South Orange Avenue
Jesse Fried • Jan 24, 2018
Now numbered as State Secondary Route 510, South Orange Avenue appears on the earliest maps, and its general route almost certainly predates European colonization. It connects Newark with Morristown via South Orange, dramatically crossing the Watchung Mountains on its route. A place of intense personal significance to the author, a full account of its route demands a highly subjective, introspective approach.
The route begins at the Essex County Courthouse, holder of political secrets and reporting location for jury duty. The stretch between here and the Garden State Parkway, passing the NJ School of Medicine and Dentistry and through Newark's Central and West Wards, is unknown to me through direct experience, but the location of my great grandpa's produce store and my grandpa's earliest childhood home. Today these are predominantly Black neighborhoods, with some recently constructed homes. West of the Parkway, South Orange Ave winds through Newark's Vailsburg area, passing an interesting looking old theater building, modest urban storefronts and dense blocks of old wood frame houses. It is an aggravating road to drive, because the traffic lights are poorly coordinated.
The border between run-down city and upscale suburbs is especially sharp on South Orange Avenue. Once, when I was maybe 15, I had a friend over at my house to play music who I had met in an extracurricular Jazz class. I drove him home with my dad, and he lived off of South Orange Ave in Vailsburg, Newark. We went through the nice parts of South Orange, past Victorian mansions in the Montrose neighborhood and the campus of Seton Hall, until suddenly it wasn't nice anymore. The change to small houses in inconsistent states of repair, humble stores and boarded-up storefronts, empty lots, and poorly maintained streets shocked me. It made uncomfortably clear that I was a "have" and he was a "have-not." It was, and remains, unsettling to think of myself that way.
Near Seton Hall University, South Orange Ave flips a switch into Suburban mode. The street grid continues uninterrupted, but one sees barriers blocking off side streets just past South Orange border, a physical manifestation of racial fears and the fortress mentality of the suburbs. The road soon reaches downtown South Orange, where it serves as the main street, lined with nice shops and restaurants. The Gaslight brewpub is here, dating from long before the contemporary hipster brewpub era. There used to be a cool cafe with live jazz and poetry readings that my parents would take me to. Some outdoor public spaces occasionally host live local bands, including, one night in summer 2010 (give or take a few years), a group of funk-playing nerdy college students that included the author.
Passing under the tracks of NJ Transit's Morris and Essex line, and over the East Branch of the Rahway River, South Orange Ave runs straight up a steep hill, starting its climb of the Watchung Mountains with four wide lanes. It passes a nice apartment complex, considered a respectable place for divorced or downsizing suburban parents to live. Then, as it rises, it slants southwest, clearly predating the surrounding rectangular grid. Partway up the ridge, it passes my mom's elementary school and reaches Wyoming Avenue. In high school, I would habitually run down Wyoming Ave from my house to here. It was my only destination, it felt like the border of my world. On the other side of South Orange Ave, Wyoming Ave continues into my mom's childhood neighborhood, the intimate unknown.
At a certain height, a view to the east takes shape. It's spectacular at night, when the the lights of nearby towns and urban neighborhoods stretch out below, and the shapes of shipping cranes, oil refineries and bridges illuminate the distance. Depending on the angle, New York City's skyline presides over the northeastern horizon. On the short drive home from my grandparents' house when I was little, the night vista at this spot had an incalculable effect on my spirit. The unknown world displayed itself, calmly majestic, promising itself to me once I stepped out of the comfort of my parents; car. Today I still hope that this beautiful perception foretells a greater destiny than what I've found so far in adult life.
At the summit of the first Watchung Mountain sits a luxury high-rise called "The Top," a landmark along the flat tree-lined ridge, and home of at least one divorced parent of a high school friend of mine. My mom says that up here there used to be a place called Grunings where kids would hang out and get ice cream and soda for quaint 1950's prices. Also at the summit, South Orange Ave enters the South Mountain Reservation, an Essex County park of about 2,000 wooded acres. There is a turn-off for Crest Drive, a park access road that follows the ridge to a parking lot with dramatically different daytime and nighttime uses. Since it's in a county park, it's not under the jurisdiction of any particular town's police department. It's actually where I smoked weed for the first time.
Descending the western slope of the first mountain, South Orange Avenue enters the forested parkland of the Reservation, Here it takes on the characteristics of a highway - a concrete divider between lanes and on each shoulder. The grade gets pretty steep, and the road winds considerably as it follows the course of a cascading stream, a stretch of road known locally as "the S curves." This mountainous break in the suburban fabric fascinated and excited me as a child, feelings somewhat consummated in adolescence when I experienced the curves at an unsafe speed in a wealthy friend's Audi. There's a driveway to a run-down former Boy Scout camp or something. A green pedestrian bridge crosses the road partway down, hosting a trail to Hemlock Falls, where the stream drops down a tall basalt cliff not far from the road. Very pretty scenic after a rain, it's a well visited spot.
After dipping across the narrow valley of the West Branch of the Rahway River, South Orange Ave climbs less steeply to a gap in the less-steep Second Watchung Mountain. An open field is maintained on the hillside here, which is great for sledding in winter.
Leaving the Reservation, the road transects some non-descript, postwar upscale suburban developments that I happen to be fairly familiar with. On a hilltop sits a huge triangular brick monolith, shaped like the prow of a ship, but revealing itself to be the the sanctuary of the B'nai Jeshurun Synogogue. BJ is one of the major Jewish congregations from Newark, relocated to the suburbs during white flight. I find this grave edifice both trashy and mystical. The old building in Newark, now home to the Hopewell Baptist Church, is more traditionally beautiful. My mom belonged to BJ, in a loose sense, growing up. I remember once when a high school friend of hers was visiting, they discovered a collection of the sermons of Rabbi Pilchik, who presided during their youth. Reading one aloud, they broke into giddy and uncontrollable laughter. A few years ago, on the way back from the Livingston Mall with my mom, we decided to stop here. In the dusk, with the sunset behind the winter trees, I felt a slight thrill of suburban exploration, a very teenage feeling, which was funny to share with my mom. Inside there was a sermon in progress about your right to protect your home from invaders.
The road descends into a broad, swampy Mesozoic sedimentary basin that stretches between the Watchung Mountains and the Precambrian NJ Highlands. It crosses another tract of undeveloped land, the East Orange Water Reserve, for about a mile. A few dirt roads lead to the interior of the property, blocked with gates and No Tresspassing signs. One or two isolated, non-suburban houses are the only improvements. The road also crosses two slow streams and passes a two-tiered artificial looking pond. In my childhood, these areas seemed hardly worth noticing, but upon exploration, I've found the woods to be lush and lovely to walk around, if a bit soggy, and full of Jersey weirdness, such as an ornate 4-foot tall dollhouse by itself in a powerline clearing. Near the road, the forest is choked with weeds, but in the interior there's some nice trees including a beautiful, seemingly healthy stand of sugar maples. This is a forgotten natural area hiding in plain sight in a fast paced, high property value region.
Returning to the real world with a vengance, South Orange Avenue boasts a fantastically complex traffic pattern at a combination mall entrance and T-intersection with Eisenhower Parkway. The Livingston Mall is a pretty average, modest mall by NJ standards. My my mom had her first job there during high school, and later would take me shopping for jeans and T-shirts at Old Navy. In this commercially zoned area there are medical centers, corporate offices, and two private schools: Newark Academy, where I've been once, and Kushner Academy, where I have not. Yes it's THAT Kushner family. South Orange Ave then cuts through a narrow strip of swampy forest and crosses the muddy, meandering Passaic River, leaving Essex County.
Technically, South Orange Avenue ends here. In Morris County, Route 510 is named Columbia Turnpike. I don't want to go into as much detail here, but a few highlights are: the town of Florham Park with its roller rink of birthday party fame, a long-lasting good Chinese restaurant, and Trader Joe's; an area of beautiful natural open meadows; and Morristown Airport, a small general aviation facility that my dad and I experienced when our car broke down next to it in pre cell phone times.