Monday, March 15, 2010

Strangers on the Mountain

by Ben McGrath

You would never think that people could be living in rural poverty and yet able to see the spires of Manhattan from their property, but that is the subject of McGrath's excellent article on the Ramapo Indians, or the 'Jackson Whites' of upstate New Jersey, along the NJ/NY border.

These people, living in areas like Stag Hill and Ringwood, come from a mix of Aboriginal, African, and European heritage. The area was home to many escaped slaves, who married into the local aboriginal population, and then, apocryphally, later added to their community a number of white prostitutes who fled Revolutionary New York (although this story is largely debunked now by historians, it is still accepted truth on the mountains).

The current inhabitants of the area are private folk, distrustful of outsiders and 'new people'. That did not stop them from having a couple of run-ins with state representatives - park rangers and state police, in 2006, one of which ended with the death of one of the Ramapo. McGrath follows the trial of the officer involved, and attempts to reach an understanding of this poverty-stricken community living just out of the shadow of one of the richest cities on the continent.

He treats his subjects with sensitivity, taking the time to meet them in their homes, and to share meals with them in an effort to understand their culture. They are nowhere near as backwards as they are portrayed in the local media and by local townsfolk, yet they do come across as distrustful of wider society. That many of them are living alongside industrial sludge from the sixties, or are finding that their property is getting swallowed into sinkholes, helps make their reticence understandable.

This is an interesting portrait of the type of community most people wouldn't know exists.

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