by Andy Warren
I wander toward the village on an unseasonably hot June afternoon, my list of interview questions in hand, folded and refolded. I look toward the village, a train rumbles heavily through the valley on a concrete overpass, making it’s way to Penn Station. A long, overgrown park reaches off to my right; broken islands of asphalt mark the outline of an old playground. On the far end of the park is the town’s community garden. I squint through the humid light at a small figure hunched over a raised garden bed.
Sustainability is a value visibly worn in this town, but it can be difficult to see the real efforts being made toward sustainable practices. With that in mind, I asked for interviews with a few locals about their views on sustainability, both on personal and community levels.
The town is South Orange, New Jersey, home to roughly 16,200 individuals (2010 Census). It is a commuter suburb of Newark and New York, and is largely composed of family households. In the early afternoon, the town is without its usual crowds of school-age kids milling about. Sounds of construction are commonplace in the downtown, with two new high-end apartment complexes being built, each adjacent to another recently built housing complex. South Orange has a diverse socio-economic makeup, sharing borders with low-income areas of Newark and Orange, as well as more affluent suburbs such as Milburn and West Orange.
This information sets up some background for the village, but as with all localities, the character of the town lies largely with the individuals. I solicited five interviews with local residents on the streets, in the village, and even in a community garden. I focused the interview on the interviewee’s opinions on sustainability and food security, in the town and at large. Because I was interviewing in the middle of the day, my sample was limited, and ended up being all adults and mostly white individuals. The town itself is demographically white, about 60%, but there are large minority populations as well (2010 Census). As such, the views expressed cannot be interpreted as representative of the whole populace; however, I did notice a few interesting themes.
My interview subjects (in the order interviewed) were:
- Chad, a 23 year-old mixed race man, currently unemployed, who has lived in South Orange for 16 years.
- Corinne, a 43 year-old white woman, working as waitress, who has lived in South Orange for 3 years.
- Eric, a 28 year-old white man, working as an employee at a local small business, who has lived in South Orange for his whole life.
- P, a 63 year-old white man, a retired postal worker, who has lived in South Orange for 18 years.
- Ed, a 48 year-old white man, working as a “government official”, who has lived in South Orange for 3 years.
The first question I asked each interviewee (after they identified themselves) was, “In your opinion, what are the most pressing problems in South Orange?” The answers were telling in how each person thought of the town before delving into the more specific topic of sustainability, and may be illustrative of their state of mind without priming. Chad noted many problems, including high taxes, “overcrowded, socially stratified schools”, proximity to high crime areas, and the “niche” businesses that don’t serve the larger community. Corinne replied that parking was her biggest concern without hesitation. Eric came up with no significant problems with the town, and P responded similarly. Ed told me about managing economic and population growth.
Right away I noticed that “sustainability” meant different things to different people. Chad’s answers reflected more interest in socially and culturally sustainable practices. When asked, “How have you seen the community change with respect to sustainability?”, he responded by saying that the town was focused on appearing “eco-friendly” and “green,” but noted that more people are “on the brink economically,” and that gentrification and high cost of living are straining the community. He told me that he believed food security was good, but qualified that there was no “overt hunger”. His efforts to be sustainable were small everyday things, like turning off lights, using less air conditioning and heat, and avoiding plastic bottles and bags. On the other hand, Corinne was unsure at first how to define sustainability in her own terms, but came around to defining it in terms of personal health, such as exercise and nutrition. She believed local government shouldn’t be concerned with sustainability, and said she was only “a little” concerned with it herself.
Eric had very little to say, responding that he had “no opinion” about sustainability and acknowledging little concern with the impact of his lifestyle. P was also a man of few words, but showed more interest in the topic. His definition of sustainability was when something can “keep it up, keep going”. He said he had not seen the community change regarding sustainability, and noted that the two food stores closest to him had closed in recent years. He said that neither his eating habits, nor buying habits were influenced by sustainability. Unlike P, Ed had a lot to say on the topic, which was unsurprising; I approached him in the community garden, an ideal of urban sustainability. He defined sustainability as “responsible use of resources”, and said the subject was very important to him. His responses revealed a concern with energy use, and talked about the development of a dense downtown infrastructure as sustainable because everyone in the town is within walking distance of public transit, and can walk most places. His efforts to be sustainable were focused on using less nonrenewable energy, such as living in a smaller space, driving less, and eating seasonal vegetables. He was the only interviewee who grew his own food. He showed me his plot in the garden, and was even picking radishes and lettuce from the soil. Of all five interviewed, only P didn’t mention buying food at the local farmer’s market.
One of my last questions was, “What do you think or know about climate change?” Everyone responded that they believed it was already occurring. Chad, P, and Ed all mentioned the belief that human activity drivesclimate change. Only Ed expressed hope that it would end, mentioning recent EPA regulation.
Finally, I posed an open-ended question about any other environmental concerns I hadn’t brought up, to gauge what sort of issues were on their minds. Chad rattled off a long list of worries; rising sea levels, dying bee populations and fisheries, water availability, displacement of populations due to climate change, and more. Corinne responded that she was concerned with litter in the town. Eric didn’t bring up any other concerns. P responded more emphatically to this question than others, talking about hydraulic fracturing and its effects on water availability, and even about the unsustainable state of the economy. Ed filled me in about a cleanup of the Passaic River, and the legal circumstances of the cleanup.
As I walked around South Orange, looking for evidence of sustainable (or unsustainable) efforts, I found a few loud proclamations of sustainability and “eco-friendliness”, as Chad put it. There are signs around town advertising the village’s Farmer’s Market, once a week in the downtown area [picture 1 and 2].
The market is typically fairly small and offers local produce, as well as some handmade products, such as candles and soaps.
Nearby the Farmer’s Market is the community garden [picture 3], where residents can grow fresh produce, even if they don’t have a garden or yard at home. Ed noted that this was especially helpful for people living in apartments and condos; he hoped that the garden would be expanded in the future. I also noticed a sign cropping up in yards recently reading “Solarize SOMA” [picture 4] (SOMA referring to South Orange and the adjacent town Maplewood). It advertises a free solar assessment and promotes its website: solarizesoma.org.
A visit to the website shows that currently 12 homes in SOMA have gotten solar power systems installed on their homes through this service. Another yard sign visible around town reads, “NO DAM”[picture 5], and advertises a petition. These signs refer to a proposed damming in the nearby South Mountain Reservation, a dam around 70-feet high and 800-feet across. The damming met opposition on environmental grounds, and likely emotional grounds as well, as it would flood a valley that is currently a popular location to walk, barbeque, or fish.
There are also signs that South Orange could be more conscious of sustainable practices. For one thing, although there are solar powered trash compacters in the village [picture 6], the downtown has no recycling bins that I could see. The town may sort the recycling out of the trash, but it seems to me that there should be a simpler solution, even if that is the case.
I also noticed that the town runs two fountains during the warmer months [picture 7]. The fountains are not well maintained, and though some would argue it’s worth its cost, the water used in these fountains is not insignificant.
An ironic reminder of the waste is a sign posted near a fountain, hidden behind overgrown bushes, reminding South Orange to conserve water [picture 8].
After my interviews, I met my sister for a cup of coffee before my train. Though I had found a number of people to interview, I found myself distracted by the response I got from many others when asked for an interview. It seemed to me that to many, the topic of sustainability is an unpleasant one, and I met a strange sort of resistance to discussing it, even among those I interviewed. Though the town fosters a culture that values sustainability, much of it is directed at encouraging such a culture, and not active efforts. Despite the distance left to go before a sustainable society is established, there are signs everywhere that that goal is gaining more attention. It’s important to remember that sustainability comes in many forms, and individual efforts can accumulate to enact massive change.