RENAISSANCE by George Snedeker
I remember the two well-dressed men who knocked on our front door. They said they were interested in buying our farm. My father laughed and said, “We don’t want to sell the farm.” One of the men responded, "If you don’t sell, you’ll be surrounded by factories. Everyone around here has sold. We’re going to build an industrial park. If you don’t sell, you’ll be standing in the way of progress.”
The sign says “Renaissance,” but the rebirth of what? Fifty years later, rows of condos were thrown up for people on the road to success! The real estate agents promised an industrial park would be built. That’s how they got my parents to sell their four-acre farm. The factories never got built, only the condos.
The Middlesex County Workhouse is now a juvenile detention center. I’m not sure what they call it today. When I was growing up it was where men served 30 to 90 days for drunk and disorderly conduct or other public order offences. It was located right across the highway from our small farm, now a condo development called “Renaissance.” In 1956 real estate speculators bought up the whole area for a projected industrial park which was never built. I guess they did not know about the plans for the deindustrialization of America. It was prize land because it was located near the Pennsylvania Railroad line from New York to Philadelphia and points south and west. My parents did not want to sell the farm but they didn’t want to be surrounded by smokestack industries either, so they signed their names to the bill of sale and we moved to New Brunswick. So much for what used to be called progress in America.
On summer days when I was off from school, I could see the prisoners across the highway working in the field picking tomatoes. My mother often warned me about staying away from them, but they seemed harmless enough, working in the hot sun. They were not exactly hardened criminals.
Another important thing also happened to me the same summer we sold the farm. Jim Simpson, the old man who lived with us on the farm, died. His death was too much for me to face so I invented an elaborate fantasy that he was not dead. I told myself that it was a plot by his nurses to keep people from visiting him in the hospital so he could rest and get better. I believed that it was not really his body lying there in the coffin. His loss was too painful for me to bear.
I often think that the loss of our farm was the turning point in my life. It showed me the power of the market and its agents who pressure people to sell what had been theirs for years and displace them from a simple but meaningful way of life. It is not that the farm was economically productive; it certainly wasn’t! We raised a few chickens and grew a few vegetables, most of which we ate. But the air was clean and the land was ours. My father had inherited it from his first wife’s family when she died. It was not that we deserved the farm, it was more a stroke of luck, and now it had been taken away from us by some mysterious god called real estate. Somehow I have never forgiven those real estate agents for the loss of our farm and for Jim Simpson’s death. Of course this grievance lacks a certain level of rationality. who can be rational all the time?
I recently asked my sister how Jim Simpson came to live with us on the farm. She told me that he had been living on another farm and that my father had taken him in to live with us. As I remember him, he was an old man in poor health who drank Geritol and did a little light work on the farm. He was my friend and substitute grandfather. He had been a sailor and had a pension so we did not have to pay him anything; we gave him a room and three meals a day.
During the daytime, I used to play in his room, where I kept two boxes of toys under his bed. I can’t ever remember him complaining about this. Once a year, he took a vacation on Long Island where he stayed with his sister for two weeks. During the periods of his absence the farm was a lonely place.
The farm had once generated a cash income, but by the end of World War II, we used the farm to grow food to eat. My father’s wages were low so growing food supplemented his income and helped keep us out of the poorhouse. Prior to World War II, my mother ran a chicken and egg business, but with the rise of the national grocery store, her egg business ended. After World War II, my mother kept a few chickens for eggs, but she no longer sold eggs to neighbors.
In 1956, real estate agents coerced my parents into selling their four-acre farm by telling them and all of the other people who lived in the area that they were buying up land to build an industrial park. My parents were told that if they did not sell their farm, they would be surrounded by factories. This is probably the same story the real estate speculators told everyone in the area to get them to sell their homes. The real estate agents were only interested in the land so people could take their houses with them if they chose to do so. Some people moved their houses. If they did not move their houses, they would be demolished. Someone took our barn and made a house out of it.
As I reflect back upon it, I think the most important event in my childhood, even if I did not fully understand it at the time was when the real estate speculators knocked on the door of our farmhouse and announced that they wanted to buy the farm. First my father laughed and told them that we were not interested in selling the farm. But then the real estate speculators informed my parents that they were buying up all the land in the area for an industrial park so if we did not sell we would be surrounded by factories. It was this threat that led my parents to sign the bill of sale. The industrial park was never built and the land where our farm used to be located remained empty for fifty years. Now, it’s a condo development called, “Renaissance.”