Copyright © 2022 by the John Dandola, Ltd. All rights reserved.
Why the Present-Day West Orange So Differs From the West Orange Presented in My Mystery Novels
Whenever one of my 1940's mystery novels debuts and it is set within the confines of West Orange, New Jersey, readers immediately ask if the town remains the same because some would like to visit.
The straight forward answer is "no" and explanations are then asked for.
At the time my novels are set, the portrait of the physical town is entirely accurate. It was never a physically pretty town but it possessed an odd blue-collar quaintness. If you consider Mayberry as the be-all and end-all of small towns, you realize that Mayberry isn't a pretty town but it has its own character. You can apply that to the West Orange of old.
Unfortunately, present-day citizens of West Orange have little interest in reading about the real town history. Instead, they would rather gobble up the inaccuracies doled out by the political crony who was appointed "official town historian". Since he has no training, no professional credentials, no ability to properly interpret, and no writing skills whatsoever, half of everything he reports is wrong. Such bastardization of the town history usually goes hand-in-hand with present-day political motives. They even celebrate the town's founding on the wrong year and the residents unwittingly accept all the lies.
In the present, West Orange is trying to be a city not a town as it was created. The result is unaffordable property taxes to live in an atmosphere of nothingness because nearly everything old and with character has been obliterated. The so-called historic preservation committee wasn't created until long after they knocked down practically all of the vintage buildings and, as a result, the town doesn't look the same as it did for generation after generation.
But the darkest side of West Orange has always been its politics.
From its nineteenth-century founding, more than half the town was farmland. Since the City of Orange and the City of Newark were already long established and already had their own fine-tuned municipal corruption, the scallywags who ventured into rural West Orange were always third-rate hacks. Think of those Western movies were the villains move into newly-formed mining towns and seize power. The one thing which has never changed in the one-hundred-forty years of West Orange's existence is that the politicians are still third-rate hacks.
Throughout the nineteenth century, almost anything went in terms of politics including setting fire to ballot boxes during elections (something I discovered when I wrote the history of the West Orange Fire Department). Entering the twentieth century, things became a bit more tame. At the time when my novels are set, the mayor was exactly the straight-shooter as I have portrayed him but he left office in 1952. He was the last honest mayor West Orange ever had.
Since West Orange had more taverns than any other municipality in the county, the pre-1950 corruption usually centered around licensing kickbacks. With farms being sold off for post World War II housing developments, corruption entered the big time because suddenly there was a source for politicians to make real and very easy money. The corruption grew during the 1950's and when, in the 1960's, the form of government changed from commission to mayor/council, the corruption exploded and knew no bounds. In that greed, they sought to change whatever they could about the place and they succeeded in reducing the look of the town to shambles.
In a commission form of government, voters elected five separate commissioners to run each municipal department and those commissioners chose the mayor from among themselves. In the time period covered by my novels, West Orange lucked out because that commission-selected mayor was smart and honest and he managed to give the town some identity.
In a mayor/council form of government, the mayor and council are all elected by the voters. Of course, voters get what they vote for and, sadly, voters are usually not too smart especially since they focus only on the short range and not the long range and peripheral vision never comes into play. In West Orange, the voters complain for four years about the choices they make and then they turn around and put those same choices back in office. Each election is like a parody in a bad unfunny comedy replete with the voting dead from Rosedale Cemetery. Most insulting is that the politicians are not bright and that has been a constant through the last seventy years. If you barely get out of high school and you have no skills, you run for office where you make decisions on things in which you have absolutely no expertise.
Such a lack of expertise and lack of taste results in no aesthetics ever being applied to any endeavor. In fact, aesthetics are treated as something always to be avoided. No matter what the accepted proven norm is, West Orange will challenge it just for the sake of challenging it. That's how and why things in West Orange have gone sour.
In my lifetime, with the exception of one, elected mayors have always been thugs. The one mayor who was the exception got in during the 1970's without the help of the political machine and he was undermined at every turn so that his term was a complete failure. To this day, his name is never mentioned. There have only been two intelligent council membersóboth no longer serve on the council. As I stated earlier, except for a very small window of time during the 1930's and 1940's, West Orange has always been run by third-rate hacks who have always been easily caught at their underhandedness but never prosecuted. Even the surrounding towns marvel at the complete amateurism always on display.
Could I write a novel based in the present West Orange? Well, there already is a famous novel entitled, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. But, that aside, let's just say I wouldn't want to write a novel based in the present West Orange because the town nowadays lacks all physical charm and the notorious political corruption creeps into everything every hour of every day. It is no longer a happy place. But believe it or not, it once was.