The Invasion of the 'Other'
Freehold, New Jersey. The current population is approximately 11,000 made up of mostly white Anglo, Hispanic and Asian. The Anglos are living mostly on the outer ring of the small town with the minorities mostly found around Main Street, near the center of town. Freehold was settled in 1683 by a band of Scotsmen. In 1778, George Washington led his colonial troops to victory over the British that forced General Clinton and his troops into retreat. The Battle of Monmouth is reenacted annually. 1949, Bruce Springsteen is born here. His song, ’My Hometown” is about the changing face of Freehold. 1969, police are summoned from nearby towns to aid town authorities in controlling and dispersing teens involved in a racially motivated riot (noted as ‘a disturbance’ in the local papers and police blotter). Gangs of black and white teens confronted each other, mainly at the bus depot located at Main Street and South Street, and also at the intersection of Route 33 (Park Avenue) and South Street. Two black youths were taken to the hospital a treated for gun shot wounds to the face and neck. No arrests were made.
1994. 109 South Street is left empty when the owners are transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio. The 130 year old house begins to crumble from neglect. The white Anglo neighbors on either side discuss purchasing the house to raze it or to fix it up for their kids to live in. They are worried about their property value and the possibility that someone will buy the house and rent it to Mexican immigrants, similar to what is happening elsewhere in their neighborhood.
1996. My wife, Dawn and I purchase the house located at 109 South Street, Freehold, New Jersey. We can ‘see’ through the neglect the beautiful home that once stood here. The dilapidated colonial/ Victorian could become the home we’ve been thinking about. We fall in love with the front porch facing South Street and the dogwood tree that covers the front yard. I see the beginnings of an enclosed porch out back that could be the room Dawn and I always wanted, a warm, peaceful spot with a couple of overstuffed chairs, some music quietly playing in the background. We could drink our morning coffee and tea there, just soaking in the new day. We wouldn’t talk, we wouldn’t need to. We’re comfortable that way.
Our families did all they could to dissuade us from buying the house. ‘It needs too much work.’ ‘Freehold is not a good place for white people to live, with all of the Mexicans there and everything.’ ‘The courthouse and the county jail make it a dangerous place to live.’ ‘You’ll never be able to sell the house when you decide to move out.’
We closed on the house on the snowiest day the state had seen in 30 years. And the demolition began. We gutted the entire house, not a wall was salvageable. The white Anglo neighbors stopped by a couple times to check on our progress. They gave us a running history of the house, who owned it first and about the people who last lived there. They were happy to see us there, a young white couple was good for the area. Ronald, our new neighbor and one of the town’s former mayors, told us of his plans to purchase the house to try to retain the town’s integrity. He was born in the house he now lives in (as was the neighbor directly to the east) and he wanted ‘his’ town back. But we were there now and that was good too. Dawn and I kind of laughed to ourselves about his comments on the neighborhood. We appreciated the ethnicity of the town and never really cared for the blandness and closed doors of white suburbia as we knew it.
As with any renovation project, the estimated finish date was moved back and moved back again. The neighborly ‘good mornings’ and handshakes became head nods and “When are you going to be done?”. We overheard comments about the cars and trucks in the driveway not being the prettiest things around. The borough sent an agent over the house to let us know that a ‘neighbor’ was complaining about the mess and we had to do something about it. We began to realize that we had become the ‘Mexicans’ the neighbors feared would move in, but we came disguised in white face!
It took nearly six years, but the house was coming along pretty well. Dawn’s and my tastes were reflected throughout the house. The outside was newly sided and Dawn’s flowers were coming up everywhere. Inside, the new hardwood floors shined all through the first floor, with vibrant colors on all of the walls. We never believed in neutral colors, everything had to be a chance. Sunshine yellow and hunter green in the kitchen, burnt umber in the dining room and dill pickle in the living room, the first room you walk into upon entering the house. We were getting compliments from family and friends, neighbors and strangers. We even heard through a mutual acquaintance that Ronald, our neighbor, was even very impressed with the results. He actually started doing some work on his house because suddenly he didn’t have the nicest house on the block. It was turning out how we had pictured it.
The house was very alive, with evidence of the 2 boys living there, their toys scattered sparingly in every room. The dogs ran the house, barking at people as they walked by, which was all day long. Freehold is a very pedestrian town. The working class, for the most part, could not afford cars and town is small enough and crowded enough that walking was just easier than driving.
During all of this, Dawn was in the process of finishing up her bachelor’s degree and applying to medical school. She was accepted into Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, and we had to go. The house that we had worked on so hard had to be sold. Our sweat would pay for our move and set us up in a new house in AZ. And now I had to finish ‘our’ porch.
Unlike the rest of the house, the porch was not shiny and new. My tools were lying around the room with scraps of 2 x 4’s, sheetrock and empty buckets. A coating of white spackle dust was settled on everything in the room. The radio was on all of the time. I spent most of my spare time back there now, trying to finish up.
We were told by our realtor that the asking price was high enough to attract at least a middle class family, and that no Mexicans would be able to afford it. We never asked, so we didn’t know why this information was passed on to us. Maybe that’s how it’s done in Freehold. We knew Ronald would be happy about this news, but we really had no interest or concern about who bought the house, just as long as someone did, and fast.
So, the ‘For Sale’ sign went up out front. I could almost hear Ronald-- ‘Good. Maybe someone we like will move in now.’
The house went on the market before I was done with the porch and people were showing up within 24 hours of the listing. The Chen’s were among the first to look at the house. They showed up when I was covered with dust from working on the porch. I answered the door to five or six Asian people of various ages, and got a blank stare to answer my ‘Hello, may I help you?’. A small elderly woman pushed through the crowd and said hello. She explained that they were there to see the house and that we should speak to her, since no one else spoke English. She told me that she helped many of the Chinese people in town when they needed to communicate with non-Chinese. They walked in past me and wandered the house with the realtor while I tried, to no avail, to make myself presentable. Dawn showed up just after they arrived. The translator told us, with no prompting, that the Chen’s needed to find a house quickly because they had just been evicted from their apartment on the other side of the highway due to an overcrowded situation. It seems that Mr. Chen owned several Chinese restaurants in town and he housed his family and about twelve workers in the two bedroom dwelling. He was looking for something bigger and our house seemed to fit the bill. He especially liked the porch where I was working because he could turn it into a barracks for his employees. The Chen’s had seen enough and after a confused, translator-led parting, they left.
Dawn was beside herself. She could not bear the thought of our house being overrun by a gang of Chinese restaurant employees! All of the time and sweat that we had poured into the house would be thrown away. She couldn’t do it. There had to be another way. I bit my lip to keep quiet. All I could think about was our porch, the room that I dreamed about, becoming a barracks for a bunch of stir-fry cooks. They could have the rest of the house, just not my room. I didn’t want to finish the porch after this news.
But I did. And I convinced Dawn that this was best for us. Our momentary contempt for the perceived intruders in our house was diffused when we realized our mutual plights. We needed to sell as much as the Chen’s needed to buy. We agreed that this is what was best for us.
We moved out four weeks later and the Chen’s moved in. And secretly, we hope that their car has a lit up, restaurant delivery sign on top, just for Mayor Ronald to see.
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