I have lived in West Orange for 13 years, but until this past weekend, I had yet to attend a town festival.
Sure, maybe there have been some festivals around that I didn’t know about – I’m not counting 4th of July fireworks or middle school graduations – but I definitely have been an active member of the community as much as possible, seeing as when I moved here, I was four years old. I’m a member of the library, attend the farmer’s market, work with kids at Washington Elementary School, and have a lot of town pride.
I haven’t yet had an opportunity to embrace my town pride with other West Orange residents until yesterday’s Downtown Music Festival and Taste of Downtown as part of West Orange’s sesquicentennial celebration. That’s right: West Orange celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. In honor of this milestone, the West Orange Recreation Department and Downtown West Orange Alliance have put together a series of celebratory events. Starting with the Library Summer Kick Off, and continuing with many more events this week, the “W.O. 150” celebration culminates in an Independence Day Celebration on Wednesday. But first things first.
When I got to Colgate Park at about 6:45 Saturday evening, I was impressed to see the number of people in the park watching the Doo Wop band Back-in-Tyme perform, albeit resting in the shade, since the sun was still beating down. The edge of the park was dotted by tables representing different West Orange organizations and businesses, ranging from the town historical tent to a table for the West Orange African Heritage Organization. I spoke with Joe Fagan, self-proclaimed town historian, who has written two books about the town. He described his commitment to me as a “labor of love,” something he felt was necessary. As they say, and as Thomas Edison himself, the pride of West Orange, would agree, necessity is the mother of invention after all.
Crossing over onto the street, I found an array of local businesses and groups selling hot and cold food, snacks and desserts. I was especially thrilled to discover that Supreme Bakery was there with a table, selling beautifully iced cupcakes, and I had to get some jambalaya from Hat City Kitchen’s table, to avoid the line for Suzy Que’s. And I couldn’t help but notice how cute the boys of the Cub Scouts looked selling their wares.
As the sun cast a haze over Colgate Park and Back-in-Tyme crooned songs whose refrains included the words “mashed potatoes,” I looked around to see my mother singing, along with a woman from another family seated near us. The sense of community that I felt here, with residents of West Orange whom I had never even met, surprised me. But the most amazing thing about the festival was the enigmatic nature of the event. Where else but West Orange would the New Jersey Doo Wop Association help organize an event that also included teens informally playing soccer on the nearby basketball court and elderly people eating barbecue under the 95-degree sun? I can’t think of a place that would, and I can’t think of a place I’d rather celebrate. It’s what makes West Orange different, and it’s what makes me proud of my town.