Unearthing the Future: The Art of Reverse Archaeology, I-280 in Orange, New Jersey

An Exhibit on the History, Art, and Community of Orange
March 11 2016 6:30pm-8:30pm, Orange Public Library, 348 Main Street, City of Orange, NJ 07050

By Patricia Rogers

Art by Vladimir Jean of Era Artist Collective, www.artofvlad.tumblr.com 

Usually, archeologists dig into the ground to uncover the stories of the past. In Orange, we already have a hole in the ground where the highway runs through town. A lot has changed about Orange since the 1960’s when Interstate 280 divided the city in half. To build the interstate, hundreds of homes, shops, and community spaces where torn down, and many people left Orange for other towns. Our team is doing a “Reverse Archaeology” of I-280 to discover stories of Orange. What was Orange like before the highway? What drew current residents in Orange after many people left? What do people need to stay in Orange? Together with residents of Orange we want to look past the divided city and understand the Orange as a whole – past, present and future.  

The Art of Reverse Archeology. I-280 in Orange, NJ An exhibit on the history, art, & community of Orange

Archaeologists dig into the ground to unearth stories of the past, but in Orange there is already a hole where highway I-280 runs through the center of town. The Reverse Archaeology team has been listening to the stories of Orange residents, past and present. On March 11th we will share some of the stories we've heard. Come and add your story to our ongoing project. What can you tell us about what disappeared and what has changed about the city since I-280 opened? How do residents live whole lives in a city cut in two? What do you want to see in Orange's future?

Meet the Archeologist: Christopher Matthews

Christopher N. Matthews is a historical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Montclair State University. His research interests are the archaeology of capitalism, slavery, and race in the United States as well as community-based research.

Talk about the concept of Reverse Archaeology

C.M.: Reverse archaeology is an invented idea that came to me after getting to know Orange through my contacts at MSU, the University of Orange, and the community schools. What seemed so evident is how much people took for granted that 280 damaged the city by creating a giant excavated trench right through the heart of Orange. Being an archaeologist, this sounded to me like a description of an archaeological site that has been excavated but never interpreted or understood. So, a reverse archaeology is a way of thinking abut how we can put back what the highway has taken away through memories, stories, and a closer understanding of those living in Orange today. In one sense this is a novel way to frame an archaeological project, but in another it's really just what archaeologists always do.

How do you want this project to restore Orange pride?

The memory of what Orange was like before the interstate should provide a combination of nostalgia for past years as well as clues to how successful communities were built and organized in the city that can be used today.

What has surprised you so far in the project? 

So far I am not so much surprised by what we have done as pleased. The RA team is a masterful combination of well-balanced and articulated talents that are blending academic, artistic, and community engagement approaches in wonderful ways. If I am surprised, it is when I see how well the work of my colleagues expands the vision of what I hope to accomplish in my own work.

What can we expect?

My work is to collect oral histories and historical documents. So far I have interviewed more than 40 past and present residents of Orange from the African American and Italian American communities that were most impacted by the interstate. These stories details vital aspects of two very powerful cultural histories and communities that no longer exist. Memoirists have also provided straightforward commentary on how 280 was the cause of so much change and struggle in Orange. The end results of this work will be a rich archive of personal memories, observations, and memorabilia that will bring to life how these two groups settled and created vibrant and important migrant/immigrant urban communities. These results will be used to inform and inspire new artworks and performances that will be on display in Orange, allowing residents to learn about and see the way that the city’s history can be part of its future.

Read more on the team leading the project on www.masconsumption.com

You can meet Chris, along with the other archaeologists next Friday, March 11th at the opening of the Unearthing the Future: The Art of Archaeology at the Orange Public Library 6:30-8:30pm.
For more information please follow Reverse Archaeology in Orange on Facebook.  

About the Writer

Patricia Rogers, #ValleyGirlNJ, lives in New Jersey's Valley Arts District. The native New Yorker works as a writer, blogger and community activist.  Starting Masconsumption Media in 2012, she has been passionate about capturing the stories of the vibrant up and coming Valley Arts District neighborhood through her blog, zine, events and more.  She blogs for Jersey Indie, Luna StageHat City Kitchen and offers many creative media services.  Visit her blog www.masconsumption.com and keep up with your favorite Valley Girl on social media at @zine_editor (Twitter / Instagram / Snapchat).