West Orange

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

West Orange encompasses a broad swath of Essex County without a coherent downtown, reaching from urban areas near its eastern border with Orange to fairly spread-out suburban areas west of the Watchung Mountains. Its suburbs are of a more middle class character compared to the wealthy towns of Millburn and Livingston that border it, and there are extensive areas of condos. Some of the condos may actually still being carved out of undeveloped woodland as I'm writing this.

West Orange developed more slowly than its neighbors because the Watchung Mountains served as barrier to 19th century infrastructure projects. Rail lines were routed through the major gaps in the ridge: one at Millburn few miles south, and another at Montclair a few miles north, but none within West Orange. Interstate 280, built in the 60's, was able to pass through the mountain just fine, though, thanks to a huge road cut that exposes some very cool hexagonally shaped columnar joints in the bassalt bedrock. Much of the suburban housing stock of West Orange is post-war.

The area is home to a large Jewish-American community, among a fairly diverse population, and it is tempting to say that the Jewish people have not experienced such a secure, organic connection to an area of land as they do here and in similar towns since the fall of the Temple. In any case, Jewish culture flourishes here, and numerous synagogues of varying degrees of architectural tastefulness dot the West Orange landscape.

My grandparents lived for a while in one of West Orange's many condo complexes. Theirs was called Eagle Ridge, on Prospect Avenue across from the Essex Green Shopping Center - not a full-blown indoor NJ mall, but more of a huge overgrown strip mall - right on the crest of the first Watchung Mountain. Their unit was at the eastern edge of the property, and was separated by a small cleared field and a fence from the I-280 road cut - a sheer cliff probably at least 100 feet tall. The view to the east over 280 was stunning, encompassing much of urban NJ and the Manhattan skyline. Also, radio transmission towers, located along the ridge top right next to the condo complex, always excited me as a kid with their blinking lights. However it was the view west from the entrance to Eagle Ridge, looking over Essex Green across the Second Watchung Mountain covered with suburban houses, that inspired me the most with a vague indication of the fullness and promise of the universe, and a powerful spiritual longing that I still hope someday to follow.

A pharmaceutical company, Organon, had a massive facility on Mount Pleasant Avenue, but they are no longer there. I wonder if the property is being used for anything else now.