Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Loss, Learning & Lawnside, NJ

Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church founded in 1856
It hasn't been easy getting my mind back into a creative state to try and write.

My thoughts as of late have been everywhere but on the written word, and my ability to translate abstract thoughts into coherent ideas in the past few days has been eclipsed by a need to process emotions and feelings associated with personal loss.

Last Friday I drove down to Camden, New Jersey with my mother and sister to attend the funeral of my Aunt Marion L. Baker, which was held at the historic Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church.

The various rituals of the funeral service cast that looming sense of sadness over the experience that one expects on such occasions as Aunt Lorraine, as I called her, was my father's oldest sister.

She was born on January 4, 1929 in the small rural farming community of Conway, North Carolina just as America was descending into the depths of the Great Depression - my father was born three years later on April 13, 1932 and, as was fairly typical of rural American farm families of the early 20th century, they were two of eight children.

While my father passed away from prostate cancer back in 1996, Aunt Lorraine's passing reminded me of him over the past week; even as I grieved for her, my grief for my long-deceased father  suddenly became fresh in my mind again with an intensity that took me by surprise.

But the opportunity to gather with members of my extended family to bid farewell to my aunt on Good Friday was also nurturing and uplifting - and for me the day was also a learning experience.

Camden High School - one of the schools where my aunt taught
During the remarks and eulogy I learned that my aunt influenced the lives of a number of young people from the Camden area in her role as a physical education and health teacher in the Camden City Public School District.

For example, a former student of hers posted a message of condolence online that noted that Aunt Lorraine had been one of her middle school teachers back in the 1960's.

She observed that even though my aunt had a stern, no-nonsense demeanor, she was also a gentle, loving person; to the degree that this former student remembered my aunt fondly over the years.

In fact, she was one of several former students who took time to leave messages of condolence even though my aunt taught them more than 40 years ago.

See, I never really knew the "professional side" of my aunt. Her outwardly no-nonsense demeanor as her former student noted, was familiar to me, but she also had wonderful laugh, was devoted to her family and loved working in her garden as well.

She selflessly devoted time and energy to her community as well, during the course of her life she served in a variety of civic organizations, including as the secretary of the local branch of the NAACP and on the Camden County Human Relations Committee.

Then-Senator Obama visiting Kaighn Ave Baptist Church in 2006
During the funeral service my mind kept wandering, trying to understand these aspects of my aunt's life I'd never known as I sat there in the pew of the Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church.

KABC is one of the oldest African-American churches in the state of New Jersey.

It was the first black Baptist church to be founded in the state when it was first organized back in 1856.

As I learned from a brass plaque proudly mounted on the wall in the foyer of the church, the church was formed as an extension of regular prayer meetings held in the homes of members of the local black community starting in 1838, until people began meeting in a blacksmith's shop until it burned down and the congregation then began the search for a building where services could be held.

After the service and the trip out to see my aunt laid to rest, we gathered with other family members about 20 minutes away at my cousin Brenda's home in the historic suburban town of Lawnside, New Jersey.

Lawnside is a fascinating counterbalance to the frequently-negative media portrayals of Camden, New Jersey. It's a neighborhood of pleasant tree-lined suburban streets, green lawns, gardens and nice homes that sits about 25 minutes from downtown Camden.

Town seal of Lawnside, New Jersey
Lawnside is in Camden County, but it's light years from some of the more blighted and neglected impoverished areas of downtown Camden; some of which were a stones throw from KABC.

As a Wikipedia article notes, "Lawnside was developed and incorporated as the first independent, self-governing black municipality north of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1840."

A full 20 years before the start of the Civil War.

As noted on the town seal above, the town was officially incorporated in 1926, but according to Wikipedia, abolitionists began purchasing the land in 1840 as a place to build "a community for freed and escaped slaves, as well as other African-Americans."

My younger cousin who resides there told me the town is almost 90% African-American and just over 4% white; with the remaining 5 - 6% made up of Asians, Latinos and Native Americans.

It wasn't just the quiet suburban tranquility that impressed me, the historical significance of a quiet, prosperous community where people of color are the majority stands in such contrast to the mostly-white suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland and West Windsor, New Jersey where I was raised.

Family Properties 2010 paperback edition
For decades destructive myths about black people moving into neighborhoods leading to deteriorating conditions and lower home values have been carefully perpetuated by the real estate agents, banks and local officials seeking to profit financially off of the intentional segregation of neighborhoods by preying on racial prejudices to manipulate both white and black home owners.

Just about this time of year back in April of 2009, Leonard Lopate did a fascinating interview on the subject of intentional housing discrimination with Rutgers history professor Beryl E. Satter. 

She discussed her book "Family Properties: Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America"- an in-depth analysis of the history, mechanisms and impact of housing discrimination in the United States; a few different editions have been published since 2009.

More recently, an interesting podcast called "There Goes The Neighborhood", a co-production between WNYC and PRI, has been taking a closer look at the issue of gentrification with an in-depth analysis of demographic changes taking place in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

It's a pretty interesting series if you get time to catch up on the podcasts.

In the case of the rapid gentrification taking place in Brooklyn, on one hand it's fascinating to see what is in many ways a "reverse white flight" taking place in neighborhoods like Fort Greene.

But from the standpoint of the working class people of color who stuck it out in these neighborhoods during decades of urban neglect on the part of municipal, state and federal governments (and businesses like grocery stores and banks...) to make a lasting community, only to be pushed out by waves of higher-earning singles and families priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope and Williamsburg - it's a sad testament to the often insidious ways that race, ethnicity and real estate are entwined in America.

As an African-American who works in the real estate industry, in the coming year I'll make a note to do a better job of devoting more space in this blog to housing issues.

The growing nationwide trend of younger Millennials turning their backs on the suburban lifestyle of their parent's generation in favor of urban communities with mass transit systems and a more dynamic social landscape means gentrification is only going to become a more prominent socio-economic issue in cities across the nation.

An issue linked to the same root causes that motivated abolitionists to purchase the land in Camden County, New Jersey that would become the community of Lawnside more than 176 years ago.

How far we've come as a nation, and yet real estate and housing shows us what a long way we still have to go.

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