Baristanet Profile: Laura Torchio

Name: Laura Torchio

Where do you live? I live in the “Montclair Heights” section of town – basically in the shadow of MSU – also formerly known as Speertown. In fact, my house is one of the original Speer homes. Built in the 1890s, it was one of five houses shown on a 1906 tax map which we have displayed in our foyer.

When did you move there?  We moved to this house in 1995. It was the “rental property” on the block – formerly home to hordes of Montclair State students partying and studying and being loud. It was converted to a two-family in the 1930’s (our guess) and we continued to house tenants on the first floor for 18 years.

This house was probably my 6th  home in this area after to transferring to “Montclair State College” in 1984 (I lived in both Bohn and Freeman Halls). In the 90’s, I used to like to take friends on a “Laura’s apartment” bike tour past my many apartments including Clove Rd. (MSU), Walnut Street (Montclair), Dodd St. (East Orange), Kirk St. (West Orange), Roseland Av. (Caldwell), and Inwood Av. (Montclair). It was a big, hilly bike ride.

Where did you grow up? 

I was born in Vineland, NJ and lived in my family’s home in rural Pittsgrove, NJ until I graduated from high school in 1982 and intermittently during college. The house was built by my father and his brother – who built homes for all of their family members side by side along Jesse Bridge Road. I was the last of 4 children and the most spoiled of my siblings (as is the right of youngests everywhere!) and had cousins as my neighbors. Our houses were open to all of us – bedrooms, refrigerators, and basement crawl spaces were our mutual domains – we’d freely come and go as if each were our own. Our houses backed onto protected forest, and were across the road from acres and acres of farmland, and our schools were a long 8 mile school bus ride from home. After school, we roamed – the woods were our playground – until the dinner bells rang from the back doors dragged us home again – dirty and tired and ready for baths and dinner and homework and bed. My parents are still in that house and every visit home brings back those memories.

How do you make a living? OR What is your everyday passion?

I am creative, seasoned, and spunky – usually the team cheerleader and often, “Chief Shenanigator.” And at age 56, I am dealing with the “OK Boomer” invisibility of middle age. I am a certified urban planner and in both my professional role at Project for Public Spaces or my volunteer role with Bike&Walk Montclair, I focus on working with communities to co-create and shape public spaces that foster civic life, belonging, and well-being. I passionately believe communities are empowered by zealous civic engagement and I seek to inspire change makers and visionaries who help make inclusive, healthy places irresistible.

Coffee, tea or … ? 

Never underestimate the power of a good cuppa and the conversations that happen over a shared one. In fact, while sipping a cup in the parklet outside Corso 98 and Red Eye Café, I had a conversation with a stranger/new friend about a mutual appreciation for mural arts and placemaking. Those serendipitous connections that happen in public space – especially public space that was once available to only park a car – is where the magic of community happens. Doesn’t matter if it’s coffee, tea, or other – but for me, coffee. Definitely coffee.

What’s your idea of a perfect weekend day? 

Depends on where and what season. A ski day in Vermont is pretty awesome. A lake day in Maine is, too. I love a visit with my parents at the kitchen table and we hardly notice that hours have passed. But if I’m here in Montclair, the best days include a walk around the perimeter of Mill’s Reservation with the dog or a walk through neighborhood streets with a friend (and the dog), a bike journey to the Farmers Market to shop and socialize, a stop for coffee on the way home, maybe a nap (disguised as reading), and a dinner around a campfire in the back yard. Perfect.

What’s your favorite local restaurant?

Ohmygosh – there are so many – which is one of the many things I truly love about this town. Any time of day, for meals or for snacks, Montclair is teeming with choices to meet up, try new flavors, or relax with trusted go-tos in many price ranges. The ones that are easy to walk, bike, or take transit to, are usually my regular picks.

What’s on your nightstand? Glasses, phone, water, book.

What are you listening to? 

I’m currently listening to Ann Patchett’s audio book, “This is a Story of a Happy Marriage” because I signed up for David Sedaris’ Masterclass on Storytelling and this was on his recommended reading list. I also love The Moth, Mortified, and This American Life podcasts. Music wise, when I’m feeling theatrical, Queen. When I’m feeling nostalgic, Yes. When I’m feeling sassy, Lily Allen.

What are your current indulgences? Binging Fleabag and Mrs. Maisel on Amazon, Schitt’s Creek on Netflix, and HGTV’s A Very Brady Renovation. Also, I sometimes take the ferry across the Hudson instead of the PATH.

What talent you would most like to have? The first time I saw STOMP, I thought I’d like to be one of the performers. I’d love to have a combo of musical, dance, and performance talent. I’d also like to be a better storyteller and humorist like David Sedaris and Mrs. Maisel.

What’s the worst-kept (or best-kept!) secret about Montclair (or your town)? 

Here are three that I think are super cool:

  • The Lenape Trail – those yellow rectangles (called “blazes”) that you see on trees and telephone poles mark a portion of the 36 mile Lenape Trail – a path commemorating the Native American Lenape Tribe (who occupied the area we now call New Jersey) – which meanders through Montclair between Mill’s Reservation and Brookdale Park – made possible by the NY/NJ Trails Conference and Montclair History Center.
  • Bike&Walk Montclair – more than just the annual “Tour de Montclair” community bike ride, this nonprofit volunteer organization has been advocating for streets as public places that support transportation as well as all other aspects of our lives. Like a stage where life unfolds, streets have the potential to be so much more than just for movement and storage of cars. They ARE so much more. This organization supports that and I support this organization through my membership, volunteering, and serving on their board.
  • Chef Alex Abd at Just Jakes – Chef Alex, inspired by Anthony Bourdain, offers creative and delectable dishes at his supper club events at Just Jakes. If you haven’t checked it out, you should – you won’t be disappointed. Also, Alex is a good candidate for this Baristanet feature!

What do you hope they say about you at your funeral?

I hope they say that I inspired them to either try something they never imagined themselves doing (like biking to work), engaging in harmless shenanigans (like crashing their high school reunion), or envisioning their world through new lenses. We have learned to live with mediocre public spaces – streets you can’t cross or walk comfortably along, parks that don’t allow bicycling, abandoned railroads that could be trails but aren’t, and a drop-off school culture that has removed physical activity almost completely from our children’s lives – that we’ve come to believe that this mediocrity is just the way it is. My hope is that they say I motivated them to act – to create inclusive and appealing public spaces (especially our streets) that reflect how we WANT to live, not what we’ve learned to live with.

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