spray the area [around your altar], light candles and pray. Give her pink and white flowers, rose water, Pompeia lotion, sweets. She idolizes the mirror. She loves pink champagne — you can get a cheap bottle, $10 — she flips out!”
Freda is actively involved in my client’s life:
“I dream about her… her messages are flirtatious. She appears to me naked. I ask myself, ‘why is she naked? I’m not gay.’ But the spirits have no specific sex. They are all men and women.”
My ESL students at Lanbi are mostly middle-aged Haitian women who are devoutly Christian. They belong to different Pentecostal churches and are deeply opposed to any mention of Vodou, which they regard as an embarrassing vestige of the island’s past, a kind of devil worship. Here on the street, however, the deep African roots of the Haitian diaspora rise to the surface, including the religious framework that has sustained its people for half a millennium. I am reminded of the classic ethnography by Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, which describes “these female spirits [as] both mirrors and maps.” Brown explains that Vodou spirits “[make] the present
comprehensible and [offer] direction for the future … all the Vodou sprits clarify the options in people’s lives; and the Ezili do this especially well for women.”
A second spirit my client evokes is Ezile Danto, the hardworking, solitary, sometime raging mother. Danto dresses in blue and appears as the Mater Salvatoris, a Polish black virgin known as Our Lady of Czestochowa.
She has scars on her cheek, which Haitians trace back to the war for independence that she valiantly fought. Her tongue was cut out. “It seems that Danto was rendered speechless by her own people, people fighting on the same side” writes Karen McCarthy Brown, “people who could not trust her to
guard their secrets.”
Danto and Freda are two forces that guide my client through the uncertainties of everyday life. “They intervene in life … when you are feeling mushy, your mind tells you what you need and what you don’t need — they help you know,” she explains. “I dreamed of prosperity. That morning I caught the number 733. It proves they are listening. But you have to make sure you pay them. They broke my cell phone — it was broken in a strange way, so I know it was them.”
“The Haitian religion is very powerful,” she explained to me. “You need to acknowledge the spirits. They appreciate being noticed.”
“Like blades of grass pushing up between the bricks”
Sitting on the asphalt for a few hours, listening to children and their parents amid the joyful exuberance of the bouncy house, I heard about loss and struggle and witnessed the power of family and faith in sustaining hope.
Resilience is a word used with increasing frequency and casualness to describe the human response to hardship. Long used in disaster management, it is now being bandied about in a variety of disparate contexts, including the schoolroom, where a positive attitude, it is hoped, will allow underperforming children to thrive. But there is no thriving when your streets are gripped with gun violence that shows no sign of abating, when you cannot find a job, or when your parent dies before you reach the age of 10. Resilience suggests a kind of optimism: in the face of hardship, people will become stronger, better versions of themselves. In reality, children struggle to sleep and focus on standardized tests. Parents struggle with alcohol and despair. Hardship does not make people better. It weathers them, chips away at life expectancies, makes people more susceptible to illness and disease.
I learned anthropology in the Caribbean, the quintessential modern society, forged by conquest, slavery and exploitation. Sidney Mintz’s metaphor of African life in Caribbean society after slavery has stayed with me over the years. He described how African peoples’ struggle for freedom and dignity has always
been embattled in a hostile world, and yet peasant communities took root in the crevices of plantation society, “like blades of grass pushing up between the bricks.”
They pushed on.
Remember the solidarity, Martial Bonhomme urges. I watch the brother/sister pair, arms intertwined as they move together through the school fair. Not resilience, but perseverance lives here in this hardscrabble town, the tough blades of grass that refuse to be trampled. A bag of popcorn, a brother and sister walking hand in hand. Children running and laughing and dreaming on a hot June afternoon.
They push on.
I would like to thank ArtPlace America for supporting the Reverse Archaeology project and acknowledge my community partners, including Lanbi, Valley Arts, HANDS and The University of Orange, who enriched my experience and understanding. Thank you for your collegiality and partnership over the past three years. Special thanks to Darline Allen, Dawan Alford, Rachel Bland, Martial Bonhomme, Mindy Fullilove, Molly Kaufman, Rodrigue Israel, Mike Marlborough, Christopher Matthew, and Aubrey Murdock, who taught me so much about Orange.
1. In the late 1960s during a period of intense urban unrest and violence, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to produce an analysis of the roots of urban riots. The report it issued, commonly called “The Kerner Report,” determined that riots were caused by poor neighborhood conditions and limited labor market options for black Americans due to racism and discrimination. The Kerner Report recommended policy interventions that included targeted government investment in housing, education, employment and social insurance programs: its recommendations were largely ignored. https://www.brookings. edu/blog/up-front/2018/09/25/50-years-after-thekerner-commission-report-the-nation-is-still-grappling-with-many-of-the-same-issues/
The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of Social Science published a 50th anniversary retrospective (Volume 4, Issue 6, 2018), revisiting the Kerner report’s conclusions and considering the ongoing struggle for racial equity in the U.S. https://www.russellsage.org/news/new-rsf-issuefiftieth-anniversary-kerner-commission-report
2. If you include the Chinese population, Millburn is 90 percent white or Asian.
3. If you include the Latin American population, Orange is 94 percent black or Hispanic.
4. Her book Root Shock (2004) explores how postwar urban renewal projects in the U.S. fractured cities and devastated African American communities. Currently, my colleague Christopher Matthews is conducting an historical archaeology of Orange before Interstate I-280.
5. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World, 2004). p 11.
6. Joseph Barry and John Derevlany, Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime (St. Louis: Big River Publishers, 1987).
7. M. Darcy, “From High-Rise Projects to Suburban Estates: Public Tenants and the Globalized Discourse of Deconcentration,” Cities 35 (2013): 365–72.
8. Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkley: University of California Press, 2001) pp. 221–222.
9. Sidney W. Mintz, “From Plantations to Peasantries in the Caribbean,” in Caribbean Contours, ed. Sally Price (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1985) p.131.
Katherine T. McCaffrey teaches cultural anthropology at Montclair State University. Her research interests focus on social inequality and violence, its consequences, and resistance to it in Latin America and the United States. She examined a multi-decade-long movement to evict the U.S. Navy in her book, Military Power and Popular Protest: the U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico. More recently, she has been conducting participatory action field research among new immigrants and refugees in New Jersey.