I have never lived in New Jersey. Indeed, of the 49 states where I have driven a car, New Jersey was 47th or 48th on the list. And it is only in the last couple of years that I've lived close enough to visit the state regularly – I now live less than an hour from Mahwah.
Years ago, I made some initial hypotheses about the Garden State:
1. New Jersey is extraordinarily wealthy.
2. New Jersey has the best highway system in the country.
3. New Jersey deserves the moniker "The Garden State."
4. New Jersey embodies the American Dream.
Let's see how these have withstood the test of time.
I spent a year in Africa in 1996-97, and visited New Jersey shortly after my return. By comparison, everything seemed wealthy – supermarkets, Walmart, hot & cold running water, public parks. But add to that the mile upon mile of suburban homes, each with a well-maintained yard, an SUV or two parked out in front, and real estate prices that I certainly couldn't have afforded. Is it any wonder that I thought the streets were paved with gold? Driving along I-80 in my 12 year old Ford Taurus, surrounded by Mercedes, Lexus, Volvo and Acura cars, I felt like a country bumpkin cousin come for a visit.
We stayed with some friends who lived in city center Passaic, an old rust belt town. Not rich – I agree – but hardly poor. Suffice it to say that the poverty rate in New Jersey (real poverty – not the fictional sort compiled by the Census Bureau) is vanishingly small.
The Great Recession has tarnished this view a bit, but still, New Jersey is a fabulously wealthy state. Is there any other place in the world where so many are so rich?
As a native Oregonian traveling back east for the first time, I expected crumbling highways, littered sidewalks, huge traffic jams, hopelessly polluted air, and so forth. On this score, New Jersey disappoints. Indeed, I was astonished at how well maintained and how efficient the road network was. And if – adjusted for the amount of traffic – New Jersey doesn't have the best highway system in the world, it certainly comes close.
There are many highways – Routes 17, 23 and 46 come to mind – that are four-lane divided highways with few or no traffic lights, but are not limited access. This turns out to be very efficient. Local businesses are well-served (they don't all have to congregate at exits), traffic still flows at 55 mph or so, and they don't compromise safety too much. The amount of traffic that uses Route 23 between Butler and US 46 is phenomenal, and yet the road also serves as a main commercial street for a large region.
It is for highways like this that the term "jug handle" was invented, for in order to turn left or to make a u-turn, it is necessary to exit right and go around the jug handle. I heard this term first (and only) in New Jersey.
Still, I have some complaints. The toll collections on the Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway are hopelessly inefficient, and lead to huge traffic jams. Further, signage throughout the state is less than ideal; if you don't know where you're going, you can get very lost in New Jersey. And the Great Recession has changed things: I've noticed more potholes and less maintenance in the past couple of years.
The highways seem to have a bias against Philadelphia. Some bizarre Rube Goldberg contraption connects Philly with the New Jersey Turnpike. And famously, I-95 – otherwise uninterrupted from Presque Isle to Miami - skips the stretch from New Brunswick to Trenton. Philadelphia from my house is at least 30 miles farther than it needs to be (not that that's been any problem). Was W.C. Fields a New Jersey native?
New Jersey is a beautiful state. Coming from the West, one crosses the Delaware River on I-80, and then crosses spectacular mountains for the first 30 miles or so. The Jersey Shore is very nice – all the way down to Cape May (excepting, perhaps, Atlantic City). The Palisades are wonderful, as is the Hoboken/Jersey City skyline as seen from the Staten Island Ferry.
Finally, New Jersey embodies the American Dream. My wife and I make a monthly shopping run to Jersey City for ethnic food. Journal Square is a place that always makes me feel patriotic, for there one finds Indian, Honduran, Cuban, Filipino, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Mexican, and who knows what other kinds of grocery stores and restaurants. Nearby Newark Avenue is little India west of Kennedy Ave., and little Manila on the other side. Only in America? Maybe on a much smaller scale also in Canada or Australia. But Jersey City is living proof of the universal principles on which our country is founded: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
I know many immigrants who, over the course of 20 years, moved from a shared room in Jersey City, to an apartment in a place like Passaic, to a suburban home in Pompton Lakes or Woodbridge. The American Dream is real and happens every day in New Jersey.
The Great Recession may have set this back a few years, but there is enough entrepreneurial energy in a place like Jersey City to more than justify faith in the future of America.
Is this a great country, or what?
I had a colleague who, when I asked where she grew up, shamefacedly and apologetically admitted "New Jersey." I recall a Kojak episode where all the bad guys came from "Jersey." There’s the Woody Allen quip: “the spirit of the Lord inhabits the entire universe except for some parts of Northern New Jersey.”
There are politicians who want to make the American Dream unaffordable, if not actually illegal. New Jersey gets a bad rap. But I like New Jersey. And some day – when I'm rich – I might get a chance to actually live there.
Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.