TROLLING FOR WEEDS IN THE GARDEN STATE

Burlington County Times, June 25, 2001

I haven’t been paying all that much attention to the dueling ad campaigns of Jersey City mayor Bret Shundler and Congressman Bob Franks. As a registered Democrat, I can’t vote for either one of them. I figured I’d wait until after the primaries and then sort out the competing claims of the final candidates for governor of New Jersey.

One detail about their second debate, however, did catch my eye. The debate between these two men, running for governor of New Jersey, aired on a New York radio station. Even their third debate, which was sponsored by NJN, the New Jersey PBS station, was co-sponsored by The New York Times.

Poor New Jersey. It’s bad enough that we have the reputation of being a dweeb, that we’re the butt of jokes not just in this country, but internationally, that we have the ugliest Turnpike in the Boston-D.C. corridor, but we have a split personality, too.

Whenever someone asks me where I live, I explain that there are two New Jerseys, Philadelphia, NJ, and New York, NJ, and that I live in the former. I don’t want to be associated with the part of the state that has inspired such “quips” as “Dump the garbage in New Jersey. No one will notice the smell.”

It didn’t surprise me at all to read that South Jersey was rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles while North Jersey supported the New York Giants. Nor did it surprise me when my son told me that his teacher had a running bet with the class during the NBA championship. If the Philadelphia 76ers won a game, the students could do their homework during class time; if the Lakers won, the assignments had to be done at home. The teacher didn’t like the 76ers, according to my son, because she came from North Jersey.

I recently drove to Boston, and realized again just how unattractive the New Jersey Turnpike is, especially north of Exit 7. The road side is lined with factories, oil refineries, airports, megastores. New York City shimmers and wavers in the distance, the outlines of its buildings blurred by pollution. Yet after I got over the George Washington Bridge and maneuvered through the maze of highway connections into Connecticut, all I saw until I reached Boston were trees on both sides of the road. (Not that Connecticut is perfect – there were plenty of trees, but no rest stops.)

The following weekend, I went to Cape May for the annual Spring Birding Weekend. There’s no Turnpike down there, but there is the Garden State Parkway. What a difference from the GSP in North Jersey, which I took on my way home from Boston! I much prefer looking at trees instead of concrete.

While in Cape May, another birder and I tried to explain to a couple from Washington (state, not D.C.) why they would see a very different New Jersey when they went to Hackensack for a family wedding. Almost every aspect is different, from political affiliations to the cost of living to demographics to geography.

One exception is the Tappan Zee Bridge area, which I took on the way back from Boston. The view across the Hudson River is breath-taking. (Of course, it may just be that I was holding my breath while trying to dodge the huge semis and maniacal New York drivers.) And there are some areas of northwest New Jersey, in the mountains it shares with New York and Pennsylvania, as well as the corridor along the Delaware River from Washington Crossing north that rival South Jersey for rural calm and beautiful scenery.

When I first moved to South Jersey 20 years ago from Center City Philadelphia, I had many of the same prejudices against the state as most people who don’t know the area. I quickly discovered that South Jersey offers the best of all possible worlds. A few miles in one direction, I could be in Philadelphia with its museums and restaurants and theater; a few in another, I could be in the suburbs with its malls and discount stores; a few in another, and I could be in the Pine Lands, where I could drive for hours and see no signs of human habitation except a battered mailbox at the end of a sand driveway.

I remember that years ago there was a movement to encourage South Jersey to secede from North Jersey. I don’t know what happened, but I couldn’t even find any mention of the idea on the Internet. It may be time to revive the concept.

Instead of drawing a line across the state to separate north from south, though, I would carve out a semicircle surrounding New York City. It’s that part of the state which gives New Jersey its negative image. With one swipe of a pen, we could get rid of the area which makes New Jersey the most densely populated state in the country. We wouldn’t have to take it personally when sitcoms make jokes about big hair mall rats and Mafia strongholds. We wouldn’t become defensive when people would say disdainfully, “You live in New Jersey – voluntarily?” We’d could proudly point to the gardens that give New Jersey its motto. We’d no longer have to explain that we come from Philadelphia, New Jersey, but could proudly say, “New Jersey.”

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