Old Story, New Chapter: Changing Community in Morristown and Dover

Speedwell to Blackwell

by Ken Branson

The towns of northwestern New Jersey, built by immigrant Dutch farmers, Irish miners and Polish ironworkers, are being re-shaped by new waves of immigrants from Latin America. The re-shaping is evident in any town, but it is especially evident in Dover and Morristown in Morris County. In Morristown, the county's seat of government and the locus of corporate activity, a growing community of Latin American immigrants supports a thriving and diverse commercial district. In Dover, hit hard by the Rockaway Mall two decades ago, Latin Americans have washed over the business district in waves and created, under Victorian and Edwardian facades on Blackwell Street, a small Latin American city.

Morristown: To Develop; perchance, to Redevelop

Stand in the elbow of Speedwell Avenue in Morristown, by the Headquarters Plaza Hotel, and you can see a kind of social force-field at work. On your left is where middle management does lunch, strolls, shops, and comes back after dark to knock back a few. Walk up the hill toward The Green, and you see all kinds of people ­ but, mostly, European, Asian and African faces, with a sprinkling of brown. The atmosphere is self-consciously quaint and deliberately upscale ­ urban, but with the rough edges rubbed off. This is an interesting place to stroll, a nice place to shop, a fun place to eat.

Signs of change on Speedwell Avenue
in Morristown

Now, look to your right, and you see another stretch of restaurants and shops, all up and down the scale, along a tree-lined street, and lots of people strolling, browsing, shopping. The atmosphere is urban, but Latin. The faces on the street belong to prosperous people, poor people, and everyone in between, but they're nearly all brown. If your face is not brown, you're aware, as you walk down the street, that you're being watched ­ not out of hostility, but out of curiosity. People's eyes seem to say, "What is this guy doing here?"

These are the two distinct communities, representing two different ways of seeing and defining Morris County's seat of government and northwestern New Jersey's main locus of urban flair. Standing in front of the Headquarters Plaza, a visitor might wonder, do these people ever talk to each other? Clearly, Morristown is at some sort of crossroads.

The town government has commissioned a study of Speedwell Avenue to consider whether or not the area is in need of redevelopment. Some people with businesses on Speedwell are leery of any redevelopment, because they fear being forced out of the businesses they've built. Others, in other parts of town, are suspicious because they fear being "redeveloped" themselves.

But Michael Fabrizio, executive director of the Morristown Partnership, believes that some redevelopment may well be needed on Speedwell Avenue. The Partnership, which counts 111 local businesses as members, is more than just a business group. It's a "special improvement district," empowered by law to make special assessments on commercial property

"There absolutely needs to be a study of Speedwell Avenue," Fabrizio says. "At this point what's being tossed about is whether there should be a study of whether the area needs redevelopment. At this point, we support the concept of studying the area. It's proper planning; it's a sensible process."

Fabrizio and the Partnership, for example, think of their community as including the three square miles of the Town of Morristown and the people and corporations in neighboring communities, like Morris Township and Harding Township.

"Morristown is the downtown for more than just Morristown proper," Fabrizio says. "Morris Township and Harding Township don't have downtowns."

The prosperity of corporations like AT&T, Lucent Technologies, Allied Signal, Tyco, Verizon, and Telcordia Technologies (known until 1998 as Bellcore), and of their employees, fueled Morristown's own boom in the 1990s. Small businesses ­ restaurants, florists, printers, advertising and marketing firms ­ flourished. Employees of the corporate giants bought homes in the neighboring towns and, on the weekend, spent money in Morristown. The Partnership has worked hard to attract businesses to the area, not just to the Town, and by any measure, it has been successful.

"We've had $200 million in private investment in Morristown in the last five years, from million-dollar town homes to modest store fronts," says Fabrizio. "That's indicative of the viability of Morristown, and it's been done under an outdated master plan."

Then there's the view of Donald Ray Smith, a member of the Historic Neighborhood Association, which covers the Fourth Ward, home to dozens of well-preserved Victorian and Federal homes.

"We are opposed to...a government redevelopment of the area, because under the plan government can take away private property, and we don't think that's right," Smith says. "We also think that the community along Speedwell is a thriving community and viable. The reason the town wants to take it over is to make affordable housing. Well, the housing there is pretty affordable. They want to expand the firehouse, but they haven't made the case that the firehouse needs expanding. They want to have higher buildings, and we don't think it's a good idea to have four or five or six story buildings."

Of course, what's going on is a study, not a plan, and none of Smith's fears may come to pass. But he and his neighbors have found, and fought to preserve, a unique residential area. The word "redevelopment," even applied hypothetically, even applied to another neighborhood, carries unpleasant connotations for them.

Then, consider Sue Cardona, who directs the cancer screening program at Morristown Memorial Hospital. She spends her days trying to get people from all over the area to submit to cancer screening, and she gets around. An immigrant from Honduras, Cardona, too, has found a home in Morristown.

"My heart has always been in Morristown, because of the diversity, the cultural awareness, and even the nightlife ­ which isn't New York nightlife, but it's nice," she says. Cardona agrees the business on Speedwell may be viable, but the community they serve has some serious issues to address. "There isn't any affordable housing," she says. "There isn't enough work."

The housing in the neighborhood near Speedwell Avenue is only affordable because families double up and have more people living in an apartment than the apartment was designed to hold. "They really can't afford to live here," Cardona says of many Latin immigrants. "But, they live maybe two families together, as an extended family, and that's how they manage."

There is a furtive aspect to the lives of many Latin immigrants to Morristown, because many of them ­ nobody knows how many ­ are illegal aliens. They came on tourist or student visas and never went home. They are among the day laborers who line up each morning on Morris Street, and who can be seen hopping off pickup trucks in the evening after work. They are the main customers of the banquerias on Speedwell Avenue, which arrange for wire transfers home to Colombia, Mexico, Honduras and a dozen other countries, purchase airline tickets and provide other services. They are mainly young guys, in their teens and 20s. They work for landscapers and contractors, and as long as homes are being built in Morris County, they have jobs.

Many of the immigrants don't speak English, and some are illiterate in any language. Even if they aren't illegal, they encounter legal difficulties and troubles on the job, and need documents translated. Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant resource center just off Speedwell on Columba Street, provides the same services for immigrants that big-city settlement houses provided a century ago ­ legal advice, translation, intercession with bosses, landlords, and schools.

Dover: The Latin Rhythm on Blackwell Street

Walk down Blackwell Street in Dover, and your eyes, ears, and nose tell you that you've landed in Latin America.

There are the banquerias, but there are also store signs and advertisements in Spanish, and restaurants serving the wide range of Latin American cuisine, from Mexican food with its spices, to the mild, savory cuisine of Colombia.

Punto Saboroso on
Blackwell Street in Dover

"There has been a tremendous increase in the number of businesses owned by Hispanics, and that has helped attract people from all over (Latin America)," says Demaris Fuentes, director of the Morris County Organization of Hispanic Affairs, whose office is on Bassett Highway in Dover.

Fuentes, whose organization provides some of the same services as Wind of the Spirit in Morristown, says that Latin Americans come to Dover from other parts of the state and country, having heard from friends or relatives that it is a Latin-friendly town.

"I used to live in Dover several years ago, when I first came here," says Fuentes, who comes from Bayamon in Puerto Rico. "It was very convenient. There were lots of bodegas (small Puerto Rican grocery stores), there was work, and there were good transportation connections."

The town's train station, is where commuters to New York change for New Jersey Transit's midtown direct trains, and where they change again on the way home for trains headed for Hackettstown. For many non-Latins who don't live in Dover, the train station platform is as much of the town as they see. But the town is worth the two-block walk to Blackwell Street.

As soon as a visitor turns the corner onto Blackwell, he hears salsa pulsing from the radios of passing cars, sees the street lit up for business, smells the food, hears Spanish being spoken in half-a-dozen different accents.

Walking west on Blackwell, the visitor's nose and eyes might well take him inside the Punto Saboroso (The Tasty Point), a brightly lit Colombian buffet with a big window opening on the street ­ great for people watching.

Recently, a visitor with an Anglo face and serviceable Spanish, but no knowledge of Colombian food, walked in with the after-work crowd, picked up a tray and took his chances with what looked good ­ and just about everything looked good.

"Arroz, por favor," the visitor said, pointing at the yellow rice. The server packed the tasty stuff into a mold, turned the mold upside down on a plate, and waited for instructions. "Y esto, por favor," pointing to fried plantains. The server added them.

Then the visitor saw some meat with peppers and onions in what looked like an enticing sauce. "Y este carne, tambien," he said, and the server gave him a dubious look.

"Es higado," she told him. He couldn't hear her, and asked her to repeat. "Soy viejo," he told her, but she shook her head and assured him that he was not old at all. Then she repeated, "Es higado," and this time the visitor heard her loud and clear.

But the visitor, hungry, eager to experiment, had no idea what higado meant. He was proud of his Spanish and not about to force the server to speak English, so he motioned the server to pile it on. She obliged.

Higado, it turns out, means liver. As liver goes, it was fine, but it's not the best choice with rice and plantains.

After that, the visitor needed some familiar food, and so went down the street to the Pollo Loco (Crazy Chicken), which serves Mexican food. It was early yet, and he was the only customer. The only staff member was a young woman who was making a humongous vat of chile in the back. They spoke in Spanish, and the visitor was glad to see he knew what everything on the menu meant. He asked the woman where the customers were and she said they'd be in soon enough, when they got off work. "Are most of your customers Mexicans, or do you get many gringos like me?" the visitor asked.

"All my customers are Mexicans," she said. "You're my first gringo, I think."

She had been in Dover for four months she said, having come from Vera Cruz. "Are you homesick?" the visitor asked. They had to wrestle with the concept in Spanish, settling on nostalgia, spelled the same in both languages. Yes, she said, she was very homesick. "But there is no work in Vera Cruz, no opportunity," she said, and went back to her work. "This is home now.

This story was first published: Winter, 2002
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