It started out with a tour.
Libby Christensen was showing potluck participants around Les Saisons Bed & Breakfast on Elmwood Avenue. “That’s a portrait of Stephen Crane who wrote ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ He was a friend of the Flemings…there were three generations of Flemings who lived in this house…”
Christensen warmly led the McGowan family — Rick Myers, Mary Whithed, Shaelyn McGowan (age 12) and Essa McGowan (age 9) — over to a Chickering grand piano.
“That’s beautiful,” Whithed said.
Although Les Saisons is located a few thousand feet away on the same street as their residence, the McGowans learned of the bed & breakfast only a month ago.
Listen to Libby Christensen as she gives a Les Saisons Bed & Breakfast tour for the McGowan family.
The tour was an impromptu beginning to the Village Green’s Voting Block potluck — a gathering of neighbors on Elmwood Avenue (a few live around the corner or nearby) spanning a variety of political perspectives. For this project, we have been partnering with 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic news organizations across New Jersey as well as WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.
In our first article in this series, Village Green profiled 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 November’s gubernatorial election.
On Sunday, October 15, a sweeping two-hour conversation over sandwiches and desserts featured healthy doses of communal laughter, flared tempers and a slew of palpably sincere moments about being inspired by or losing faith in politics during the current political climate.
(Note: Some quotes in this article have been lightly edited for clarification in the case of overlapping dialogue among participants.)
The potluck took place in an ornate dining room located in a Second Empire French Victorian, built around 1840. Les Saisons Bed & Breakfast is located at 304 Elmwood Avenue (near Boyden Avenue) in Maplewood. Art Christensen, who grew up in the house and has lived there for 72 years, now runs a bed & breakfast out of his home. Art hosted this potluck event along with his wife Libby Christensen who once ran her own Maplewood hair salon, called The Chelsea Set, which she opened in 1978.
The potluck participants
Eight other neighbors joined the Christensens: Beverly Bien, Deanne Landress, four members of the McGowan family (nine-year-old Essa McGowan, 12-year-old Shaelyn McGowan, Rick Myers, Mary Whithed), Angel “Bob” Perez and Eric Shorter. The potluck received two impromptu guests: Trenesa and Chris Danuser, who were touring the bed & breakfast and joined in towards the end. Village Green co-editor Mary Mann was on hand, occasionally providing local historical context.
“What’s something you’d like to tell the gubernatorial candidates about Maplewood?”
“I see nothing in the two current candidates or in the assembly, or the Senate or in any other realm here in New Jersey that would lead me to even suspect that there would be any relief in the near future,” said Angel “Bob” Perez, a long-time resident who has run multiple times as a Republican for the Maplewood Township Committee. “So I’m completely ambivalent about the election. There is nobody there who represents me.” [0:26]
Several potluck attendees — from various political points of view — concurred that neither Republican candidate Kim Guadagno nor Democratic candidate Phil Murphy had the state’s best interests at hand. The conversation focused on Maplewood’s high property taxes, in addition to the concern that state taxes were not benefitting the town.
“If the taxes are being usurped and thrown into pork [barrel] fundings that don’t benefit the general community at large, then it’s taxation without representation. I don’t think the representatives speak for the vast majority of what the community wants,” said Eric Shorter, a Maplewood resident of 13 years, a musician, and father of three daughters. [1:44]
High property taxes, according to Deanne Landress, encourage residents to leave the town once their children have graduated from Columbia High School.
“We’ve got to figure out another way to fund education than just pure property taxes because we’re destabilizing our communities,” said Landress, who moved to Maplewood in 1982 and raised a son here. “I go into Maplewood … I don’t know anybody anymore. How long was I in this community and [now] everybody my age is just gone? So we’re creating communities where there is nobody around who remembers, who has a history with the town, there’s a few … but basically it just completely turns over, and I don’t think that’s a good way to organize our state.” [4:13]
12-year-old Shaelyn McGowan, who attends Maplewood Middle School, shared her observations from the perspective of a current student in the school system. “I like Maplewood. I can understand the taxes [problem]. I don’t really know how to do them, but it seems like they cost a lot so I agree that they should change that,” she explained. “But I do like our schools. Our teachers are really good. They teach me a lot.” [5:27]
When the discussion veered towards the culture of Maplewood, many expressed pride in their community.
“I think that one of the things that really attracted us to moving here was the diversity of the families that we encountered and … just a feeling of welcoming and acceptance,” said Mary Whithed, who, along with Rick Myers and Scott McGowan, co-parents Shaelyn and Essa. “We’re an alternative family structure and we wanted to live someplace where that wouldn’t make us a target of bullying or single us out in negative ways and we really felt like Maplewood would be a safe place for us and for our kids to grow up.” [6:57]
Libby Christensen was quick to agree. Describing a fundraiser for the South Orange/Maplewood Coalition on Race which took place the night before, she spoke of the importance of having “people come together and learn to like people and respect them and understand their differences. That was a brilliant thing.” [8:01]
Perez compared current taxes to when he first moved to Maplewood. “Our taxes were reasonable. We did not have an income tax. We didn’t have a state lottery to fund the schools. All of these things were added in later, and all of these monies going to the general budget – and they all disappear. No matter how much you give these people, they’re not going to spend it in a way that represents the way you and I spend money,” he said. [15:39]
“How has your attitude towards politics changed since the November 2016 presidential election, if at all?”
When Donald Trump’s presidential victory was brought up, the conversation took on a rather different tone. While those with opposing political views were able to find a middle ground when it came to tax issues, divisions between Trump and non-Trump supporters became evident, including several bellicose exchanges. Even though Art Christensen flew a Trump flag during the presidential campaign, Perez served as the most ardent Trump supporter during the potluck.
“I think they should eliminate all the parties. We needed the shake-up. We got the shake-up. And I think we got a lot more shaking to do … There’s no way that I support any party. In fact, I’ve just lost all faith in government in general,” said Christensen. [0:59]
Landress was surprised by Christensen’s response. “When you become completely disgusted with politics — you’ve just been one of the most rah-rah politics guys I’ve ever known — that’s a big deal.” [2:12]
“That’s what it’s done to me,” responded Christensen, who has run for Maplewood Township Committee in the past and considers himself fiercely independent. “As far as I’m concerned. Going forward, I’m done with politics. All of them. On all sides,” he later said.
Perez said his attitude has been reinforced by the election. “I don’t believe the representatives represent us. They represent themselves. The minute they’re elected, the exercise begins to be re-elected. They get their power from their donors and they will do what their donors want — the public be damned.” [3:30]
“I think they should donate to us,” 90-year-old Beverly Bien added, momentarily breaking the building tension in the room.
Others described being “motivated” and “energized” by the response since the election.
“I’ve been very inspired because I think democracy is amazing and I think it took Donald Trump to get you to see the Republicans keep hearing what they want to hear and they didn’t mean what they meant they said,” said Landress. [4:34]
“I’m energized. I feel like this has actually inspired me to be more vociferous and speak out,” said Shorter. “Bottom line, for me, on all of the issues, back to taxation without representation, the 100 men and women in the Senate that can’t get it together. We are divided and conquered. But the Executive Office of the United States is currently occupied by a criminal who is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The rule of law is null and void right now … And that’s where my passion lies.” [6:49]
Shorter’s comments did not sit well with Perez, who defended President Trump and believes he has been treated unfairly since taking office.
“Relax. Relax. I think he’s nuts. Let me tell you why. This man has a billion dollars at his disposal. He has the opportunity and ability to sit on any beach in the world and sip any drink of his choosing and relax and enjoy his grandchildren,” said Perez. “Instead, he allows himself to be castigated improperly by people like you. The man in the oval office today is being hammered every single day. How he can stand it — I don’t know. But he is the man that we need in the office right now. And the only politician in this country today that’s worth ten cents. Period. [8:44]
“Do you discuss politics with people who think differently from you? What stood out to you most from the conversation?”
Rick Myers, who in our previous interview said he would be voting for Phil Murphy, recalled his attempt to give Trump some leeway early on. “Was I happy with the results of the last election? No,” explained Myers. “But I was going to give the man a chance and I actually said that to certain friends … and I was just kind of laughed at, actually. But in the meantime, he’s continued to tweet…I just don’t trust politicians anymore.” [6:45]
“Did you ever?” asked Bien.
“To a certain degree, yes,” responded Myers. “I mean, the country has been running for how many years now?”
“In spite of, not necessarily because of,” said Bien.
Throughout the conversation, members of the group grappled with whether or not there was value in reaching across the political divide.
“You can’t win,” said Bien. “Because I tell you my point of you, you tell me your point of view and nothing changes.”
“Well, here things change,” said Art Christensen. “Because at the bed and breakfast we get guests from all over the world and either they side with me or they don’t get extra pancakes. That’s number one. And they usually side with me because of those blueberry pancakes.” Christensen’s comments provoked a loud moment of laughter from many at the table. He then became more serious. “No, we have political conversations here all the time. The thing that you’re not supposed to have, political and religious conversations. We get them [guests] from everywhere.”
In our conversations, Christensen has often mentioned his desire to serve as host for political gatherings, even if those assembling don’t share his point of view. [11:18]
12-year-old Shaelyn McGowan said that she and her friends don’t have political conversations. “None of my friends really likes talking about it because, of course, it’ll make us argue and we don’t want to argue,” she said. “We’re all friends. So we just don’t really talk about it that much.” [24:30]
“I think what the young person there said was most important is that when we get into some of this, it causes a divisive type of argument,” said Shorter of Shaelyn’s comments. “Divide and conquer is the greatest tool ever wielded by anyone in terms of keeping the country, keeping societies and communities fighting amongst themselves while other people profit. So when we have a common conversation about something and we can stop and — as Art says, keep our cool — then we’re all Maplewoodians in this great community.” [26:55]
Earlier moments of tension disappeared as the potluck came to a close. Some admitted that stress from political conversations is the primary reason they keep quiet about their personal viewpoint.
“There were some heated arguments here, which is what I tend to avoid,” Myers said. “I don’t like confrontation. It’s part of my upbringing and I probably will continue to avoid political discussions.” [29:01]
Trenesa and Chris Danuser, who had stopped into Les Saisons to tour the bed & breakfast, joined the potluck at the invitation of Libby Christensen. They sat for the last few minutes of discussion.
“I wanted to just say outside looking in — not having taken part — I think it’s wonderful to see there’s a concerted effort to make safe spaces,” said Trenesa.
“After a grueling match of tennis, they always shake hands at the end,” said Shorter.
Bien, the eldest of the group, had a quick retort: “But they don’t mean it.”
The group erupted in deep, hearty laughter. Art and Libby packed sandwiches and encouraged attendees to take them home. The participants said their goodbyes.
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.