Across the country, there is space between small towns, at least thirty miles of rural landscape. That chunk of travel is followed by a five-mile transition period, a buffer between all that space and some proper downtown. The first step of the transition is a strip mall followed by a development then another strip mall then a cute older neighborhood and finally the honey pot: five or six blocks of a few bars, a pharmacy, a florist, a couple restaurants, a coffee shop, etc. As you leave, it all appears in reverse, fading back into ‘the space’.
This is the way it is in most of the U.S. But as I left Linden, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend from New Jersey: ‘The thing about Jersey is, it’s not like the rest of the country. It’s five miles of awesome and then five miles of shit, then five miles of awesome then five miles of shit, and on and on and on. The entire state long. There’s million dollar houses and then just across some weird invisible line are, like, slums’.
Before I proceed, I want to clarify that (if not obvious already) I am not a professional hodologist doing accurate scientific research. I was in New Jersey to fulfill a few goals: find a show, go to the Edison Historic Site, find a matchbook restaurant in Sommerville and then visit a couple ‘memorials’. For two days, I drove around the north and northeast Newark areas. Naturally I made some anecdotal observations. Take what I write about NJ for what it’s worth.
On paper, New Jersey’s infrastructure is exactly like any other state: county roads connect plenty of small downtowns, medium sized cities are connected by state roads as two interstates cut through it all, leading to one big city, some Oz. In actuality, Jersey is structurally very unique.
First off, the many, many small towns are not towns but townships.
Another difference, County Roads throughout the U.S. look like ‘county roads’, miles and miles of double-yellow-line two-lanes that ease through farmland and other ruralness. They will not find you, rather you must seek them out. In NJ however, the County Roads are merely the streets that cut through the neighborhoods and the downtowns (what most everyone else in the country would recognize as their Main Street). County Roads in NJ are gratefully well-marked and everywhere.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen many county road signs since I took my driver’s license test decades ago.
What is most unique about New Jersey however is the elimination of ‘the space’. The per capita is very high in this state and just as my Jersey friend described, there’s not much room for transitions between the townships, no buffer zone landscape surround any of them. I find myself in one downtown and then five or ten minutes later already in another. This aspect of Jersey was really interesting, a welcome relief significantly contrasting with the developments around the country, the strip malls and their Kohl’s/TJ Maxx/TGIF monoliths.
I didn’t have a ‘gut’ feeling about any place, any town or township or bar to play but the sightseeing was enjoyable. I kept driving, never seeing any of ‘the shit’ my Jersey friend talked about. Every five or ten miles, a new small town-esque downtown, unique in its own way. I was stunned at the gorgeous neighborhoods and turn-of-the-century houses with lots of red white and blue banners on their porches, prepping for the 4th of July. Lots of local businesses with names I didn’t recognize, lots of folks eating outside. Beautiful.
I was pleasantly surprised to see such livelihood in all of the townships. This wasn’t small town America (I was only twenty miles of NYC). Yet there’s a sense of the best of what small towns offer, a feeling of local downtown pride, street wide signs draped overhead indicating where that particular township’s fireworks’d be set off, banners for when and where the farmer’s markets occurred (I made a note: Maplewood, every Monday).
I was honestly stunned by the home-y feeling here in New Jersey, the lack of big chains and fast food stores, it gave me hope in a way that…
Whoa. What the hell just happened? This is from out of nowhere. I stopped the van, turned around, ran over a bottle resting on the street curb, prayed I didn’t have a flat (not here, please please not here) and skedaddled back to the heart of Maplewood. I stopped and examined the tire. Looks fine.
I turned around again, aiming the hood of the van back to the business sucks sale. I cruised slowly out of Maplewood, trying to find the invisible line. Let’s see, there’s the banner, the group of joggers, the teenager pushing his grandma in her wheelchair, rah rah red white and blue, the kid with the balloon, his sister with the ice cream cone and then…boom, the smashed glass streets and abandoned homes and businesses of Irvington.
Though not as extreme, I had a similar feeling in West Orange vs. East Orange, Westfield vs. Plainfield, Middlesex vs. Bound Brook. As I drove back and forth from one nice neighborhood into one not so nice, I kept on thinking I shouldn’t even bother trying to find a venue to play in either of them. I don’t fit into any of these places, one Have and the other Have Not.
Though eventually I did find many places for the Have Somes (the working-class or blue-collar townships), for a while it appeared there were only two kinds of places in Jersey: towns where I’d quickly go broke trying to live and the others where I’d get broken even quicker.
I kept on thinking back to the business sucks sale. Maybe it was the particular route that I took but I gotta say, the contrast between Maplewood and Irvington was immediate and startling. It was strange, as if people had a picnic on a fine green lawn in one town, stood up and shook the trash of their tablecloth into the town on the other side of the street, just across the great divide.
I continued to the Edison Historic Site.
(Top photo: NJrealestate.com; Middle photo: Wikipedia)