I LIVE IN THE POORER END of Red Bank, New Jersey. It’s not a particularly exciting place to live. The other side of town has cool shops and bars and even a few good theaters, but here, most of the houses are kinda rickety looking. The shops have a “short-term lease” kinda look. The only real exception is a run-down haunted mansion across the street. Three stories tall, boarded up windows, and a vaguely eerie Victorian look — when we moved here, I remember looking at that building and thinking, “Oh, you wouldn’t be able to keep me out of that place if I was a kid.”
The house is called Maple Hall, and it was once owned by a man by the name of T. Thomas Fortune. You have likely not heard of T. Thomas Fortune, but you’ve heard of his friends. Fortune was born into slavery in Florida, but was freed at the end of the Civil War when he was 9. He became one of the first civil rights advocates, and founded the precursor to the NAACP. He founded one of the earliest and most successful black newspapers in New York, and became the editor for Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. He was a friend of W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and Zora Neale Hurston.
And he lived across the street from me, here in the boring part of Red Bank.
The world’s “boring” places
I moved to Red Bank with my wife, who is originally from the Jersey Shore, about 6 months ago. I don’t know anyone else who lives here, and I’m not very familiar with the area. Before this, we were in Asbury Park, a slightly better-known but much poorer town on the shore. They were not places I was thrilled to move — I had been raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, which I had always found mind-numbingly boring, and as soon as I could, I started hopping around to the world’s great cities. I lived in Buenos Aires, then Beijing, then London, where I met my wife. We moved together to Washington, D.C., which I loved.
Cities had something that I’d never found in the small towns and suburbs of America — they had history, they had texture, they had big, important, dramatic events. My apartment in Buenos Aires was right around the corner from Evita’s tomb. My street-corner in London was where Jack the Ripper stalked his victims. My home in D.C. was a 10 minute walk from the US Capitol Building.
Shore towns didn’t have that same history, that same gravitational pull. No one of any importance had been there. History had never rounded a corner on the streets of Red Bank. But I loved my wife and I loved the ocean, so I decided to give it a try.
Walking off the depression
When I lived in London, I walked everywhere. I lived in the Spitalfields area but I went to school in Holborn, so I could walk past the Gherkin, the gorgeous Bank district, up past the massive dome of St. Paul’s, and down Fleet Street and the Royal Courts of Justice to get to school. If I had free time, I could just let myself get lost. There’s a church, there’s a graveyard, there’s an old pub. London was a perfect place to live if you wanted to stumble into wonderful things. Two thousand years worth of history was stacked along the streets of London. Grime from the industrial age still coated the buildings. I would read all of the little plaques and Google certain sites to learn what had happened there. And as my time in London went on, I began to know the histories of the streets I’d walked on.
When we ended up in Asbury Park, I found myself isolated. I was working from home, and my wife took the car every day. I didn’t know anyone, so I would putter around the apartment and talk to no one. Eventually, I realized I was depressed, so I started forcing myself to walk again, to at least get myself out of the house.
Months into my time in Asbury, I was walking along the boardwalk when I stumbled upon a plaque and learned about the ghost ship that had run aground just off the Asbury Park Convention Hall. On another walk, I learned that two minutes down the road from me was the former home of Stephen Crane, the writer of The Red Badge of Courage. And the history of this small shore town started stacking up along the streets, just as it had in London.
The “boring” places are never boring — you’re just not looking hard enough.
By the time we moved to Red Bank, I was looking for hidden history everywhere I went. I’d learned that the woods I’d grown up in back in Cincinnati were haunted by a cryptozoological 4-foot-tall frog man. I’d learned that I lived a quick drive from the Hindenburg Crash Site. I’d learned that my new neighborhood had been the childhood home of bandleader Count Basie. And that I lived next door to the home of a civil rights icon.
History here in New Jersey was harder to find, but that almost made it better — in London, you expect everywhere to be interesting. Here, interesting has to be sought out — in tucked away memorials, in the pages of strange magazines and blogs like Weird NJ — and finding it feels like a victory.
My skills as a traveler were honed in the exciting parts of the planet — big cities, mountain ranges, seasides. It’s easy to be thrilled at the sight of St. Paul’s, or be totally overwhelmed by the massive labyrinth of culture that is the Louvre, or be humbled by the inhuman hugeness that is the Himalayas. It’s harder to find the same majesty on a grimy street in an average New Jersey town or in a creek in an Ohio suburb. But the ultimate lesson of my travels has been that we should not have to go places to experience culture and humanity. It has been that everything we’re looking for is directly beneath our feet at all times, and that all it takes to become fascinated with the world is a fresh pair of eyes.