Editor's note: This story first appeared on Maplewood Patch on September 13, 2011.
Diversity: multiple cultures, races, or other kinds of differences co-existing in one community.
Almost anyone in Maplewood can tell you diversity is practically our town motto, as in, “Maplewood’s diversity was a big reason we chose to move here!” Indeed, out of Maplewood’s total population of 23,867, we are 56% white, 35% African American (including those from the Caribbean), 3% Asian, and approximately 7% Latino, with about 3.5% identifying themselves as belonging to two or more races.
Segregation: diversity’s nemesis, a de facto separation of different cultures, races, etc., into specific geographic areas.
While few move to Maplewood for its wonderful segregation, no one who traverses our town from leafy Wyoming Avenue with its gracious homes to the slightly grittier, more urban border where Boyden Avenue arcs toward Union could deny that—superficially, at least—we're not as integrated as we'd like to think we are.
We even have nicknames for this reality-that-dare-not-speak its name: “Maplegood,” refers to the prosperous, mostly white area above Maplewood Village; “Maplewood” is the slightly more middle-class area extending from Ridgewood Road past Prospect Street and eastward; and “Maplehood” denotes the more predominantly black, working-class area below Springfield Avenue.
How does the town as a whole deal with the often fraught relationship between the warm and fuzzy ideal of diversity and a reality that for many looks like segregation? Is this an inevitable result of our country’s twisted socioeconomic legacy that we as individuals are powerless to change? How does it consciously and subconsciously affect each of us and the way we raise our children?
While “diversity” focuses on a plurality of cultures and identities, most view the relationship between black and white as the bottom line in Maplewood. This dichotomy—whether cultural, socioeconomic, or a combination thereof—is delineated in the minds of many locals by Springfield Avenue, which separates Maplewood’s more predominantly black south side from its more predominantly white north side.
If you look at Maplewood’s history, however, this “two-Maplewoods” phenomenon reflects the fact that the area below Springfield Avenue, known as the Hilton district, was originally a part of Union that joined with the former Jefferson Village to create Maplewood sometime in the early 20th century. The Hilton area has some physical differences from the other side of town: lot and house sizes are typically smaller, and, according to census data, there is a higher concentration of rental properties here.
Mayor Vic DeLuca, who has lived in Hilton for more than 15 years, pointed out another geographic reason behind the “two-Maplewood” phenomenon.
“Maplewood is laid out differently than a Montclair or a South Orange, where the main arteries go east to west [uniting the town]," said DeLuca. Many of our roads go north to south — Prospect St., Valley St., Maplewood Avenue, Ridgewood Road,” creating a traffic flow that doesn't reach Hilton — except for a few short blocks of Prospect.
In defense of the people who arrive a DeHart park for their child’s first soccer game and marvel, “I didn’t even know this was still part of Maplewood!” DeLuca points out, “There’s really no reason to travel that way and no easy way to do it.”
This is why the town government has made a concerted effort to foster development on Springfield Avenue, founding the Springfield Avenue Partnership to run events such as , “to pull people from all over Maplewood to the Avenue, make them realize that it’s a place they could get goods and services, and to connect people from all parts of the community,” DeLuca said.
However, the mayor acknowledged that many popular town events — an infamous thread on Maplewoodonline targeted Maplewoodstock — tend to be less than diverse, making it imperative for civic leaders to ask themselves: “How do we reach everybody? If we expect diversity, we should hold ourselves to it.”
Gary Shippy, organizer of Maplewoodstock, said his event has made "a very conscious effort to diversify." Said Shippy, "I happened to know the gentleman who started the thread [on MOL], so I called him up and asked him to be on our committee. He has been on it for two years, and he knows that part of his role is to look out for the whole community." Shippy noted that musical genres now include jazz, reggae, and funk along with blues, country, folk-rock, and "good old guitar rock 'n roll" and that featured acts in the last two years have included Maya Acuzena, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, The Revelations featuring Tre Williams and Raul Malo. Shippy said that the committee is also looking to "create a balance" in its selection of local acts as well.
Longtime Hilton neighborhood resident Maria Heningburg agreed with DeLuca and Shippy on the need to continually work toward diversification, noting that addressing the problem of integregation may involve more outreach than one might expect. She recalls the time she chaperoned her son’s class trip into the Village a decade ago and was surprised to realize that “there were children in the class who had never even been to Maplewood Village.”
Heningburg is also a realtor who shows many homes in Maplewood and South Orange. She has noticed that clients moving into Maplewood are more diverse than in the past and include more Asian and Latino families. She feels that the modern reality of residential segregation is more economic than racial, and we are in a very economically as well as racially diverse community.
Although progress in achieving a truly integrated community may be further off than many of us like to think, it is hard to deny that things have improved in the past decade. For example, when Heningburg’s college-graduate daughter, who is biracial, attended Tuscan elementary school in the mid 90s, Heningburg said that she and the four African American students in the class experienced a fair amount of exclusion from their white peers. Her younger children, however, had a different experience several years later at Seth Boyden School, beginning with her oldest son who began at the school in its first year of inception as a demonstration school. "Because it was such a diverse school, we didn’t experience segregation," said Heningburg.
Carol Buchanan, a Maplewood and Hilton resident for over thirty years, agreed that while there may be challenges living in a community that encompasses people from very different cultures, one of the things she appreciates most about the Hilton area is: "It’s a true gift to be able to have neighbors from all over the world."
Buchanan is the current president of the Hilton Neighborhood Association, which started approximately 16 years ago when the demographics of Maplewood started changing. As DeLuca points out, Maplewood has only recently been evolving into the left-leaning, Democratic community we know now; in the early 90s, said DeLuca, it was still more predominantly white and the elected leadership was Republican.
Around that time, many of the original German and Polish immigrants who made up the Hilton area began to pass away and African Americans and recent immigrants from the Caribbean began buying their reasonably priced homes. When this triggered the familiar phenomenon of “white flight,” a group of Hilton neighbors started informally meeting to strategize ways to persuade their neighbors not to panic and to embrace diversity. Buchanan is a strong supporter of the occasionally maligned “Maplehood.” She acknowledged that many Maplewoodians may never come over to this side of town, but “hopefully when they do, they’re pleasantly surprised.” Her husband, Jim Buchanan, agrees: “Hilton looks better than it ever has.”
Indeed, the Hilton area is experiencing a certain amount of reverse-integration, with more new families of all races and ethnicities taking advantage of its reasonably priced homes, lower taxes, diversity, and neighborly feel. I ask Carol Buchanan if residents of this “other” side of Maplewood stand to benefit from the town’s continued efforts to make Springfield Avenue more of a unifying destination instead of a dividing line. She responds, “You know, I don’t feel like we’re the inferior side of town that has to show everyone we’re okay anymore. We’re doing just fine!”
Nancy Gagnier, executive director of the Community Coalition on Race, and Audrey Rowe, the Coalition's Director, also see the positives in Maplewood's striving toward integration.
"We have diversity and we're working on integration," said Gagnier. "There are some levels of success on residential integration if you look at the census track. Are we living next to one another? Yes."
The ongoing struggle, said Rowe, is social integration. "We're working on bringing people together over interests that they naturally share." Rowe points to art and music as uniting interests. She says that when people "learn each others names and a few things about each other" — plus common interestes — "the barriers melt away."
The funny thing, said Rowe, is that residents of Maplewood — and its sister town South Orange — are so "hard on ourselves." She explained, "We have so much going on here when you look at the surrounding areas. We're not perfect, we're continuing to strive, but we've got to cut ourselves some slack."
Helena Holgersson-Shorter is a freelance editor and writer who lives in "Maplehood" with her husband, three daughters, and two dogs. You can read more of her writing on her blog, http://hhsglossolalia.wordpress.com/, or follow her on Twitter @hhsglossolalia.