My grandmother grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and on the last day of my recent trip to the States I rented a car and drove the 28 miles there from New York to see what I could find. Rather to my surprise and delight the house she had spent most of her childhood in, 144 East 7th St, is still standing, the only older house in its block; it is derelict, with tarpaulins rather than curtains shading the downstairs windows and no sign of occupancy, but at least it is still there.
It was from here that one afternoon in 1906 family friends suddenly and frenziedly swept her away to go and play with their own children. She was not immediately told why, but her mother had just died in childbirth (the baby died too). My grandmother writes about it as if it was her first clear memory; it’s rather weird to see the doorstep from which she was swept away that summer day over a hundred years ago.
My great-grandparents had moved to the much larger house on East 7th Street in 1902; originally their Plainfield home was a block away on 115 East 6th Street, which is also still standing though in worse shape than their later residence:
After her mother’s death, her father married Sallie Brooks, a widow who lived across the road in 147 East 7th St. Unfortunately that house has been demolished and the site is a car park.
However, Sallie Brooks had first lived some way to the south in Plainfield; she had two sons, one of whom, Van Wyck Brooks, grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic. He described Plainfield as “a suburb of Wall Street”. I tracked down the house the he had grown up in, 563 West 8th Street, still on record in the Plainfield archives as the “Van Wyck Brooks House”:
The surrounding area is now called the “Van Wyck Brooks Historic District” and has many houses in it much more interesting than any of the ones to which I have a family connection. I liked this one most: