Small Town Blues

“I’m a reflection of the community.” —Tupac Shakur

Growing up, we all knew that the real rich people lived in Millburn, even though the Jewish kids in my town got spray tans and nose jobs and the Asian kids probably spent as much on AMC prep, piano lessons, and science programs. Millburn had both a downtown and debate team that Livingston kids or city planners couldn’t touch, and most of our immigrant parents had to settle for L-Town since Millburn property taxes were sky high. After eighth grade there was a mass Asian exodus to move so people’s kids could have better chances of getting into Harvard. Most importantly, the Short Hills Mall was glitzy as Kim while who would ever want to go to the Livingston one if the kid didn’t have to? Millburn was so rich that rumor claimed it once tried to secede from Essex County, which turned out to be true, but only when we were all in kindergarten and couldn’t tell one set of huge houses from the other set of small mansions. We were small-town rivalry, some of the richest towns in the state with some of the best schools in the country to back it up, and the best evidence of our wealth was our cars, meaning, that you knew you were in Livingston High when the student parking lot looked shinier than the teacher parking lot, and a kid got a Mercedes on his sixteenth birthday, and most importantly, our cars kept on getting stolen. Essex County had a history of car thefts because Newark was the capital of joyriding in the 70s, and someone once famously posted in Millburn’s town Internet forum that they’d had four cars stolen since they’d moved in, to which most people said, it took four times to learn to take the keys out?

On December 15, 2013, Dustin Friedland died in Millburn's Short Hills Mall parking deck defending his car during a carjacking, which was surprising to those of us who hung around there at least once a week. The carjacking was committed by Kevin Roberts of Newark, who defended himself during the trial. Newark was 15 minutes away by car and worlds from my house. I felt tied to it because my dad once lived there, and sometimes I helped him interview residents for his research, and I audited classes in the tech school. But I wasn’t kissing the surface of the good parts. Newark had a dioxin orange sunset. In 2015, according to Law Street Media, Newark was rated the ninth most dangerous city in the United States, jumping up ten spots since 2014 after a 23% increase in robberies and a 16% increase in murders. In 2014, the New York Times claimed that car thefts were going out of fashion, but after Friedland’s death, they published an article stating that carjacking rates were on a massive undeniable high. A Vice video on a major carjacking circle in Newark confirmed that car thefts were going down, but that didn’t mean they weren’t gonna take your car if they had families to feed.

What continues to define Essex County in my memory is the tension between what was close and what was far, faded as girls in the locker room. What it meant to be so rich, school-stressed, cherry-coked, vanilla-milkshaked, bubbly, and aggressively insular, so close to a place that was definitely not. The tension bled itself into the stories we told (i.e. rich pretty white girl was getting with her outta town dealer so what did you think was going to happen), our out-of-school interactions (i.e. he took me to Domino’s?!), our in-school interactions (i.e. if you take steroids and don’t work out you just turn fat right), our claim on New York instead of New Jersey (i.e. a twenty minute drive and thirty minute train ride to Manhattan is not “from the City”), the slang we used (i.e. bruh, yo, alldayerrday, which were appropriations but not flat-out plagiarisms). A boy in a class I audited at the tech school once asked me how smart I had to be to get into Harvard, and I wondered why he was asking that because he aced Python and worked a job and learned English in a year and dealt with a troublemaker brother, and on top of that, was reading Dostoevsky for fun. I was explaining why I went to music school on Saturdays when I wasn’t even trying to be a pianist.

There are many theories on the economic inefficiencies of inequality that try to conciliate capitalism with progressivism, including suggestions that inequality shrinks the economic pie, that wealth in this country no longer equates to productivity, and that richer people are in highly demanded jobs. But I cannot separate the rise in crime rates, the formation of a carjacking ring, and the historical prevalence of car theft in Essex County from the classed inequality, distrust, and denial that characterizes my home in my memory. If property rights are a foundational aspect of a working economy, I watched it crumble in front of me as a result of social tensions stemming from inequality, which extends past Essex County and New Jersey. Lootings during riots are expressions of distrust, and the motivating forces of strikes are perceptions of distrust. When Rosa Ines Rivera, a HUDS worker, stated in her New York Times op-ed, “While I’ve earned no college credits here, I’ve had a lesson in hypocrisy,” she is claiming distrust in Harvard’s administration, against whom she, along with 750 co-workers, organized a historic strike. When an estimated close-to-unity of black voters choose Clinton while the estimated majority of white voters choose Trump, they are displaying perceptions of an innate collective difference. I am not sure if feelings of distrust between the rich and poor, blacks and whites, powerful and marginalized, are mathematically quantifiable or significant. However, these tensions, when massed collectively, are real, tangible, heavy. They say something significant about who we are and what we want, which are the bases of any economic argument.


Christina M. Qiu '19 lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.