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Ode to Hackensack (Seriously)

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Ode to Hackensack (Seriously)By Susan Norton

   Living away from Hackensack for many years has allowed me to reflect on how it may have shaped me and to wonder if it has any unique characteristics.  Or, perhaps more what I wonder is whether it has any endearing characteristics.  Is Hackensack the kind of place that would prompt someone to wax lyrical?  Janet Evanovich manages to romanticize Trenton in the Stephanie Plum novels.  Bruce Springsteen mythologized Asbury Park and all of the Jersey Shore for the whole world, really.  William Carlos Williams made literary history of Paterson.  Hackensack, as we have all probably wearied of hearing by now, gets a mention from Billy Joel, Bob Hope, and Superman, but always as a place away from where-ya-wanna-be, as in "who needs a house out in Hackensack-ack-ack-ack-ack?"  And these fleeting allusions in the popular culture have, either rightly or wrongly, prompted connotations of this small city as nothing more inspiring than an urban-suburban nexus, one of the primary hubs of white-flighters in the nineteen sixties.  It is a place, in the popular imagination (if it makes an appearance there at all), of unremarkable mentality, within commuting distance of New York, and full of, well, houses.  But character or charm?  Hollywood has set TV dramas in Hoboken, but never in Hackensack.  No one would write an "I left my heart in Hackensack" ballad, right?  Dawson’s Creek could not just as easily have been Borgs Woods.

   Hackensack is neither small town America – always fertile ground for nostalgia – nor a proper metropolis, inspiring cinematic homage.  It isn’t pristine suburbia, either.  If Desperate Housewives were set in Hackensack, its dark ironic humor would be lost.  And in terms of attractions, Hackensack has the First Dutch Reformed Church and a couple of other historic landmarks, but no natural features to speak of, and so nothing to draw tourists. 

   So if you grew up in Hackensack within the last forty or fifty years, you are unlikely to feel as though you come from a place that’s special -- special in the public consciousness, I mean, if not your own.  But the more I ponder the place, the more I begin to sense that it does in fact breed something unique in its inhabitants.  Or if not unique, certainly distinct.  For if you come from Hackensack, chances are you have learned to expect the random.  Not the utterly unpredictable, as you might have had you grown up a few miles away in New York City, but just the random:  any house on your street could contain any sort of family with any sort of history.  Ethnic ancestry varied from door to door, as did family dynamics, family configurations, family expectations.  In other words, the mores in your house could well have been entirely different from the mores in the houses of many of your friends.  In my house, we observed the religious significance of Christmas and Easter in ways that many of our friends found somewhat alien.  Secularism sits side-by-side with churchliness in Hackensack.   In the Hackensack of my childhood, the 60s and 70s, a lawyer and his family could be living next to a postman and his family, a gym teacher and his family, a doctor and his family, an elderly landscape painter and his wife, and that gentle accountant all by his lonesome in the corner property.  These days that same variety of occupation holds true, only now the households are likely to be two-income.  In other words, you can’t just blithely ascribe collar-color to any one neighborhood in Hackensack, as you might in other nearby towns. 

   Paramus and Maywood, for example, always seemed more monolithic than Hackensack did.  Teenagers of my generation called Maywood ‘Mayberry’ for a reason.  And Paramus seemed more evenly affluent than Hackensack, the houses more modern, and the sidewalks poured concrete rather than slate (oh, Hackensack does have charm!  The slate sidewalks in the Fairmount section can take you back a hundred years.)   Paramus and Maywood were also less multi-racial.  Hackensack High School may not have offered true ethnic integration (as -- in my fantasies, anyway -- Montclair High School probably does), but it definitely offered ethnic diversity, and therefore another lesson in randomness. 

   My husband grew up in suburban Dublin where nearly every ‘da’ on his block was either in middle management or small business ownership, and every ‘mum’ clucked away the afternoons with every other mum, while the kids ran around in ‘the garden,’ and the whole neighborhood ‘took tea’ at 6pm, with the Angelus playing on the radio.  Everyone was white and Catholic.  Now while that scenario may be an extreme example of homogeneity, just think how utterly un-homogenous your block was, if you were a kid who grew up in Hackensack.  Well?  Are you thinking of all the ways your friends’ families were mind-bogglingly different from your own?  In my house, we shouted at each other mercilessly for the slightest transgressions and forgave those transgressions moments later, no apology required.  In my friend Susie’s house, they spoke to each other with indoor voices all the time.  Eerie.  My brother John had one friend whose mother was a born-again Christian who held weekly prayer meetings in her living room, and another whose parents tried hard to make light of their kids’ devil worship.  For a suburb, Hackensack really is an eccentric kind of place, isn’t it?  The schools, the parks, the businesses, the churches helped us achieve an interconnectedness, to be sure, but – think about it -- in a Cold War world, we were spared a whole lot of conformity, weren’t we? 

   Hackensack may not have much outward aesthetique, much visible local color, but its people have an inner openness, if that’s not too oxymoronic a phrase, an invisible, I don’t know, readiness.  We don’t know quite what to expect behind any one door, and so we expect the unexpected, we have a certain liberalness of mind, and we feel at home in many vernaculars.  ‘That’s cool,’ we’re likely to say, about whatever local customs we may come upon, whether in a nearby backyard or the wider world.  We’re not jaded, by any means, but we are admirably unflappable.  The more I go back to visit, the more I see an amiable spirit in my home-town of Hackensack.  Plus, it’s got the best dive restaurants I’ve ever been to.  And don’t get me started on the garage bands. 

Note to Editor,
Thanks for putting Susan Norton's "Ode to Hackensack" into the discussion. I don't know who Susan is but she really captures the essence of my thoughts about growing up in Hackensack, even in the 40s and 50s.

Many Thanks to Susan for your posted essay.
Bringing back many memories - You've captured Hackensack in a nutshell!

I grew up in Hackensack....birth to age 12 on Moore st...right behind Main st..then we moved to Spring Valley ave, a block from Summit Ave where my parents still was like 2 different worlds from the court house to Sring Valley Ave.. I hung out in Maywood where my grandparents lived. But i also used to sneak to the "other" side of town to hang out in the Union st park...Main st was the place to be when i was a kid. Did anyone see the movie called JERSEY GIRL? It takes place in Hackensack and she lived on top Foschini's Bakery...who had the best canoli's in the world. It's a great movie...i used to go pony riding in Foschini Park...and they had the best fireworks in the world. I loved Hackensack.

Another piece that tries to define community:  Community is defined by circles, not lines


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