Growing up, I would often visit my father’s parents at their home in Prospect Park, NJ on the weekends and holidays. They were Dutch-American Christians and Prospect Park was once home to many more Dutch-American Christians. Over time, however, and before I was born, Prospect Park changed a lot. If there is an opposite of gentrification, that is what happened to Prospect Park. It wasn’t a bad area, but it was culturally diverse in a way most people don’t want to talk about. There were multiple disparate cultures living in the same area, but they were not neighbors. They did not co-mingle, or even say hello. It was as if they all lived there out of necessity and tolerated each other’s’ existence for the same reason.
There was an African American church on the corner, multiple Puerto Rican families across the street, and the rest of the houses were filled with nameless, faceless New Jerseyans, none of whom seemed to care if the sidewalks were covered in trash or dog feces. Every time we’d visit, my dad would walk up and down the sidewalk picking up garbage as if trying to do his little part to bring back the neighborhood he grew up in. My grandparent’s front window was often broken, boarded up, or newly replaced because some passerby decided to throw a rock through it ‘just because.’ My grandfather’s van was often broken into, his tools, or even the van itself, stolen. This was, however, their home. They were proud of it, cared for it, and I loved going there to see them.
In the living room of my grandparent’s home, there was a little nightstand with a few toys in it for my brother and me to play with. There was always hard candy by my grandmother’s chair for her to snack on while she did her word-search puzzles and I would sneak one or two when she wasn’t looking. If it was warm and dry enough, we would walk to church on Sundays where nearly all of my father’s extended family attended. If it was cold or raining, we would drive. After church my father’s older brother would come by and he often walk me around the town, over the open-grate bridges (which terrified me due to my fear of heights), and down by the river to skip stones if the water was calm enough. My father’s younger brother would also come over and, if I remember correctly, my aunt, the youngest of my father’s siblings, still lived at home.
We would all gather together as a family and have regular Sunday dinners in my grandparent’s cozy little kitchen. The adults would sit at the big table and my brother and I would eat at the small folding table next to the washer and dryer. In the midst of what appeared to me as a child to be a foreign, even somewhat dangerous, neighborhood was a bastion of family wholesomeness inside my grandparent’s home. To be clear, I am sure that the other families had similar feelings to mine in their own homes, but to me, as a child, I could not see past the familiarity of my own life.
Prospect Park is a rough-around-the-edges town, something like a small, residential city. It is very, very east coast suburban, more urban than suburb. The streets are hilly, the sidewalks concrete, and the houses are mostly row-homes, squeezed in together with a semi-detached garage here and there. Most of the parking is on the street or in small parking lots. My grandparents had a semi-detached garage and nestled behind it, overlooking a few neighbors’ backyards, my grandfather had a small patch of grass where he had a garden. He grew vegetables like peppers and tomatoes (New Jersey tomatoes are better than any I’ve ever had, especially in Maryland) and he had some flowers. My grandfather’s garden was like an oasis from the unfriendly town that had grown up around him, somewhere he could go and be alone with the simple beauty of God’s creation. I wasn’t much into gardening or plants, but one of his flowers always caught my eye: the bleeding heart.
Read Part 2 HERE
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body