Close Up On: East Orange, New Jersey

Portions of this article have been updated.


Where can you find a Benedictine monk who plays the kora? Or a woman in a chador buying Jamaican pumpkin chunks? If you answered East Orange, New Jersey, you may already be familiar with the charms, idiosyncrasies, and six available brands of ginger beer in this urban hamlet—which has undergone a significant flavor change in the past 10 years. Otherwise, read this column.

The bells, the bells!: The awe-inspiring Holy Spirit/Our Lady Help of Christians
photo: Cary Conover
The bells, the bells!: The awe-inspiring Holy Spirit/Our Lady Help of Christians

Transportation:Take the No. 21 bus to Newark Penn Station, then transfer to the New Jersey Transit or PATH train to Manhattan, making your overall commute 45 minutes.

Main Drags: Main Street, Central Avenue, South Harrison Street

Average Price to Rent: Studio, $800 to $900 ($500 to $600); one-bedroom, $900 to $1100 ($600 to $900); two-bedroom, $1100 to $1250 ($800 to $1000); three-bedroom, $1250 to $1350 ($900 to $1300).

Average Price to Buy: Locals primarily live in single-family homes with the exception of some condos. One-family house, $150,000 to $250,000 ($117,000 to $120,000); two- to three-bedroom condo, $150,000 to $185,000 ($120,000 to $125,000).

Cultural/Religious Institutions: The Public Library (21 South Arlington Avenue) is where it's at, hosting poets like Amiri Baraka and musician Andy McCloud, in addition to book signings, art openings, and African storytelling. For the Muslim community, the Islamic Center of America (215 North Oraton Parkway) offers classes in Arabic language and Koranic education. Holy Spirit/Our Lady Help of Christians (17 North Clinton Street) provides masses for both American and Haitian congregations.

Green Space: Elmwood Park, with tennis courts and outdoor recreation facilities, is a popular gathering spot.

Local Artist Profile: Performance artist Rafael Sanchez (rsanchez@sbp.org) has chosen to work in East Orange on multiple occasions, finding the city an appealing venue for his public art. In an especially haunting butoh piece, Sanchez lingered on Main Street with his skin painted white, holding a suitcase marked "Back to Africa", waiting for a bus that never arrives. Sanchez's insightful work represents a case of local talent and reflects the diasporic spirit in East Orange.

Record/Bookstores: Caribbean Cuisine restaurant (5 Winans Street) sells roughly 100 albums of Haitian soca, old reggae, and dub. Scattered throughout East Orange are botanicas—hole-in-the-wall shops brimming with oils, incense, shea butter, and spiritual supplements for Afro-Caribbean religious ceremonies. In nearby Orange, Tunde Dada House of Africa (560 Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard), a jewel of a store, offers everything from sumptuous African fabric by the yard to books by Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Best Restaurants: East Orange has a plethora of Caribbean restaurants and cafés to represent its Haitian, Guyanese, and Trinidadian populations. Go to Sunsplash Caribbean Bakery (56 Main Street) for home-baked Jamaican pastries, China Pagoda (376 Main Street) for halal chicken with cashew nuts, or DC West Indian American (587-A Central Avenue) for casual Caribbean fare. If gnawing a curried goat bone isn't your thing, order a shot of wheatgrass juice at Olive May Health Foods (516-B Main Street), staffed with a nutritionist for the lucky crunchies who shop there. Caribbean Cuisine—a tasty, clean Trinidadian restaurant—shines among its culinary contenders. In addition to savory roti and cassava pone, it serves peanut punch, sea moss, and homemade ginger beer.

Local Landmarks:The artist-philosopher known as JG has disseminated phrases such as "Detox the Ghetto" and "God knows my name" on city walls. His lapidary stencils of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ also pop up by the highway.

Famous Residents: DJ legend and progenitor of house music Tony Humphries lives in East Orange, and Dionne Warwick and Naughty by Nature are natives.

Best Bars/Clubs: Zante's (120 Evergreen Place) hosts house nights, while Brokers (88 Evergreen Place) caters to a formal, older crowd.

Happenings:The New Jersey Carnival invades Central Avenue every August, with steel drums, DJs, and street partying.

Politicians: Mayor Robert Bowser and councilmembers David Clark, Mary Patterson, Zachary Turner, Lori Maddox, Quilla Talmadge, Clinton Robinson, Jacquelyn Johnson, Ernest Savoy, Joyce Goore, and Thomas Brown. East Orange is part of New Jersey's 34th District, served by State Senator Nia H. Gill and assemblyman Peter C. Eagler, and assemblywoman Sheila Y. Oliver, all Democrats.

Crime Stats: The New Jersey State Police reported for East Orange City 17 murders, 32 rapes, 567 robberies, 505 aggravated assaults, 1121 burglaries, and 1260 motor vehicle thefts in 2004. (The East Orange Police Department reported 18 murders, 54 rapes, 698 robberies, and 912 burglaries for 2002).

 
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