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Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Overbrook Series

Overbrook is the name of a former mental hospital in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, set on over 90 acres of hillside parkland. It opened in 1896 and closed a hundred years later, during the 1990s. Essex County originally planned to sell the land for housing development--just what Essex County needed: more houses--but has now set it aside as open space for a county park.
I grew up in the shadow of Overbrook. When I was a kid there were two horns that sounded in Verona--my town, neighboring Cedar Grove--that could be heard townwide. One was the firehouse siren, the other was the Overbrook siren, hoarser and higher-pitched, which would be sounded when someone "escaped" from the hospital. One of my earliest memories is of a neighbor, a heavy white man, racing down our street chasing a young black man, shouting to me--the only witness, a little girl of 5 or 6--to call the police. "He's an escapee," the neighbor shouted, over and over. What I remember is their gait: the loping, easy run of the chased, and the cramped, bicycle-like pumping of the chaser. One was Elmer Fudd. The other, Bugs Bunny. 
The Overbrook buildings have been decaying and crumbling earthwards for a decade. One winter evening, late in 2008, I found a pile of slate roof tiles next to a dumpster, pried from a recently razed house. I took several armfuls, on which I've printed images of Overbrook's dead, dying, and neglected trees. Overbrook is its trees. Weeping beeches, copper beeches, oaks, evergreens: immense and old, grotesquely gnarled sometimes, leafing out each spring almost against their wills.
The buildings and trees are contemporaries, and both will be gone soon. Parks employ nature by creating it fresh. The county park will start over again with a clean slate. In the meantime, these images depict partners in memorial that have stood together for 100 years.

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