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Brick City #2 – Crush the Suburbs

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Today I trekked out of the Ironbound and into Downtown Newark in search of a cafe I found online called The Coffee Cave.

I crossed over McCarter Highway (which is only sort of a highway) and onto Broad St., which is a street I’ve driven down plenty of times to get to Newark Penn Station, but have only once before actually set foot on. It was a clear change from the decidedly European aesthetic of the Ironbound only a few blocks away; the people around me stopped being primarily Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian and it quickly became apparent this was a predominantly Black neighborhood.

It felt a lot more like a bustling city, too, as everything was a lot more hectic and noisy and walking around required zig-zagging and circumnavigating other pedestrians. But it also, quite frankly, felt more like a ghetto with giant, colorful, somehow cheap-looking signs over 99-cent and clothing stores and nail salons. I think if you have a picture of what an American ghetto (or at least an East Coast American ghetto) looks like in your mind, it looks like Broad Street in Newark.


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It’s pretty shitty and annoying to me also that some part of me still associates this sort of image with fear. Driving down this street in the past, I can completely recall feeling maybe not exactly freaked out, but at least like I was glad I wasn’t staying long. Walking through the area, however, felt fine, felt good. It felt like a city. It felt alive and exciting and even though I quite honestly felt like a minority in the area, I’m pretty sure I was the only one there who even thought about that nonsense.

I walked down Broad and turned left onto Market St., then right onto to Halsey St., where things were quiet again and there were more trees around and a more stately design to the buildings. I was heading toward the area around Rutgers University, so it’d started looking pretty much like the area around a university tends to look and here, again, unsurprisingly, the make up of people was vastly different. There were a lot of Black and Hispanic people, but then there were also White students and Asian students and students of other, varying races. I walked past a group of students, led by their professor on an outing of some kind and then by a hip-lookin’ restaurant/art gallery called The Art Kitchen that I imagine I’ll check out another day.

Eventually I found The Coffee Cave. It was down a staircase, hence the “cave” part. Sitting in front of the establishment next to the cafe was a burly-looking Black guy with some paper (maybe a map) in his lap and, as I crossed the street to make my way into the cafe, he shouted at me:

“What street is this?”

“Uhhh,” I said, remembering, “Halsey.”

He nodded as he returned his attention to his paper.

There was nobody in The Coffee Cave aside from the owner and a woman, but that was probably more to do with the weird hour I was there (I do everything at weird hours) than anything else. I looked at the menu for a bit because I usually go for stupid novelty coffees with loads of chocolate and sugar in them, but it just seemed easier to get the double espresso, which was at the top of the menu, especially because I could see the espresso machine was the real deal. There’s an awesome dedication to legit espresso in the Ironbound due to its Italian/Portuguese influence and I get the feeling some of that has spread elsewhere into Newark. I got some velvet cake, too. There was an upstairs that looked nice, but it seemed weird to sit up there by myself so I sat at the bar. (I did walk around later and found it to be a surprisingly spacious place. There’s not only the upstairs, but also a big dance floor and stage in the back.)

“Is this a weird time to come in?” I asked.

“Well, I’m prepping for a party at night. We have a lot of parties at night here,” the owner replied. “And students usually come in after their classes. But, no, this is a fine time to come in.”

I asked him if there was a schedule and he directed me to his website (http://www.cavevibes.com/), which he says he doesn’t update too often, but it links to his Facebook, which he regularly adds stuff to. He said they have live music and DJs and open mics. I mentioned I wanted to get involved with some open mics.

“Oh yeah? What do you do?” he asked. I told him I played guitar and sang and I tried stand-up once and might try that again. He told me they weren’t really going to hold open mics after September, but then he called over to the woman and asked: “You’re doing an open mic October 13th [I think it was], right?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Could a musician come and plug in here and play?” he asked.

“Sure, of course.”

“How about comedians?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said.

I told them I’d probably want to get involved, but right now I’d just moved to the Ironbound and was getting settled and stuff.

“Where’d you move from?” the owner asked.

“Montclair,” I said.

“Oh, so you must be feeling it’s a really different energy around here.”

This would be the kind of statement I might’ve once dismissed as cheesy or imagined, but, thing is, I totally do feel that. I had kind of a weirdly wonderful time just walking through Newark and then having an espresso and a brief chat. (Incidentally, the espresso was fucking great and the velvet cake was really good too, though a little “wet,” for lack of a better word, in a few spots.) I know that some of this comes down to me just being happy to be independent again after having lived with my parents for a ridiculous year and some of it may very well just be me at a stage in my life where I’m actually willing to feel optimistic, but Newark sort of seems oddly lovely to me. I hope this doesn’t just sound obnoxious and misguided coming from a white(ish) kid who grew up (mostly) in the suburbs and I’m not denying the fucked up parts of Newark are there too. On my walk, I saw several homeless people sleeping on benches; walked through areas where the sun cooked garbage, making the stink all the more significant; and I saw a number of scrawny, burned-out looking folk, including one really sad guy was definitely in the throes of the junkie lean. But (and sorry if this is fucked up to say), for better or for worse, this is all life and all aspects of a city in transition, which is what Newark feels like to me and what makes it so strangely attractive. It doesn’t feel like NYC does now; though New York is still admittedly pretty goddamned filthy, it manages to give off an extremely safe and sanitized vibe. The opinion that people who’ve never been to New York have of it still being kind of scary and also having this bohemian, arty vibe is almost wholly inaccurate. Despite what all fifty “Law & Order” shows might want you to think, it’s definitely not scary and anything artistic is all but swallowed up in a glut of things very much like itself.

This could be hyperbole and is admittedly very possibly a premature statement so please feel free to educate me, but Newark feels to me like what a lot of people think New York City is supposed to be, which is probably what NYC once was, but that’s hardly the case any longer. Newark genuinely still is a city in transition; cool and interesting stuff seems to be springing up in different pockets all over the place and the specter of it being dangerous and scary still hangs over it (I’m well aware that it’s a massive-ass city and I’m sure there’s parts of it I’d still feel I shouldn’t be in). But that’s also the reason it doesn’t feel like, unlike NYC, that it’s up its own ass. New York is like a colossal high school; everyone’s in a clique and I don’t seem to fit into any of them. Newark doesn’t even have the luxury of being able to act like it’s up its own ass because, generally, if an individual not personally familiar with the city even has an opinion about it in the first place, it’s either, one, it’s got an airport in it, or, two, it’s that place where all the murder and car theft happens. It’s still got such a stigma attached to it that I think it’s rarely the type of place you’d broadcast living in to others, unlike NYC, which I still on occasion name drop (as I’m doing within this very sentence) because I grew up there for eight years. And I think that maybe translates into why I feel no pretension from people here. Even if I wouldn’t label every interaction I’ve had here as friendly, necessarily, they’ve at least all felt honest. (Even the guy who mugged me said he was just doing his job and the two bullets he left in my side were warm and welcoming. HOHO, JUST SOME BRICK CITY HUMOR FOR YOU.)

I also recognize that if I see Newark as a city in transition, that means it has the potential to one day become exactly like NYC, up its own ass and dominated by the rich (which, usually, also means the White), but I’d like to believe that it can somehow be both an attractive, thriving city, as well as retain its character. It’s just so cool to me how vastly different neighborhoods here can be just by walking fifteen minutes in one direction, but each neighborhood bleeds a bit into the next and they influence one another. It’s awesome how it sometimes has that big city vibe; after the cafe, I went further up Broad St. and, looking up and down the street, felt that Newark totally does have that “holy shit, I’m in a big fucking city” factor that NYC is meant to have a monopoly on. But then it’s great how the Ironbound has a somewhat quaint, European flavor, is full of independent businesses and (far as I’m aware) doesn’t have a single fast food restaurant in it. (A Quizno’s opened up at one point apparently, but eventually closed down.) And, on the whole, it’s really nice to see, in many parts of Newark, people of all ages on their stoops talking or just enjoying the weather.

I’ll admit this was only really my second day of checking Newark out and a lot of my feelings about the city might, again, just come down to me enjoying my independence to the point that having a short conversation in a cafe is enough to brighten my day. This city might wear on me eventually. I may even grow to kind of hate it, but, even so, I do feel that just walking the streets of Newark today definitely drove home the feeling that cities are where life happens. Suburbs are like babyproofed civilization. They kind of make sense if you’ve got a little kid you’re worried about keeping safe, but I even question that. What’s the point of growing up in a place that basically withholds stimulus? I mean, why else would all those girls from controlling Christian families in Utah end up going into porn? The suburbs engender a notion that the outside world is dangerous and holds nothing for you and that the small inside space you’ve set aside for yourself is the only place you should need to go for entertainment, stimulation, interaction, or love.

The funny thing is that if I go outside my house in Montclair (which, for a suburb, is meant to be pretty happening), I still feel pretty empty and lonely by the time I get back, so the suburbs seem to prove their own formula as I find I’m (marginally) happier just sitting around in the few interiors I find familiar, surrounded by all manner of distracting technologies. In Newark, on the other hand, it’s already become apparent that my apartment is the most boring place I’ve seen. It’s functional, sure, but walking around the city, even if I don’t go too far or if the interactions I have aren’t all that deep, is energizing. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it lets me know that I should be outside, that my home is mostly just for sleep.

In conclusion, I think suburbia is what kills Americans. And it must be razed to the ground.

Written by Joe

September 7th, 2012 at 1:23 am

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