On Mediocrity’s Cutting Edge

On Mediocrity’s Cutting Edge

New Jersey: a vegetable patch and spare bedroom for the big cities on either side.


New Jersey, a smallish state with an insistent, almost typographical shape–an ampersand–has for three centuries had the mingled good and bad luck to be the neutral conjunction between New York City and Philadelphia. If it were a country it would be a sort of Belgium, constantly run over by armies surging or retreating from one center of power to the other. Instead it became a domestic colony, employed as vegetable patch, factory lot, depot, dumping ground and eventually spare bedroom for the great cities on either side. Its nickname, “The Garden State,” is a nice way of acknowledging this servile condition. It doesn’t grow much for the market anymore anyway; agribusiness probably has single-crop spreads in Texas that are bigger. The only two significant rural regions left in the state are the pie-slice of the Appalachian Range in the extreme northwest and the ineffable Pine Barrens in the south, both of them saved from subdivision by their topographical inhospitality. The rest is mostly suburb.

It does have cities, almost all of them beset, aggrieved, half-ruined, embodying the idea of city in the sense of demographic density but not in that of power, prosperity or even pleasures of the flesh. Most arrived at this condition as industry tumbled in the latter half of the past century; earlier they had been hard-edged, unglamorous communities of strivers. Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Paterson, Camden, Trenton. The first has had some intermittent fleeting success in positioning itself as a subsidiary Gotham; the second has become a catch basin for lower-Manhattan overflow. They also retain their share of misery, however, and misery is most of what you find in the other cities, not excepting the state capital. If the American middle class continues to expand its numbers and stomach, it will eventually find a way of refashioning and inhabiting former factory cities, but for the time being they are useless except for housing the poor, badly. They have inferior building stock, vast and unrecyclable vacated plants, empty lots of poisoned soil, populations that have never recovered from the loss of security–if, indeed, they ever knew such a thing. Seemingly everyone who can do so has bolted to the suburbs, which lie all around, just beyond the highway belt. Oh, and there is also Atlantic City, in which a froth of imitation high life sits atop a heap of misery. The misery is real enough, but the casino fringe is less a place than a drug or a manic episode. It is a feeble knockoff of Vegas, which is itself a three-dimensional metaphor you can almost put your arm through. Atlantic City is tethered to New Jersey, but it really seems to drift five miles offshore.

The predominant look of New Jersey these days is pale if not pastel, ostensibly cheerful, ornamented with gratuitous knobs and fanlights, manufactured in such a way that clapboard is indistinguishable from fiberglass–the happy meeting of postmodernism and heritage-themed zoning codes. A couple of decades ago the latter asserted themselves in the state by coating diners in ersatz brickface and carriage lamps, the former by turning out dry-cleaning establishments and ten thousand bars with plural names (Mumbles, Fumbles, Stumbles) that were apparently made of beaverboard and aluminum and featured French-mansardish roof extensions that all but scraped the ground. But that was adolescence. Now, with maturity, the suburban style of New Jersey has attained a purposeful, militant blandness, the kind you associate with plainclothes security personnel at Disney parks. The “welcome” signs, artfully disposed, make it clear that hospitality is merely an allusive flavor; they are in no wise meant to be taken literally. The past, similarly, is a reference without a referent–all you need to know is that some humans, now dead, invented the principles of quaintness. And nature is a commodity that, while valuable, is yet in a primitive state of development. It will be a better thing all around when bioengineering has refined the landscape so that people no longer need to coax proper behavior from its component parts. Someday you will be able to unscrew your trees, rotate your hedges and shampoo your lawn.

Such suburban commonplaces exist across the nation, of course, but as potent as they may be in California, say, that state also has mountains and deserts, extremes of weather, remote settlements at the ends of roads. New Jersey, with its accommodating temperate flatness and closeness of scale, was virtually designed to be a suburb. Accommodation was the operative quality. The elements rolled out the carpet for exploitation in the first place, and then successive generations of rural aldermen and freeholders happily submitted their townships to the shredder. They traded their placid neighborly four-corners and pastoral outlands to the shopping-mall and condo-complex bulldozers in exchange for golfing vacations in Bermuda. But what self-preserving trustee wouldn’t do the same? New Jersey has always been all about location; North Dakotans can only gnash their teeth in envy. And people have to live somewhere, don’t they, there being so many more of them than there were yesterday. Among the numerous consequences of such accommodation is the eradication of historical identity. This tract-house suburb began life as a utopian agicultural commune, that one as a religious sect’s earthly fortress; today the only evidence of these origins resides on the unvisited shelves of the local historical society. Of course, the way such origins have been turned into tourism fodder in places where the architectural heritage is more abundant suggests that the loss may not be so great after all.

Bereft of history, though–and, yes, New Jersey does boast of a dozen George Washington sites, as well as the more apposite traces of Thomas Edison–the state’s identity is pretty thin. Like a Belgium, New Jersey has long been the butt of jokes and complaints, a convenient kick-me for its more powerful neighbors. Hoboken and Ho-Ho-Kus, or at least their names, have served as the mythic Nowheresville in urban smart talk for generations. The state’s name was shorthand for “soulless commuter dump” back when Long Island was still overwhelmingly rural. And the Jersey driver remains a prominent folk devil all over the Northeast: bumptious, heedless, hostile and barely competent. The epithets chart a subtle change in perception of the state, from dull, square outland to parking lot for middle-class transients. The New Jerseyan is generally seen as the embodiment of upwardly mobile rootlessness and material self-satisfaction. He or she may have grown up in Oklahoma or Idaho, or even abroad, but has shed every trace of accent and custom somewhere on the climb, and now marks time in a factory-fresh jumbo house made of two-by-fours and gypsum and Tyvek and filled with gadgetry, on a street with no sidewalks and planted with saplings, while awaiting a corporate transfer to some interchangeable burg on the other coast. Whole swaths of the state are held together only by school sports and property-tax outrage. If you parachute into one of these places without a global positioning device you will be more lost than if you landed on the steppes.

It remains true that if you navigate around the gated communities and behind the corporate campuses, you will come upon remnants of a former New Jersey. There are still tomato fields and cranberry bogs here and there, and old Italians babying their backyard fig trees in urban neighborhoods that have so far managed to avoid detection by the hip dollar and its agents. There are still rogue bars, many of them along highways demoted by the Interstate System, and now and then you’ll see a local diner that is still primarily made of sheet metal and caters to a clientele constitutionally similar to the one it served forty years ago. There are still factories in the state, with attendant industrial housing precincts, even if every year more of them are admitted to the ranks of the dead. The Pine Barrens continue their mysterious ways, and down there you can still shoot skeet behind somebody’s barn and canoe down swampish rivers far from any road. Immigrant communities, some of them new, maintain their churches and groceries in obscure byways on the fringes of cities. It is also true that the curvilinear streets of neosuburbs can shelter the most unlikely assemblages of citizens behind the apparent uniformity of their extruded facades. Some places, after all, readily admit that they are but containing vessels; as long as the inhabitants keep their doors shut and their lawns manicured they are free to worship shrubs and paint themselves blue if that’s what floats their boat.

New Jersey, a conveniently flat and temperate piece of real estate situated between two great cities, one of them possessing capital-of-the-world pretensions, has long served as a laboratory for testing upgrades and streamlinings of middle-class life. The success of these innovations has assured their application around the country and in the more prosperous countries in the rest of the world. It is thus possible to see the spirit of New Jersey in a great many places as you travel. When you come upon a grouping of large tract houses, or of low-rise apartments masquerading as large tract houses, that is heralded by a signboard bearing a title (“Lark’s Crest Estates”; “The Village at Hunter’s Ridge”), you are seeing New Jersey, even if you happen to be in Colorado. When you enter a venerable rustic inn that has lately come under new management, and notice that the reproduction antiques in the foyer are labeled with instructions for purchasing duplicates, and that the desk personnel sport matching blazers, hands-free telephone headsets and friendly smiles under impenetrably dead eyes, you have come into New Jersey, even if the hostelry is situated in Europe. When you opt for the latest technological innovation, the biggest car, the smallest portable device, the most all-encompassing home entertainment system, not from any specific need but simply because you want the best, you yourself have become a New Jerseyan, even if you have never set foot in that state. It is not so much that any of these modes of living or conducting business was necessarily pioneered in New Jersey itself–California does have a lot to answer for–but that no state is as exemplified and ruled by them. New Jersey, an old state with many fascinating historical byways and a considerable fund of lore and legend, is the image of the future, assuming that the future is assigned a value of perhaps fifteen minutes.

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