My grandmother's was the ninth and last generation of her family to grow up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Our ancestor John Ogden in 1664 was one of the four original patentees of Elizabethtown, the first English settlement in the Garden State. The Ogdens were prominent members of the community for the better part of three centuries, but times and fortunes changed and by 1942 the last of our immediate family had left for greener pastures. The city is now the 4th largest in New Jersey and the surrounding area heavily industrialized, though my grandmother recalled that the rail yards and tanneries were as odorous in her day as its refineries today.
On impulse, I took a side trip to Elizabeth while driving to Philadelphia on Wednesday. I had no map, nor a clear idea of where to find the landmarks of my grandmother's hometown. I figured that the center of town would be a good place to start, and as I drove through a succession of rundown neighborhoods I kept an eye out for the spires of St. John's Episcopal Church, where many of my Revolutionary-era ancestors are buried. I turned right on Broad St. and found myself heading for the Town Hall and suddenly there was the church, and across the street the Presbyterian church where my great uncle Dayt was married in 1942. I pulled into a parking space, and stepped out into the unusually warm sunshine of a balmy late winter day.
I knew that this was not my grandmother's Elizabeth, but it really sank in as I stood by the historic graveyard and found not only its gates locked and barred but padlocked chains across the entrance to the church itself, presumably to keep vagrants and vandals off the premises. It also kept me from the bones of my kin, including Jonathan Dayton, Signer of the US Constitution, and brothers Aaron and Matthias Ogden. There are oxidized plaques on the church walls and several other buildings downtown placed by patriotic Elizabethans more than 100 years ago to honor their forebears who fought in the Revolution, but they are not the names of today's residents and it is not their history.
Modern Elizabeth is nearly 50% Hispanic and 20% African-American. 18% of the city population lives below the poverty line. It has New Jersey's largest Urban Enterprise Zone. Its official city website plays up its historic attractions, but on Wednesday I was the only tourist on Broad Street outside the padlocked cemeteries looking in. Part of me was disappointed, but this is not my city and I am not entitled to special treatment just because my people were once is citizens. The cemeteries here belong to the dead, and the rest of Elizabeth to living Elizabethans. I got back in my truck and headed back to the highway.