27 May 2014
Yesterday I pedaled out to Somerville (NJ), in part to see the bike races. I also wanted to just spend a day away from any obligations I normally have: I could rationalize it to myself because Millie told me that she wanted to be alone and not to talk to anyone. (Our mutual friend Joanne told me that Millie told her the same thing.)
But I also wanted to revisit an old ritual: At one point in my life, I was pedaling out to Somerville every year, whether from Rutgers (half an hour, at most) or Inwood, Manhattan (about four hours). I also wanted to see a place that had, and hadn’t changed during those years.
The first time I rode out there—on a non-race day—was some time in the late 1970’s, when I was a Rutgers student. Then, Somerville had a certain kind of charm: It seemed more like a Southern town than one in west-central New Jersey. It had—as it has now—a pretty residential area full of houses with wooden porches framed by lacy wooden columns of carved vines or flutey stone colonnades. And in the center of town, diagonally across from the courthouse (The town is the county seat.) is the Hotel Somerset, said to be the oldest continually-operating hostellerie in the nation. The first time I saw it, I thought no one had stayed in it or eaten in its restaurant. It still looks that way today, even though people actually do spend the night—or longer—there.
But I started to notice something disturbing about the town. When I got there, I wondered whether I’d passed over the Mason-Dixon line somewhere in Middlesex Boro or Bound Brook. At some point, I noticed that the pretty historic residential area housed only white residents. I thought even I might have been too dark to live there. All of the people of color—very few in number during my first visit, more numerous now—live in a tightly-bounded area of town south of the hotel, along East Main Street and --which, interestingly, ends right by the race’s grandstand.
I wonder whether anyone else who came to see the races noticed--or knows that Somerville is the town in which Paul Robeson went to high school.