Wednesday, January 28, 2009


“Minisupermercado” Does Not Signify “Local Market”

A Bloomfield Redux From The Middle Son of the Inner Suburb in the Micromegalopolis Where Density Does Not Signify Destiny,
Just Like Pretty Much Dense

50,000 inhabitants is the minimum amount currently needed to qualify for “city” status in the U.S., which as a kid I believed was the ultimate goal of all lil‘ burgs. A village was just a loser runt of a city to me vying for its own dominion, however unsuccessfully. Everything wants to grow up, doesn’t it? I certainly did. Bloomfield, New Jersey has 48,000 now and had 48,000 my entire life, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming while I was growing up. I knew that that island with the skyline right across the river once had just a few thousand Lenape living there not so long ago and look at it now! City Island in the Bronx even cheated a little by incorporating the “City” part into their name as a way to jump start their imminent status improvement because they just knew their port would one day rival New York’s down river (be wary of all cities with “City” as part of their name, premature Manifest Density always asphyxiates itself) and I thought we were all supposed to shoot for same star. My grandfather grew up eating goat’s eye soup because that was all his father could afford (maybe poor Calabresi shouldn’t have had 8 children, you say?) and through pure immigrant boot-strapping amassed a real estate fortune that at one time included 90% of all commercial buildings in Bloomfield, most of which he built himself. He claimed when he was a boy he made a pact with himself to eventually own Bloomfield's one and only skyscraper, which he did. To this day it remains the “Frank M. Leo Building” a decade after his death. He also built the street “Leo Terrace” and I was always troubled why he didn’t call it “Leo Avenue” or “Leo Boulevard”. It felt like he was selling himself short. C’mon Pops! We’re takin’ it all on, aren’t we? I was sure one day we’d do it, we’d cross that 50,000 pop mark and then there’d be no turning back. NYC watch your ass, Bloomfield’s hot on your heels.

However, in fourth grade I stopped growing at the same pace as the other kids. I was a
bruiser up until then who wheeled and dealed at the back of the line with the bullies, but month by month the nuns began moving me up towards the front -- where the official shrimps and fags cavorted. One by one over the years I was forced to improve my jump shot over my lay-up and it didn’t help any that I had a lisp. If “Chrissy the Sissy” was to keep trudging ahead with my inherent Manifest Density philosophy wherein all things get bigger, I’d write myself right out of this script. Time to find new theory.

Fortunately, my grandfather also built a children’s library and an adult’s library right across the park from my house and they were both connected via a secret underground tunnel which I was privy to all the secrets thereof. This is how you did it: enter children’s library sometime before dusk and then slip into the tunnel on your way to the bathroom; wait there in a nook until both libraries close; enter the adult library all for yourself (witness here the early stages of “adult“ morphing into a taboo word), bust gloriously out of the “emergency only“ doors when done, blame bad “public school kids”. This is where I worked my theory through.

My first (self-instigated) Manifest Density doubts came in the encyclopedia racks where I learned about all the failed attempts of non-cities like City Island, NY; City Island, IA; City Island, PA; the countless City Island, FL‘s, and the Carson City type ghost town outposts as well as premonitions from the opposite direction of all those cities that in fact earned their four star status but subsequently shrank back down to "town" yet were unable
to ever return to the green, like Camden now and Detroit soon. I uncovered the fail-safe compromise: work “town“ into your name rather than “city” in the event that one day you‘ll need to get back, like Clifton, Trenton, and George of Washington. It was here I became a fan of The Who when I heard Pete Townshend‘s name as “peat, town‘s end“. Edgy.

There were also books here of survey’s from Bloomfield’s legacy dating back 200 years and each book was as big as my little body. I’d spread them open on the library floor and learn the odd truths about the lumpen land my blood had made its mark on. Bloomfield was once a sprawling area as big as Newark. In 1868 a portion of town called “Montclair” proposed building a train to New York City because they believed that’s where the shit was gonna go down. The rest of the Bloomfielders found this preposterous, “New York City?! What are you crazy? Why would anyone want to travel to New York City when we have the ever elegant Newark right down the street?” Montclair seceded. They built their train to NYC, Bloomfield built theirs to Newark and now Manhattanites aren’t afraid of risking their reps by admitting they know someone in Montclair, yet Bloomfield is still a bourgie suburb of Detroit to most.

While I was young, Bloomfield was part of the “Pasta Triangle” now forever memorialized by the Sopranos. In fact, Bloomfield is the first town Tony Soprano requests as his turf in episode 1, season 1. Though these peeps were from the Boot, they were anything but Italian nationals. Word that Garibaldi had just united the Kingdom of Italy began reaching the villages these Southern “Italians” once came from as they were already busy embarking for the New World. The colors of the Italian flag therefore were not theirs, nor was the modern and distantly ordained Florentine based Italian language which had yet to be officialized by the Accademia della Crusca. This is why they took to the new tongue and red, white, and blue with such jingoistic zeal: these things were more theirs than Garibaldi’s Sardinian kings ever were (and of course as things go, by generation two the Italian flag had become more Italian-American than Italian proper and the pop culture
the GI‘s left in Italy had people thinking America was the super cool -- It -- all the way up to the Vietnam War).

Same goes for the Irish of the Pasta Triangle (Nutley and Belleville were the other two villes, and Poles made up the missing third ethnicity, but other than their unfortunate Slavic style I blame for the 80s, their overall presence was much less garish and imposing than the aforementioned two). My great grandfather on the Irish side made sure the Customs official stamped his new passport as having him arrive from the “Free State of Ireland“. It was all still fresh, and when one third of the Irish flag represents Cromwell and another represents the faux-unity between the feuding parties, of course they’re also gonna eat up the new flag and tongue with the same fanaticism as the “Italians”. This was all finally theirs.

But I digress, none of these people lived in Bloomfield when Montclair seceded and none of them live there now. In 1868 Bloomfield was made up of Germans who’d just fled their own potato famine, and the descendants of Robert Treat’s pilgrims from New Haven and victors of New England’s King Philip’s War who had come to establish a “New Ark” rather than join the imperialistic Connecticut Charter whose Manifest Destiny towards the Hudson was about to get them in hot waters with the Provence of New York‘s Manifest Destiny towards the Connecticut River -- bail out of it in neutral Jersey where they seek no more land. The books tell us the Marquis de Lafayette thought Robert Treat’s Connecticutians did such a marvelous job with New Ark he called it “The Pearl of the Americas” yet in 1812, the same year NYC broke ground on De Witt‘s world altering grid plan, Bloomfield separated from Newark and Manifest Density kicked into high limbo (I‘m sure you already know the entire State of New Jersey was even partitioned off from New York in a poker deal lost by King James II, the Duke of York, to Carteret at the end of the 17th Century).

Now the Pasta Triangulese of Bloomfield have given way to Latinos of every paese, the Poles became Russians after Glasnost, the “Blacks of Europe” Irish have been exchanged for Blacks period, and Filipinos, Lebanese, and former Upper West Siders cum parents fill in the gaps in between. Through all the changes, however, Bloomfield is still Bloomfield is still Bloomfield. A Bloomfielder now deduces, traduces, and loses as a Bloomfielder always has, be he German or Puerto Rican. Seems like tardo in the soil you say? Well first and foremost, all of their falterings are done with such damn character that we excuse and even rely upon their tardoness. Secondly, I’d say our inability to box our decisions up within any logical casement lies in the topography, not the soil. Montclair is the exception. It sits on the ridge of the Watchung Mountains and is hence able to monitor the progress of Manhattan’s skyline better than the rest of us, thereby keeping its provincialism in check. Newark sits at the base of the ridge on the edge of the great impenetrable Meadowlands swamp and hence had nowhere to grow but longitudinally up and down the Passaic River where it developed it’s own veritable Micromegalopolis. Hop on Route 21 North, the sprawl’s bizarre transverse along the Passaic River whose eastern views of what could have been NYC are unfortunately blocked by the very last ripple of Appalachians. There you’ll find little evidence another urbane option exists like anywhere (super) close. This is it, the Paterson-Passaic-Newark-Elizabeth “NYC who?“ Micromegalopolis!

The City of Paterson was founded by Alexander Hamilton to harness energy from the Great Falls. You’ve never been? Shame on you, second tallest waterfalls this side of the Mississip! They were strictly off-limits Hessian territory during my youth where the base was littered with condoms, conversion van seats minus van, empty 40‘s, and anything that no longer looked like something was believed to have been sacrificed goats’ heads. Get hip to NJ debate tectonics: a) Hessians spray-paint iron crosses on the rocks of the Falls, b) locals think they’re swastikas, c) punks defend Hessians with the argument that the iron cross is just a symbol of pride, not racism, d) Hessians return stealthily by night to add arms to the iron crosses turning them into swastikas after being embarrassingly informed their symbol wasn’t necessarily Nazi after all. Mexicans and Ecuadorians own the Falls now and though they’ve improved the furniture slightly with plastic lawn chair semi-disposables, the littering of soda cans, junk food wrappers, and babies everywhere brings with it a more insidious form of progress stalled gray depression. This is better amigos?

Hamilton hired Pierre L'Enfant to lay out the plans for Paterson. The governing board of the project don't get it, fire 'em. L’Enfant takes his plans to Washington DC. Voila. Imagine.

Moving south, hop off 21 for a slow cruise through the City of Passaic’s 1940’s era built-for-cruising downtown circular boulevard that makes a continuous loop around the business district not simply possible, but inevitable. No prob, you’ll need it. Passaic had it’s brief go with Manifest Density for a stint following the 1946 launch of the DuMont Television Corporation’s first commercial television network in the world. How the demographics happened after is a mystery, but my guess is it’s the spirit of channel surfing anthropomorphized come home to haunt. English is the mother tongue here for only 30% of the pop. Spanish speakers whatever, they intermix with a huge community of Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Christian Ukrainians, and Gujarati Indians exiled from East Africa, yes. Both Paterson and Passaic are also first stop 'burb starter posts for Dominicans movin’ on up out of Washington Heights. I’m rolling the dice they move back to El Alto by generation three. Don’t stop at any of the region’s minisupermercados though if you’re looking for local delicacies, they tend to be kinda what they claim to be: paired down supermarkets with all the trappings and wrappings of mass produced America, just fewer. Do however hit up Craigslist for weird things you didn’t know you needed before heading out and rent a truck first because more often than not you'll find yourself directed to some dude’s house in Passaic.

At the end of 21 on the southern tip of the Micromegalopolis lies the City of Elizabeth, last bastion of Treat’s Connecticut farmers and bizarre replica of Passaic -- Latino center surrounded by Orthodox Jew ring with weird dudes that sell everything sellable on Craigslist aboding on the outskirts. By Elizabeth we’ve made it beyond both the gnosis view-blocking Appalachian piedmont of Passaic and Paterson and the endless swamp separating Newark from the Hudson that leaves Newark with nowhere to go but hubris or sink in the muck -- and finally we've got a straight shot at the Apple! Sort of, problem, course prob, the path thereto from this standpoint takes us across Staten Island and read that word again -- “Staten” comes from the Dutch for “city” and aren’t we now back where we started with imploded Manifest Density? There are no cities on that island, just villages incorporated into one they don't even wanna be incorporated into! No, city is not ours from this vantage. Staten Island is another quicksand and hence we must make do with what we have here in Jerz as Jerz proper, not a connected extension of NYC swathe, rather something uniquely our own. Before heading back to Bloomfield to figure out just what that may be though, let’s stop by Newark’s lusophonic Ironbound section for a glass of cabernet and sprite for some more Micromegalopolis paradox. During the 1950’s and early 60’s Port Newark was sacked with Portuguese docksmen escaping Oliviera Salazar‘s regime. When they arrived they rooted themselves in what was then the cheapest neighborhood in Newark, the Ironbound (bound by train tracks). July 12th, 1967 rolls in, the Portuguese've just gotten settled, Irish-Italian cops beat a black cab driver senseless, the riots explode killing nearly 30 and evacuating half the population -- the half with money and industry. The Portuguese weren’t ready to leave yet though, they just got here. During the six days of riots the Portuguese held vigil with shotguns fixed atop the tracks separating the Ironbound from the rest of Newark: neither cops nor rioters would enter Ironbound that week. Now, Ironbound is the most expensive neighborhood to own a house in in Newark. Fantastic, but Salazar dies a year later and the Portuguese stop coming. I should qualify something germane here, these Portuguese were not cosmopolitan city-folk from Porto or Lisbon, there were Old World docksmen from the sticks. This note is important because, though the Portuguese from Portugal stopped coming, the neighborhood continued growing -- only now with Portugueseish speaking Brazilians and Cape Verdeans. They say there are still Welsh speaking communes deep in Patagonia. Imagine if a mother-tongued modern American English speaker headed to the pampa to set up shop because, well, Welsh have something in common with England, don’t they? It’s weird like that: tiny little pre-caliphate white people cohabiting with busty New World Afro-Germanic-indigenous-Latino mixes with two distant cousin tongues as disparate as Cornish from Newyorican. The bar we’ve stopped at is on Ferry Street and it’s called “Adega”, but quit your ogling at the chimerical scene if you wanna make it back to Bloomfield alive. And erase your minds of any possibility of getting one of these waitresses to hop on the PATH train back to the city with you, I’ve already tried a thousand times (thrice to be exact).
“The city? What city? Plainfield? Harrison? Montclair? What city?”
“New York City.”
“New York! My god no, I never go there…one day, one day I’ll go there. Maybe during Christmas for the holiday lights!”
Twisted. From favela all the way to Ferry Street and the topography of the Micromegalopolis still hampers the most inertia driven trajectories. Twisted. There is a New Jersey guid’ in me that just can’t let it rest. I know there are knock-out drop-dead Persian chicks fulfilled in their family homestead sifting surgeon guts with relatives as they’ve done for centuries that do not need me to save them through discothèque tonight -- or ever -- simply because they’re blazing, but I just can’t let it go like I can’t let it go that these Brazilianas are content to call it quits on Ferry Street.

So back to the Bloomfield between Montclair on the hill and Newark in the swamp, in the Garden State (" an immense barrel, filled with good things to eat, and open at both ends with Pennsylvanians grabbing from one end and the New Yorkers from the other") of New Jersey stuck between the cancering behemoths, between both American Heartland proper and New York City-State, we head with our tail between our legs, our spirit anxious to leap back across the River, but our head too testy to give up the impossible equation of this incredible Near and Far. The bar we’ll go to here is called my parent’s medicine cabinet in the biggest house of an inner-suburban town scored cheaply during the days of white flight and going cheaply yet again in this era of real estate short sales -- the manor of the manure, my mother’s joked -- where I'll tell you more things about what it’s like to grow up Irish-Italo-American with blacks on one side and wasps on the other, growth stunted at 5"9' like the tallest Bolivian from the highest mount or the shortest Dutchman from the lowest quag, a midling, not handsome enough to get anything without working for it, nor grotesquely Rasputinesque wherein only magic would meet my means, what it’s like being born the middle son in this gateway state on the outskirts of the Micromegalopolis where the NYC skyline pops into view at any interval reminding us, vanishing just as quickly allowing us to forget and get on with it. Polishing off my elder brother’s bottle of Jameson and washing it down with the blackberry brandy collecting dust behind it that generally only rears its head during eggnog season or when I pine for non-forthcoming explanations, I rethink “Leo Terrace” until it’s become the perfectly succinct Old World/New World message/symbol I need it to be. There must be a reason why Gramps didn’t call it “Leo Avenue”. I start with the street sign which truth be told only reads “Leo Terr.” Did I inherit my word hang-up from him? Did he come across this English word for "street" taken from an Italian word that means "veranda" and realize that the English improved upon an Italian word by bringing it back to whence it came? A “terrazzo” in Italian no longer touches the terra. In fact, hovering far above deems it quite the opposite. A terrace that’s a street, however, is thee urban synonym for earth. This is how I’ve packaged it: Francesco Mauro Leo, the Bloomfielder with the NYC skyline in vision, left me a sign that I need to prod things in a New World way while leaving them free to be what they be as one does in the Old World. Francesco Mauro Leo, the Bloomfielder with the NYC skyline blocked from view, left me something much more straightforward, “Leo Terra” is “we piss on trees like all cats do”.


Treva Jackson said...

well you describe yourself perfectly!
wow chris.. wow.. i need to connect with you again. some how you always had enough sense and goodness within to be truthful and yet still very very wild. I don't know if it means much to you but I am relieved to see you are writing alot because you are powerfully talented in my eyes. Do you remember me? Right before I left NYC. remember how viscerated my heart was? The long ass bus ride through jersey that ended in tears.. oi vey.I hope you remember me.
PS: i had a baby

Chris Leo said...

Treva Jackson! THEE Treva Jackson! Singer of TREVA JACKSON and COURAGE! Last stop on the 7 train, apartment full of Buddhists, grew a bush 'cause you wanted something to grab hold of, hawking jewelry for pennies in the Diamond District together and blowing it on leopard print undies to dance around in at that flop house on the West Westside, move to the desert for a zillion years and have a baby TREVA JACKSON?!?! "Cigarettes in my coffin/cigarettes I'm coughin'..." xoxo

objetpetit said...

Man, I was so bummed to find out that I had missed The Van Pelt reunion shows. I actually let out a slight whimper to no avail (my computer has yet to console me). I'm really glad you're still making music and writing. I'll try to make up for the missed shows by catching your next reading. All the best.