horizontal line

On Growing Up in Nutley, New Jersey

Nutley Hall of Fame, Nutley, NJ
November 20th, 2005

Thank you very much for this wonderful honor. I am sorry that I had longstanding plans to be out of town at an event with one of my children this weekend, and could not be there in person. But I am very grateful to both of my parents for being at the Nutley Library for the ceremony this afternoon. So much of my interest in and love for the written word comes from them, and the example they set both in their own work, and in raising us in a house full of books. And since their connection to Nutley is almost as longstanding as their connection to me, they are the perfect stand-ins.

Nutley was, and is, very important to me not just as a home and not just as a place to have gone to school, but as the place where I think I really began my career. I started out as a journalist in one sense working on the school newspapers in Franklin School and then the Maroon and Gray at Nutley High, but the real beginning of my career came when I first got paid to write for a newspaper, and that was at the Nutley Sun, where I worked for Phil White for the grand sum of $80 per week one summer – long enough ago so that was a decent amount of money – and then stayed on through the school, year, covering sports. It was the experience I had at the Nutley Sun that was kind of basic training, boot camp of journalism, for me, and where I learned how to be a jack of all trades and how to deliver on deadline and how to write in a way that is particular to a place, and to the spirit and the needs of that place – all skills that I still use, almost every day of my working life.

But when I began to focus my work on my favorite subject, architecture, and to write pretty much exclusively about buildings and places and cities and communities, I realized that Nutley gave me something else, too, which is the sense of the power of place – a recognition of how a tightly knit community can be expressed in physical form, and of the difference between a place that was truly a town, as Nutley is, and a place that is nothing more than sprawl along an interstate, as so many newer suburban communities are.

From time to time I have worked on a book that I hope some day to finish, which is a kind of history of my own personal experiences with architecture, how I came to love it and what I experience when I look at buildings. The other day, thinking about today’s event, I looked back at the unfinished manuscript, and found a section that talked about Nutley. It seemed worth quoting some of that to you, since it says a lot about my feelings about the town.

Nutley, I wrote, had a glorious sense of village symbolism: a center with a town hall, firehouse, police headquarters, public library and a high school all clustered around the American community’s true heart, a football field. I don’t know a neater package of architectural symbolism this side of Philadelphia’s City Hall, whose great tower anchors the center of the urban grid, a visible monument to order and the public realm. I could not have known it at the time, but the way things were laid out in Nutley was as good a testament to the value of the public realm as I would ever see this side, perhaps, of Siena. The architecture wasn’t much, but the priorities were absolutely clear: no house, no business, no private institution took precedence over the needs of the people. The public realm possessed the heart of the town. From growing up in Nutley, I wrote, I began to grasp the importance of buildings coming together to make a place. In this suburban town, I began to learn what makes cities work. That is a wonderful lesson for a town to teach – and it is a lesson that has stayed with me ever since, which is a reason I can say I will always carry some of Nutley with me, wherever I go.

Thank you again for this honor.

horizontal line