The Sound of Music City: Orange, NJ

Music naturally brings people together. In Orange, New Jersey, organizers show how “creative placekeeping” finds its strength in the relationships that are formed within the community.

June 2, 2022, 6:00 AM PDT

By LM_Ortiz


Aerial view of West Orange, New Jersey

FotosForTheFuture / West Orange, New Jersey

There’s a subtle implication in the term “creative placemaking,” namely that it involves creating a sense of “place” where none existed prior. Each year, communities invest millions of dollars into such initiatives, constructing large cultural venues or bringing in notable artists and experts to help spur revitalization. But do these communities really lack a sense of place? How do longtime residents of these neighborhoods feel about that?

In June of 2021, I sat down and discussed those questions with Douglas Farrand and Margaux Simmons, two of the lead organizers for the Music City program in Orange, New Jersey, a grassroots asset-based community development initiative that uses music-making as a tool for connection, civic engagement, and creative placekeeping, which is defined by the U.S Department of Arts and Culture as “…the active care and maintenance of a place and its social fabric by the people who live and work there. It is not just preserving buildings but keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive, while supporting the ability of local people to maintain their way of life as they choose.”

At the time of this recording, cases of the Delta variant finally seemed to be under control, and the Omicron variant had not yet emerged. Amidst the pandemic, organizers from the Music City program came up with some creative ways to continue arts programming in spite of the pandemic, largely relying on community networks instead of large arts institutions. Music City is run by the University of Orange, a nonprofit community organization focused on restoration urbanism, which acknowledges that policies and planning decisions rooted in segregation have left cities physically and socially fractured. It also emphasizes the need for reweaving the social fabric and reconnecting physical spaces in the fight for equity.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Brandon Duong: My first question was how this whole thing started.

Douglas Farrand, a co-organizer of Music City.

Douglas Farrand: There’s really a core of four of us who are behind Music City. There’s Margaux [Simmons] and I, and then two lead organizers with Music City: Ray Sykes, who’s a hip-hop musician and producer from Orange, and Cesar Presa, who’s from Uruguay originally. He’s a guitarist and bassist and does a good chunk of music production, too. The four of us really got to know each other through a youth arts collective called ORNG Ink that was adjacent to University of Orange for many years. The four of us recognized that each of us had been working with music and the city for some time, but [with] very different music [in] very different ways. Margaux had been teaching these free community music theory classes for some years; I’ve been running a music education program in the after-school space of Oakwood Avenue Community School; Ray had a music studio, and he has this practice that he talks about keeping an ear to the streets. He made sure that his studio was open to young people in the city to come in and record and practice. He’d also host hip-hop open mics throughout the year and was really committed to having spaces where young hip-hop artists, young rap artists could come and practice. So this idea of recognizing these abundant assets and resources—music in the community—really came from the four of us having these different practices and different experiences working with music in Orange over the years, and starting to explore the ways in which we could work together to bridge connections between very siloed communities.

Margaux Simmons, a co-organizer of Music City.

Margaux Simmons: We’ve created Music City to involve classes, workshops, concert series, and an instrumental rental library that we’re building so that there can be instruments for people who would like to study them. The rentals [are available for a] very low cost for community members who want to do that. Our aim is to create a multigenerational musical community. Classes are open to people of all ages. There’s schoolchildren that perform as well as the established members of the community. We work with all ranges of abilities in the music. We don’t make a distinction between amateur and professional; we work to create a democratic music community. One of the aims of the University of Orange is that people learn from each other, that everyone has something that they can teach, and everyone has something that they can learn. So the real way to build the assets of a community is people learning from and teaching each other.

‘THE REAL WAY TO BUILD THE ASSETS OF A COMMUNITY IS PEOPLE LEARNING FROM AND TEACHING EACH OTHER.’

Farrand: Our very first Music City event was Dec. 1, 2016, a commemoration of Rosa Parks. It was a choir concert where we invited school choirs and church choirs to come and sing together in observance of the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience, but also [to lift] up both the feat of solidarity and organizing [that followed] her refusing to give up her bus seat that enabled the planning and implementation of a statewide bus boycott in just four days. [We also wanted to] lift up the fact that Rosa Parks didn’t just decide to do this out of nowhere. She was a student at the Highlander [Research and Education] Center, [and] she was a committed organizer and activist who was constantly learning how to do this work. And so the fact that our first event was this celebration of lifelong education, solidarity, organizing, and connection in the wake of Trump’s election...

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