I was talking with a close friend of mine the other day and in passing she said to me, “I didn’t know you grew up in such a rough town?” I was a bit taken back by this question and I said to her “What do you mean?” She said a friend of hers heard I was from Dover, NJ and couldn’t believe that I had grown up in there. I have been thinking about this conversation for quite a long time now – mulling it over in my mind, thinking about what my friend’s friend thought about my hometown. (She had grown up in a neighboring municipality.) By no means was I “worried” about what she thought – I just thought it was odd.
Dover, NJ is located in northwest New Jersey – about 35 miles west of New York City. It is a town that has always been a destination for new immigrants. My paternal grandparents arrived separately in the early 1900’s – my grandmother from Germany and my grandfather from southwest England. Dover was full of immigrants from other places too – Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, eastern Europe, and more which today I can’t quite remember. The town had many brick factories and a bustling downtown full of more brick storefronts. People came in droves from all over the world during the great migration to the USA in the early part of the 20th century and many settled in Dover. Different neighborhoods had different nicknames –including “Little Italy” and “Germantown”.
Growing up in this town, everyone was from somewhere. We often talked amongst our friends to see where their families came from. It made our lives very interesting – there were all kinds of different cultures in our classrooms which made holidays like Christmas and Hannukah especially fun.
As we grew older, many of my parents’ friends began moving their families out of town to suburbs that were being built around the town. They didn’t want their children to go to school in an urban environment. Perhaps they thought they had gotten too good to remain that they had to move on – up and out. As these families moved out, others moved in – immigrants from other places. I had friends from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other South American countries along with many friends who were grandchildren of the immigrants that had come earlier in the 20th century. My sisters and I just thought this was normal and commonplace. My parents couldn’t understand why their friends were leaving.
As this was happening, the surrounding countryside began sprouting shopping malls replacing the woodlands and farms. The towns around us grew and grew and Dover languished. The storefronts became empty – people became afraid to come to downtown Dover. Why – I’ll never know. I think they were afraid of shopping where everyone wasn’t the same as them. Or they were afraid of the unknown.
It wasn’t until I went off to college that I found out that I grew up in a different kind of town – a town that seemed to celebrate different cultures – now it might be called “ethnic diversity.” For me, it was just plain normal – people from all over the world speaking different languages and having different customs. It made it fun to visit friends’ homes and to see how they lived. I learned that no one particular culture’s way was right or wrong.
Now when I return “home to Dover” I am amazed by the bustling success it has once again become. All the beautiful old brick buildings are full of businesses. Most of them cater to the Spanish speaking population. But there’s also many of the old businesses still doing business the way they did 100 years ago. There’s also been some lovely additions including an antique center, a few thrift stores, and the famous Joe Kubert School for Cartooning. It is so good to see so many families enjoying the turn of the century homes and celebrating life in America.
As we ready ourselves for the upcoming December holidays, I must say I feel thankful for the upbringing I had in a funny little diversely populated town in NJ where I felt loved. I am sure it is where my interest in textiles from all over the world began. When I started studying textiles at university, I naturally wanted to learn more about textiles from different lands. I still retail this interest today and “ethnic fabrics” remain an important design influence in much of my work.
This year, I am going to try to introduce some of the cultural richness I grew up with around Christmas to Julia. Where we live now, although there is so much natural beauty, the cultural diversity is severely lacking. I'll also try to share it here with all of you on the blog.