American Impressions, Chapter 19: New Jersey
The Jaws of Sprawl
For the many years that I lived in New York City, New Jersey meant to me what it means to most New Yorkers—not much. It was a state that happened to be there, distinctive only as a measuring stick against which New Yorkers could feel superior, or as the home of unfortunate friends and relatives. For good reason: At first glance, New Jersey is a pall of monotony, especially when the glance follows the path of Interstate 95 or U.S. Route 1, New Jersey’s twin pits through which the majority of its traffic, commerce, life and glances travel.
Sprawl as we know it was born along those two roads, just past the dirty marshes of the Meadowlands (where the only wildlife are the Giants, the Devils and the Nets, who all play there). It extends northward with the residential suburbs of Bergen and Passaic counties, southward with the chemical and energy plants of Rahway, Edison and Carteret, eastward with the city-like air and sea ports of Newark and Elizabeth, and westward with the alternating strips of shopping centers and subdivisions, where the cul-de-sac has replaced the town square.
New Jersey—that part of it, anyway—is not pretty. It is as ugly as America gets. Florida’s strip malls are not better by comparison. But as cluttered as it may look along coasts and interstates, Florida has the one thing New Jersey is running out of: space. Florida’s population density is a quarter that of New Jersey’s. It shows. Next time you feel cramped by cars and concrete on South Florida Avenue, just swerve off onto the Polk Parkway for an immediate shock of open spaces.
At its current pace and choice of development, Florida won’t be distinguishable from New Jersey for long. Besides, it doesn’t matter if the Everglades (or the vast empty pastures along State Road 60) never get built up if the places where we live become unlivable, the way Jerseyans fear parts of their state are becoming.
I toured New Jersey like a scout looking into the future of Florida and many other states. I began the tour in a frame of mind as bleak as the landscape around the Meadowlands, traveling the same roads I’d been traveling for years in New Jersey. But as soon as I diverged from the familiar roads, and from my prejudices, something unexpected happened: I detected signs that New Jersey, birthplace of sprawl, could well turn out to be sprawl’s burial ground.
From the highest level of government to the proverbial grass roots, sprawl is under attack. Let’s not exaggerate: It’s not yet in retreat. Concrete, steel and asphalt are still a Jersey staple. But depending on how imaginative the state’s anti-sprawl movement proves to be, New Jersey, known as the Garden State, could once again live up to its nick-name and be a model for the rest of the nation as America’s growth continues to surge.
A new strip mall has just gone up at U.S. Route 1 and Quaker Bridge Road, just south of Princeton, N.J. Target, Wal-Mart, Border’s, Kohl’s, The Home Depot—they’re all there. The mall is so big that it has its own streets. It’s located at the edge of the municipal borders of West Windsor and Lawrenceville. The state’s 366 townships own every inch of land (the concept of unincorporated county land doesn’t exist in Jersey). They each have a school district, each have a tax base to feed, and each have constituents who want good schools and no congestion. As a result, big commercial developments that generate lots of taxes are invited in, then pushed to the outer edges of the township, as far away from lawn-trammeled neighborhoods as possible. Route 1’s Nassau Park is typical.
Because Route 1 demarcates dozens of townships, it also is where dozens of Nassau Parks have congregated over the years. The parking lots are usually jammed, like the surrounding roads (it takes approximately 20 minutes to negotiate in and out of a Nassau-like strip mall). No one is exactly shunning the shopping centers at the edge of town. And everyone is familiar with the variety and cheapness of the merchandise available at those megastores. Sprawl is not just a matter of aesthetics or cavalier land use. It’s a deal: We give up something for the sake of material convenience.
But what, exactly, are we giving up? I found one answer at Park Avenue and 10 th Street in Hoboken, a one-square-mile city at the edge of the Hudson River, across from Manhattan. It’s a butcher shop called Truglio’s that belongs to Joseph and Steve Truglio. The store has been around so long that the New Jersey Legislature passed a resolution marking its 50 th anniversary in 1995.
”Uncle Nick opened it in ‘45; my father bought it from Uncle Nick in ‘53,” Joseph Truglio says. The wall behind him is papered with Crayola art from a dozen hands and family pictures by the score. Near the entrance a black and white portrait of Frank Sinatra, a town native, hangs icon-like in its frame with Sinatra’s autograph. Customers walk in as much for Truglio’s choice cuts as for the banter, which seems to occupy a large part of the day. This is where neighbors leave their keys when they leave town, where UPS and the mailman know to drop off packages when their recipients aren’t home, where children sometimes wait for their parents to pick them up after school, if no one happens to be home. Sears and Wal-Mart anchor malls. Truglio’s, the quintessential corner store, anchors its neighborhood community.
”It’s the antithesis of suburban sprawl,” says Barbara Lawrence, a Truglio’s customer and the mother of 10-year-old Alexander, who occasionally takes advantage of Truglio’s de facto after-school care. Lawrence is also the co-founder and executive director of New Jersey Future, a private, nonprofit organization that advocates “smart growth,” and the current president of the National Growth Management Leadership Project. A Park Avenue resident for a dozen years, Lawrence has only to point to Truglio’s to sum up the reason behind her stand against sprawl.
”The thing that’s missing in the economic growth discussion is that place matters. Where you do something matters,” Lawrence says. “Economic growth at a highway interchange, or worse yet, along some highway where you have to build the interchange, won’t bring the same benefit to New Jersey or any other place that putting the same amount of that economic growth will if it is adjacent to a rail line or in a city where people of many different income levels can access it.”
We walk along the Hoboken waterfront, which didn’t exist a few years ago. “ Hoboken is a waterfront town and we had no waterfront access,” Lawrence says. So she chaired the Hoboken Waterfront Corp. Now, instead of the disused rail lines and urban badlands that used to block the way, we sit on benches to hear the silence of the Hudson and watch the Manhattan skyline. A 5-acre pier that was to open later that week as a public park stretched into the water nearby, its new lawn drenched under the rain of sprinklers. Other waterfront stretches are being cleared for office buildings.
For decades, city residents fled to the suburbs because places like Hoboken had been eviscerated by filth and insecurity. But I’ve been seeing it everywhere— Cleveland, Chicago, Providence, Hoboken. Big or small, cities are rising from their own ashes like swarms of phoenixes, and they’re again competing for residents. True, the verdict is pretty much in: In 1970, the nation’s suburbs contained 25 percent more families than its cities. Today, they contain 75 percent more. But so is another verdict. In November’s election, 200 anti-sprawl measures appeared on ballots in 34 states. Three-quarters of them were approved. The most far-reaching and costliest such referendum was passed in New Jersey. Either suburbanites are selfishly closing the door on newcomers, or they’re discovering that when it’s all Wal-Mart and no Truglio’s, Main Street deserves another chance. It’s probably a lot of both.
The words “urban sprawl” first appeared in Webster’s Dictionary in 1958. But urban sprawl by then was the latest in a long history of wasteful land use on the continent, dating to colonial times. “The American planters and farmers are in general the greatest slovens in Christendom,” wrote the anonymous author of “American Husbandry,” an 18 th century tract on colonial agriculture. Could you blame them? They’d come from Europe’s fenced-in farms where enclosure was all the rage and land scarcity was turning agriculture into a chess game. Here, they had more open spaces than their imaginations could behold. They let loose on the land, pretty much like the slash-and-burners of the Amazon today: They cleared, tilled, reaped and moved on. More land was always available, and it was cheaper, much cheaper, than hiring the help necessary to cultivate the same land long enough for the next go-around.
The aim of farmers, George Washington wrote in 1791 in an unwitting defense of sprawls to come, was “not to make the most they can from the land, which is, or has been, cheap, but the most of the labour, which is dear; the consequence of which has been, much ground has been scratched over and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been.”
The same sort of “scratching over” has dominated land use in the 20 th century. While Abraham Levitt was changing the look of the American suburb with his Levittowns in the 1950s, the government not very wisely passed a change in the tax law, in 1954, that would inadvertently fuel the explosion in shopping-mall and office park construction. It did so by doubling the tax breaks available to businesses writing off the depreciation of their buildings. Developers could quickly turn a profit even if, on paper, their strips lost money. Building malls and office parks became easy money, and the government, in effect, was in the business of subsidizing sprawl. Today, we have 20 square feet of retail space per citizen in this country, compared with two square feet in Britain. We have twice as many shopping centers, per capita, than Canada, and we spend 50 percent more time in our cars than we did in the 1970s. What we see out the window is nothing to revel in but to endure.
Developers did what the law encouraged. Similarly, homeowners did what custom encouraged. If scratching over land was once excused by the open frontier, the custom didn’t end when the West was lost. It just changed course. Scratching gave way to that peculiarly American form of worship—tending and mowing the lawn. It’s an absurd exercise. Grass is not meant to be groomed but to naturally grow a foot or two, then turn brown, then die and wait for the new season to grow again (as it does almost everywhere else in the world). But the absurdity of tending grass makes sense when the lawn is looked at as an extension of the frontier. The perpetual tilling, mowing, clipping, fertilizing and watering is modernized scratching on a grand scale, and without having to move a yard. It’s a weekly re-conquest of the same square. America’s “grassfields of the world,” as Walt Whitman called the eternal prairie (the unfenced, unmowed one), have been domesticated into 50,000 square miles of lawns, about the size of Pennsylvania, a $30 billion annual manicure of green sprawl. Those green squares could be awe-inspiring with their neatness and precision, as if every house had its carpet of perfection. But lawns are suburbia’s version of Vietnam’s DMZ, distancing homes from the street, and consequently the people in those homes from the communities around them.
Combine a half-century of developers’ zeal with that of lawn manicurists, and the result is an urbanized landscape growing from 208,000 square miles in 1950 to an estimated 345,000 square miles in 1990 -- an area larger than Florida and Texas combined—with 400,000 acres being developed every year. No wonder sprawl has become a national issue, with New Jersey at its source.
Stars In a 1933 article about New Jersey, when the state’s population was 4 million (it is 8 million today), National Geographic wrote, “once-isolated villages have expanded so rapidly that outsiders cannot tell where one ends and another begins.” I didn’t find that line through judicious research in the Geographic’s archives but in New Jersey Gov. Christy Todd Whitman’s second inaugural address, on Jan. 20, 1998. Whitman was sounding an alarm that might have seemed more Greenpeace than Republican. “Sprawl can make one feel downright claustrophobic about our future,” she said. But she was speaking in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party’s first great environmentalist. She championed a $1 billion tax over 10 years to set aside half the state’s remaining 2 million acres of open space. Voters approved with a 2-to-1 margin.
”This is the way New Jersey works. They have a problem, they go after it,” Gary Mount is telling me on a breezy porch overlooking his farm. A graduate of Princeton University and the Peace Corps, a lifelong farmer and activist on behalf of farmers, he has, in his 55 years, seen the evolution of land use in the state from heartbreaking to promising. The farm he grew up on near Princeton was sold to developers in a defensive move: it was either that or lose it to inheritance and other taxes. The state has since created programs that give farmers far more leverage, allowing people like Gary and his wife, Pam, to invest in their 225-acre farm and hold on to it.
The Mounts’ Terhune Orchards, just outside of Princeton, seems at first like an anomaly of suburbia. But it produces 30 crops, attracts 400,000 visitors and customers a year, and serves a community function around Princeton like Truglio’s in Hoboken. Terhune is a gathering place, a children’s playground, the site of several festivals during the year, and the place from where the Mounts have cultivated civic movements—whether through Gary’s involvement on planning boards or chairing local farmland committees, or through Pam’s creation of programs like Farmers Against Hunger (1 ½ million pounds of food donated last year) or a state initiative that grooms young farmers.
”That’s why,” Pam Mount says, “having a farm is more than just what meets the eye, more than pleasant vistas for people to look at. This is land that makes a huge contribution to the community over the long haul.”
Terhune Orchards is just one farm, just as Barbara Lawrence’s New Jersey Future is only one organization. There are many others. Their existence isn’t a fluke anymore than November’s open-space referendum was a fluke. They’re greening New Jersey again, at least in ambitions. Sprawl, they seem to say, has had its time. And they’re giving the rest of the country something to build on. Or not.
NEW JERSEY IN BRIEF
Total area: 8,215 sq. miles (rank: 46).
Population (1997): 8,852,849 (rank: 9).
State capital: Trenton.
Economy: Telecommunications, printing, pharmaceuticals, chemicals.
Nickname & Motto: Garden State; Liberty and Prosperity.
Entered union: Third of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution ( Dec. 18, 1787).
Notable fact: New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the union (with 1,042 people per square mile). But its Pineland National Reserve, in the southern end of the state, is one of its most underrated treasures—a 1 million-acre expanse of forested, recreational land that sits in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic states the way Central Park sits in the heart of New York City.
New Jersey in quotes: “Every part of New Jersey suffers when we plan haphazardly. Sprawl eats up our open space. It creates traffic jams that boggle the mind and pollute the air. Sprawl can make one feel downright claustrophobic about our future . . . Also, too many towns bend over backwards to pursue development, hoping it will help balance their budgets. In the process, they strain not only their backs but also the services needed to support this development. The result is a double whammy: less open space and higher property taxes.”—New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in her second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1998
Books: The literature of sprawl has flourished over the last few years. Notable titles include James Howard Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape” (Touchstone paperback); “Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl,” a collection of essays (Henry Holt & Co.); and “Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining America’s Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric,” also co-written by several authors (Natural Resources Defense Council).
* The main theme of Gov. Whitman’s second Inaugural Address was sprawl; the complete speech is accessible at: www.state.nj.us/inaug/inaug.txt
* New Jersey Future: www.njfuture.org
* Terhune Orchards: www.terhuneorchards.com
* Pinelands National Reserve: www.state.nj.us/pinelands/recguide.htm
* New Jersey tourism: www.state.nj.us/travel