Can we read history in a town's landscape?
Jackson’s description of Optimo City, with its bustling Main Street and sense of its own history, reminded me immediately of my town, Manasquan, N.J. It got me thinking, though, how having a town with its own private, locally-owned businesses has become something of an economic luxury in communities. Additionally, if the ideal city would have a landscape that represented its history, what history, exactly, are we talking about? Are there other people's histories that are excluded from the landscape and how do we read that?
Manasquan is located on the northern end of the 130 miles of New Jersey’s shoreline, occupying a little over one mile of beach and extending westward another three miles. It’s a small town that you can easily circumnavigate on a bike in about 20 minutes. City folk flood it during the summer, but it has an extremely robust year-round community.
Jackson writes that the ideal city would have its history written in its architecture, in the very layout of its streets. This certainly holds true for my town, whose Main Street is loosely organized around the courthouse and the Manasquan Savings Bank. But other structures bespeak its history and its complicated present: the proliferation of auto-body shops and hardware stores always represent to me that this was for a while a working-class town, though those families are getting pushed out because of gentrification. The expensive boutiques now tell a story about a solidly middle-class town, which caters to wealthy people from Northern New Jersey and New York during the busy season.
I always think about the history that you can’t see from just the town’s landscape, however, which Jackson doesn’t go into as much. The town’s name itself is a Native American word meaning “stream of the island of the squaws,” ostensibly referring to the river which acts as a natural border for our town. I often imagine, while sitting near the ocean or the marshy lagoon, what the landscape looked like before Main Street ever existed, before Europeans ever even came. The symbol for the Manasquan Savings Bank is a Native American’s head, and this kind of imagery proliferates in the town. While some might view it as the kind of history infused in the physical landscape of the place itself that Jackson advocates for, I think it is more representative of the histories which we don’t talk about, and which are wiped out and built over with new landscapes.
Likewise, the kind of “harmonious and restful and dignified business section” (165) that Jackson describes has become less and less economically viable for poorer communities, and a vibrant downtown district with locally-owned, idiosyncratic shops has become something of a luxury. At least where I am from, ugly chain stores have usurped the locally-owned businesses in poorer neighborhoods, while the wealthier areas have been able to sustain the smaller shops, giving it a stronger local flavor and civic life.
It recalled the scene in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, where Coleman Silk’s sister, Ernestine, is lamenting the loss of the little downtown of East Orange, which has given way to chain stores: “I used to be able to do all my Christmas shopping on Main Street. You know what we’ve got today? We’ve got a ShopRite. And we’ve got a Dunkin’ Donuts. And there was a Domino’s Pizza, but they closed. Now they’ve got another food place. And there’s a cleaners. But you can’t compare quality. It’s not the same....All of life was there in little East Orange” (331). Small businesses are no match for the forces of global capital, and only the businesses in economically secure neighborhoods are the ones that can endure--and even that is not a sure bet.
I love walking from my house on North Main Street, down through the business section, past the Acme parking lot where the day-laborers wait in the heat and the cold, and out to the ocean. It’s a beautiful town, but as with many beautiful urban landscapes, it is beautiful because of its privilege. There is an entire race of people now extinct which haunts my town's landscape, as it haunts America's, but which we continue to mythologize in our public spaces.
(photo my own)