Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Pleasures and Despair of Driving in Suburban New Jersey

New Jersey. “The Garden State if you’re growing smokestacks” as a friend from Trenton used to say. New Jersey, butt of jokes from New Yorkers who can barely see across the Hudson River to find targets for their derision. New Jersey, immortalized in The Sopranos as the land where the American dream’s degeneration is on full display. New Jersey, the state Bruce Springsteen elevated on thousands of concert stages, but also as a place to be “born to run” from.

New Jersey also happens to be the most suburban state in the country. Nine million people live here, but proud Newark, our largest city, has fewer than 300,000. New Jersey’s image is what it is in part because it maps so well onto ideas people have about suburbs, especially citified, educated people (many of whom grew up in the suburbs themselves.)

I am a reluctant suburbanite and accidental New Jerseyan, both of those things being connected. I grew up in rural Nebraska, and later spent time living in big cities like Chicago and Berlin, and college towns like Champaign and Nacogdoches, and mid-sized cities like Omaha and Grand Rapids. After I fell in love with a Jersey girl I left my old life behind and moved to Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, as densely populated as any New York City neighborhood, and at least as diverse and interesting. (I know this may come as a shock to some New Yorkers.)

Then came the familiar story, and not one of pride and glory. We had twins, our apartment could barely hold us, and so we ventured out to suburbia, where we could find an affordable home.

I miss being able to walk a block to the Portuguese bakery with the big pot of caldo verde behind the counter. I miss grabbing some fruit at the street market on my walk back from the train station. I miss going to Brazilian barbecues and stuffing my face with marinated meat on skewers. I miss the little kids running up with smiles on their faces asking to pet my dog when I walked her. While the increased space in our home is nice and the local schools are well-supported, plenty has been lost. Along with the schools and space there is an ambivalent thing I have gained: the suburban drive.

Driving is the quintessential suburban activity. The car is king, and the entire human environment here is crafted to best serve that sovereign. I learned to enjoy the suburban drive as a leisure activity by happenstance. When we first moved here my daughters still required naps but were reluctant to take them, so I would just put them in the backseat and drive around until they fell asleep.

One of my favorite places to drive was on Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, since it was a long straight road with few stoplights, all factors in helping my daughters drift off to sleep. The road follows said valley, right beneath the steep hills that mark the furthest eastern march of the Appalachians. It also happens to be the namesake of the 1967 Monkees hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King while they lived in the area after moving from New York City. The song’s sarcastic take on suburbia reflected their unhappiness there. The
original demo ends more ominously than the recorded hit with the line “I don’t ever want to see another Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

But the New Jersey suburbs, despite their best efforts, contain multitudes.

I always think that when I drive into Summit, New Jersey, from my town of Maplewood. I exit off of highway 24 onto Broad Street, which ascends the town’s titular summit beneath a gorgeous grove of sycamore trees. Its sublimity was revealed to me one bright June afternoon while I was listening to Belle and Sebastian’s “I Know Where The Summer Goes” in my car, the sunlight through the leaves dappling my windshield. Summit’s existence predates the postwar suburban explosion. Its downtown park contains a reverent art nouveau monument to the World War I dead of Summit, unaware that their sacrifice merely paved the way for a newer, bigger, deadlier war. Today thousands drive by without even noticing it.

At the time of the war the town’s most famous resident was Anthony Comstock, he of the infamous “Comstock Laws.” A former postal inspector, Comstock successfully lobbied for restrictions on “obscene materials” being sent through the mail, including information about birth control. In that era’s twilight of Victorian values his name was synonymous with moral probity or busy-body prudishness, depending on who you were.

But New Jersey indeed contains multitudes, because the same sleepy Summit where Comstock lived, now a haven for Wall Street commuter types, is also important in the The Velvet Underground’s story. That band, associated so heavily with New York, decadence, experimentation and the dark side of life played their first show at Summit High. I can imagine that the sound of songs about sado-masochism and heroin addiction may well have roused poor Anthony Comstock from his grave.

My drives into Summit and West Orange are a pleasure in themselves. Most, however, are merely utilitarian in purpose and grueling in execution. Just going about the daily business of life requires a lot of driving, and when it comes to shopping especially, those drives are grueling.

Just as Pleasant Valley Way and Broad Street have a curving, languid ease to them surrounded by trees and hills, other roads are jarring in their ugliness. I often find myself on Route 10 in East Hanover, which is a jumble of box stores and strip malls alongside what fifty years ago was a farm road dating to colonial times. Today Route 10 possesses a startling inhumanity, a space made for cars and stores and fast food restaurants and devoid of life and charm. It is proof that American capitalism can in fact create even more grotesque public spaces than what Soviet planners were able to manage.

 Route 10’s ebbs and flows are also a good marker of America’s economic boom and bust cycle over the past twenty years. For a long time after the 2008 crash, coming into East Hanover from neighboring Livingston lied a space I called the “dead zone.” Empty car dealerships with weed-cracked parking lots sat by a sign for a strip mall complex that was almost barren. It had been anchored by a Borders, and the other stores there met a similar fate. Now life has returned to that complex and the dead zone, where I used to joke as I drove with my wife that we had to “look out for chuds and zombies.” Fittingly, however, the now defunct Toys R Us was located too in that tidewater of capitalism. When the next bust comes and the tides recede, I am sure it will empty out again.

Further up the road, where business was always booming, traffic has become atrocious. Hulking SUVs belching exhaust line up to go to Costco and fill up on massive quantities of consumer goods, cars snake around Starbuck’s to get a cold brew, and the Bed Bath and Beyond parking lot is almost always full. It is not a space I enjoy being in, but my suburban home most be fed. Suburban drives like this tend to shock me out of my thinking that this way of living was ever a good idea.

Driving on route 22 in Union is even worse. This is a road that I assume was created as a grand experiment in psychological terror. It is a divided highway without stoplights. There are chain stores and fast food restaurants on both sides of the highway, as well as in an island full of strip malls in the middle. If you are traveling westbound but need to go to a store on the eastbound side this means finding a little u-turn whiparound and trying to merge into traffic that’s going fifty or sixty miles an hour from a dead stop on the left side with limited visibility. Every time I drive there I do so in mortal terror.

I am shocked that this road is not a daily scene of carnage. I brave it because it contains one of those suburban amenities that’s a saving grace to parents of young children: a McDonald’s with a play area. So much suburban public space is privatized, and when winter comes and I desperately need to get my children out of the house I end up at the mall and McDonald’s far more often than I’d like.

If there is a suburban drive that is the antithesis to the anxiety-creating worlds of route 10 and route 22, it’s the drive on Cherry Lane and Brookside Drive through South Mountain Reservation. In the 1890s, as my corner of New Jersey was first sprouting suburban towns connected to New York City by railroad, Essex County bought up over 2,000 acres to be preserved, under the guidance of Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It is still a wonderful place to go for a hike, and while in the woods it is possible to totally lose one’s sense that they are living in the most densely populated state in the country, with highways and Jamba Juice just over the horizon. Deep in the woods the sound of the wind rustling the trees even drowns out the faint hum of cars on the highway.

That feeling of being transported by natural beauty comes as the road winds through the thick forests, with little ponds by the side of the road. Every time I drive through the Reservation I look at the hills and trees and think of a time when the entire area looked like this. Not so long ago the little hill in Maplewood where my house sits probably looked exactly the same.

When I can envision what my neighborhood once was, I think a lot about the suburban way of life and how it is destined to be a fleeting moment in world history. Sprawling populations using fossil fuel-powered automobiles to do everything from getting the groceries to going to spin class are simultaneously killing the earth. This Shangri-La is built on a slaughterhouse. For all the beauties of the suburban drive, our descendants will probably shake their heads in judgment and confusion that we destroyed the world so that something like the commercial strip on route 22 could exist. They will not see such things with the same mixture of contempt and awe we have for the palaces of Louis XIV or the Tsar’s Fabrege eggs. That would require any redeeming ounce of beauty amidst the senseless waste and indulgence.

So suburban New Jersey contains multitudes indeed. The apex of 20th century America’s broad prosperity and stark reminders of its capacity for wholesale destruction sit side by side. Just take a New Jersey suburban drive through Essex County and witness it yourself.

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