The well-trafficked stretch of Elmwood Avenue between Prospect Street and several blocks past Boyden Avenue in Maplewood, New Jersey can go by fast. The road is traffic-light free and a bit wider than many streets in the town.
The decidedly residential avenue has a few standouts, such as the Winchester Gardens retirement community and Les Saisons, the lone bed and breakfast in Maplewood. Elmwood continues for a few more blocks before entering the neighboring town of Irvington.
Today, Maplewood’s political blood runs a very deep shade of blue. During the 2016 Presidential election, 9,940 residents voted for Clinton and 1,161 for Trump, with 159 votes for Jill Stein and 120 for Gary Johnson. A smattering of other candidates collected 29 votes. And while Elmwood Avenue may boast its heavy percentage of Democrats, you don’t have to dig too deeply to find those who have differing and outspoken political views.
Village Green will be profiling a selection of neighbors on Elmwood Avenue between Prospect Street and Boyden Avenue as part of a statewide series called Voting Block, a collaborative reporting effort to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters in neighborhoods across New Jersey ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election.
Village Green will be organizing a potluck event for neighbors from a variety of political perspectives to come together as we move closer to Election Day on November 7. We will be partnering with 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic news organizations across New Jersey as well as WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.
A trilogy of parents
The McGowan-Myers-Whithed household – they refer to the family of five as the McGowan family — has been living on Elmwood Avenue for just over a decade.
“We were specifically looking for a community that would be open and friendly to gay families and non-traditional families because of our commitment to co-parenting and raising our daughters together,” says Mary Whithed.
Whithed was living in New Hampshire when she gave birth to their first daughter. And she wanted to make sure her daughter’s fathers were as close as possible. Those fathers are Scott McGowan and Rick Myers, who were then living in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn. McGowan and Myers have been partners for 29 years. They married in 2013.
And the three wanted to be co-parents under a single roof.
Whithed, McGowan and Myers considered West Orange, South Orange and Maplewood to put down their family’s roots.
“We didn’t have a realtor lined up. We just came out here and we went to the Maple Leaf Diner. People were friendly,” Whithed recalls. “They approached us and wanted to interact with the baby. There was an LGBTQ movie playing at the local movie theater. And the look of downtown reminded me of New England. I felt comfortable immediately.”
Myers was working for an investment bank in Jersey City at the time. “And then things changed after 2008,” he said, referring to the banking collapse of that year. “I now work for a tech company that has a contract with an investment bank in midtown.” The ease of commute from Maplewood played an important role for him. “I didn’t want to be too far out,” he adds.
McGowan is a professional actor who, by coincidence, was acting for a nearby professional theater company. He was already familiar with the commute before they moved. Their daughters, now ages 9 and 12, attend Seth Boyden Elementary School and Maplewood Middle School, respectively.
“Friendly, but private”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the front door of “Keswick” was busy with the entrances and exits of their daughters. They named their house Keswick for a series of reasons. “It was the name of a movie theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania where I grew up,” explains McGowan. “The name also refers to Mary’s family. Her roots are Irish and Welsh. And it’s also the name of a character in a play called ‘The Woman in Black’.”
When I asked Myers about Elmwood Avenue, he took a moment to look outside. “I like our street,” he says. “It’s a little bit busy. It’s a high traffic street which unfortunately prevents us from having block parties.”
“The street is friendly, but private. We know all of our neighbors but we haven’t necessarily gotten to know our neighbors well,” Whithed adds. “If I ever had a problem, I wouldn’t hesitate to knock on someone’s door. I generally feel safe in the neighborhood.”
Our conversation veers towards the forthcoming gubernatorial election.
“I’ve never been a real politically active person. I always made sure to vote. But since the last election [of Donald Trump] I guess you could say I’ve found myself more watchful on the national level and how it’s rolling down to the states,” Myers says. “One thing that’s very important to me for this new governor is how they will treat the LGBT community and where they stand with rights for individuals. The transgender issue is a big focal point now given everything that’s been happening.”
“I used to have more of a belief in the goodness of people. I would say I’m more cynical now and more fearful of the number of people who hold beliefs that are so antithetical to mine,” Whithed says.
“Avoid talking politics at all costs.”
Whithed needs to excuse herself for a few minutes so she can drive her daughter’s friend home. “It’s just down the block. I’ll be back soon,” she says.
Myers speaks about attending Beacon Unitarian Universalist Church in Summit, New Jersey, where he is very active and sings in their choir. “It’s been amazing that churches have had to declare that they are sanctuaries for people who are potentially being deported. People are scared. We just changed our logo and I like it a lot,” Myers explains, showing me a flyer. “A beacon has many different meanings. One is that it’s a place the people look to for support, for help, for a safe place.”
Throughout the conversation, Myers reiterates that talking politics is simply not his comfort zone. “I try to avoid it at all costs. For me, it’s always been a general rule of thumb,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a political discussion that had a good outcome.”
“She’s not a friend to the arts.”
Soon after settling in Maplewood, Whithed took a job working in arts education in Newark. “I was re-entering the workforce after having our first daughter,” she says. “I then switched gears and started working at a local performing arts center and have since held several positions there.” Prioritizing arts education is not only part of what she does professionally; Whithed views funding for the arts as a crucial issue when considering her vote for the next governor of New Jersey.
“There’s a positive economic impact that has been demonstrated from investing in arts. I work in the arts and I believe in the value of the arts. It makes our communities better, safer and helps overcome some of these divides,” she says. “Kim Guadagno [current Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey and Republican candidate for governor] tried to eliminate arts funding. She’s not a friend to the arts.”
And arts have played a significant role in their children’s education as well. While the family is zoned for Clinton Elementary School, they chose to send their daughters to Seth Boyden Demonstration Elementary School, which was founded in 1913 and became a demonstration school almost 20 years ago.
“We liked their student-centered learning approach. You’re not just learning math and doing worksheets — you sing a song about math,” says Whithed. “The previous principal [Mark Quiles, who retired in 2016] was a performer himself and invested in arts opportunities.”
A neighbor knocks at the door looking for their eldest daughter. “Rick, you may have to go up there. She has her headphones on,” says Whithed. Their 12-year-old daughter briefly stops into the living room. “It’s a really comfortable place. No one judges you for that much,” she says of Seth Boyden Elementary School. “Everyone’s really friendly.”
“You always knew where you stood with Phil.”
Myers knows Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor, because they both worked at the same investment bank years ago. “I always knew him to be a straight shooter,” Myers says.
But does he make for good governor material? Myers thinks so. “We’re not in good fiscal shape right now and that’s an area where he can help New Jersey. And I like what he stands for on LGBTQ issues and gun control,” he says. “You always knew where you stood with Phil.”
As we finish up, I tell the family that I’ll soon be heading over to interview the owners of a bed and breakfast. Myers and Whithed are surprised. “Really? I didn’t know we had a ‘b&b’ on our block,” Myers says.
Pancakes at Les Saisons Inn
“I’m known as the pancakes guy,” says Art Christensen. He’s made a generous stack of silver dollar-sized blueberry pancakes. He serves me first and then stacks his up, bisecting the entire set in one decisive slice of his knife.
“I’ve been a resident of Maplewood for 72 of my 77 years,” he says. We’re sitting in the kitchen of the home he grew up in, a Second Empire French Victorian, built around 1840. He now runs a bed and breakfast out of his home, which he calls Les Saisons Inn, located near the corner of Elmwood and Boyden avenues.
Originally born in Newark, New Jersey, Christensen moved to the house in 1946. His father was in the restaurant business and his mother owned three hair salons — one each in Newark, Irvington and Clifton.
The refrigerator has that array of items you’d typically find taped and magnetized to the front. Included in the mix is a magnet of Donald Trump with a caption that reads “We shall overcomb. Trump 2016.”
“I make breakfast for people in the morning and steal their cars at night.”
Christensen attended nearby Seth Boyden Elementary School, an institution which he still believes to be a priority. “I take good care of Seth Boyden every chance I get,” he says.
After graduating from Columbia High School, he would serve in the U.S. Navy before settling into his long-time career. “I got into this 57 years ago. When I started, I never heard of repossession. I couldn’t even spell it,” he says. He tells the story of getting started with one of his earlier partners. “He was known as ‘Mike the Constable’. He had this ‘cut-on-the-dotted-line’ tattoo on his neck.”
Christensen later shows me the car he still uses for his repossession business, equipped with a slew of cameras and scanners to capture vehicle information. “It’s kind of an interesting contrast. I make breakfast for people in the morning and steal their cars at night,” he says.
Art and Libby Christensen met 25 years ago. “We were in South Orange, walking down the street, passing like ships in the night,” Art recalls. “I looked to the left and she to the right. I went one way she went the other. As fate would have it, I stopped in this restaurant for a snack. And guess who was in the same restaurant? She says I followed her, but I didn’t.”
Libby grew up in Paisley, Scotland. I ask her if she’s a citizen of the U.S. “Yes, I am,” she quickly responds. “I do believe there are two ways to come to the country; one is legally and the other is illegally. If you come illegally, you have broken the law and get sent back.”
Libby has been cutting hair for almost 50 years. She opened her own salon, called The Chelsea Set, in 1978. She still operates her business in the corner of the salon — now Staynd Color — located next to the Maplewood train station where she’s still cutting hair. In 2009, she co-wrote the screenplay for “Split Ends”, her semi-autobiographical film. “It premiered at the Maplewood movie theater,” she explains with her gentle Scottish lilt.
Flying the Flag
“I’ve always had a Republican frame of mind, going back to my early twenties,” says Art. “I was involved in the Maplewood Republican Club and I always hosted the kick-off campaign for the Republican party.”
Art explains that newcomers to Maplewood may be surprised that the town was “very Republican, back in the day.” He believes that the sharp political divide he sees today was not nearly as pronounced decades ago.
During last year’s presidential election, Art hung a Donald Trump flag in his window. “Flying the flag was rather controversial,” he says. “I used to host debates here for the [Maplewood] Township Committee. I don’t believe they’re going to do it this year. I’m quick to volunteer for just about anything. I’m pretty active in not just politics, but community service. I’m a long-time Rotary Club member.”
According to Art, the political climate in Maplewood has changed for the worse.
“I’m not happy about the attitude of a lot of the folks that I’ve known for a long time in town,” he says. “Their attitude and the way they’re behaving — it’s not even childish. Childish is a pleasant way to explain their behavior. It’s mean-spirited, ugly, hurtful and hateful. It bothers me to see our community so divided.”
“The entire country is divided,” Libby adds.
“This town is divided, even to the dramatic point of certain people wishing that Trump be assassinated,” Art says. “How bad or how much worse can it get? I’ve been notoriously fighting the good fight against the liberal establishment on Maplewood Online. I’ve kind of just backed away from posting at this point. You’re knocking your head up against a wall. They don’t leave any room for others’ opinions.”
Art is no stranger to controversy in this town. Over a decade ago, neighbors formed a group to prevent him from operating his home as a bed and breakfast.
“We’ve had some political wars,” he says. “But it was only three neighbors of the eighteen that border my property. Three out of eighteen ain’t bad.” He also ran for a spot on the Township Committee; however, he was unsuccessful in his bid. “I was the only Republican running,” he adds.
When our conversation switches to the upcoming gubernatorial race, Art says that he may do a write-in vote instead of checking a box for either Kim Guadagno or Phil Murphy. “I want to give them both an opportunity to speak and know what their platforms are. But I don’t trust either one of them at their word. There’s certainly enough evidence that they both talk out of both sides of their mouth,” he says.
The Trump Piñata and Seth Boyden’s portrait
In a room just off of the kitchen, I notice what looks to be a puppet figure of Donald Trump suspended from the ceiling. “That’s a Trump piñata,” says Art. “One of my sons gave that to me as a Christmas present. He gave me a bat along with it, knowing full well I wouldn’t use it. But he told me that the piñata is filled with hundred-dollar bills. But it’s not enough. When they make them with thousand-dollar bills, maybe I’ll whack it. It was the perfect gift. It was a perfect joke.”
After finishing our conversation, Libby and Art take me on a tour of the house. The home’s décor feels if you walked into a century-old home with very few updates. Libby warmly leads me by the hand through each room.
We finish our tour at a portrait of Seth Boyden, the engineer and inventor whose name is prevalent throughout the Maplewood area. The portrait was painted by Thomas Fleming, who previously owned the Christensen’s home. “It’s the original. And it’s beautiful,” Libby says.
Next month, the McGowan family and the Christensens will be joined by other Elmwood Avenue neighbors at our potluck meal and political conversation. We’ll report on that gathering in our next article in this series.
This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with The Record, NJ Spotlight, WHYY, WNYC, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.