The family histories of so many in this nation include escape from religious persecution, wars and revolution, political oppression, famine, unbearable hardship, pogroms and the Holocaust. We are who we are because the oppressed faced the unknown and came here to start a new life. It was so jarring for Chris Christie to talk yesterday about his American Dream story as an escape from a neighborhood, Vailsburg, that was becoming integrated.
The Christie family did not escape from English monarchs who insisted on a state religion. Not from revolutions in southern Europe. Not from the potato famine. Not from the czar. Not from pogroms or the Holocaust. Not from grinding poverty. The Christie family escaped from black families moving into the neighborhood–new neighbors whose ancestors were brought to this country as slaves in chains. The Christies did not face the unknown wilderness or the known hostility of earlier settlers. They faced the grass, the open space, the all-white neighborhoods, of Livingston, New Jersey.
I cannot speak for people of color but I can imagine the pain many must have felt when Christie told the adoring and mostly white crowd at Livingston High School, “I’m here in Livingston because all those years ago, my mother and father became the first of either of their families to leave the city of Newark to come here and make this home for us.”
Not Jamestown. Or Plymouth. Or Ellis Island. Livingston.
The Christies lived in Vailsburg, a leafy residential neighborhood that, with one exception, looks pretty much today the way it did 50 years ago when the Christies escaped. The one exception, of course, is that most of the people have black or brown skin.
The hurt must be even more stinging when current residents of Newark—deprived of the pleasure of the Christie family’s company—heard this man say: “And this is where we grew up. These were the fields we played on. These are the playgrounds we played on. This is the school we built our friends with and learned with.”
True, Newark has Branch Brook and Weequahic, lovely if often neglected parks, but the neighborhoods are pretty devoid of the kind of playgrounds the Christies must have enjoyed. They certainly don’t have the majestic schools found in places like Livingston, where Christie grew up, and Mendham and Princeton, where he and his children live today. Much of that disparity, of course, is due to policies of governors like him.
When the Christie family moved out of Newark, it was the beginning of a decade or more of “blockbusting” by real estate companies that made fortunes on the turnover of Newark neighborhoods from white to black. Nothing personal, you understand, but real estate commissions can’t be made unless houses are sold. And fear of the stranger–the black stranger– is a mighty, if evil, motivation to sell.
During the 1960s—and this is memory for me, not history in a book—fear spread through the south and north and west of the city, fear based on racism and the exploitation of that racism. Fear that the last families to move out would take the biggest financial hit because their property would be worth less because of the panic selling. It continued for a decade or more, culminating in the bloody climax of the 1967 civil disorders.
But the Christies did not move from Newark because of what happened in 1967. They moved earlier, just as middle class African Americnas began moving into Vailsburg. There was no need for fear then. Unless, of course, you feared the black stranger.
The hurtful mockery inherent in Christie’s speech continues with the reference to two grandmothers who gave the young Christie family $10,000 in the late 1950s to buy their house in all-white Livingston. He said about his grandmothers and their gift to Christie’s parents, “They gave them five thousand dollars each, probably all the money they had in the world, to put a down payment on a house in this town to give their children a chance to take the dream they had started to build and to make it even bigger and even better. ”
Adjusting for inflation, that $10,000 would be worth more than $80,000 today. How many families could afford to give their children $10,000 50 years ago? How many families could afford giving their children $80,000 today? Well, maybe in Livingston and Mendham and Princeton, they could—but not in Newark.
The tone-deafness of Christie’s narration is reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s advice to recent college graduates to borrow money from their parents to go into business. Sure. On what planet do these people live?
There is so much more that is insulting about Christie’s speech. We’re supposed to feel badly because his father got into Columbia but couldn’t afford to go. Many children whom the Christies left behind in Newark would never be admitted to Columbia in the 1950s because of their race or religion. For most Ivy League schools, there were quotas for Jews and bans on blacks. In many cases, neither Irish nor Italian nor Polish need apply.
And what about the terrible burden of tuition debt now—worsened because governors like Christie cut subsidies to institutions of higher education who then pass on the burden to students and their families?
For so many reasons, Christie’s campaign is constructed of illusions, most of them simply laughable. But the way he tells the story of the Christie family’s escape from Newark is a fresh wound inflicted on people with scars enough—particularly when we remember this governor just imposed on the city of Newark a business associate with a record of hucksterism to run their schools.
In so many new ways, Christie is abandoning New Jersey’s cities again and again.
And, to think, he wants to succeed Barack Obama.