One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, Jersey Girl, wasn't actually written by Springsteen at all, but by the legendary Tom Waits. But Bruce sings it with the passion of only someone who knows what it's like to be from New Jersey, the beautiful Garden State. And I love it. Why? Well, because it mentions New Jersey, and things like driving "across the river to the Jersey side", okay? And because it makes me proud of where I'm from. Thousands of screaming fans from Jersey go wild when he sings it in concert, and I'm happily one of them. Is there a problem with that?
And though I now live out of state, I was born and raised in New Jersey and my family is there. I went home for a nice long visit recently to attend June weddings and graduations, and was struck by how much I missed it.
Much has been written about The Garden State, and it's pretty much always had a reputation among outsiders looking in as the 'armpit of the Northeast' United States. Everyone thinks they know what New Jersey's about, with strong opinions based largely on media stereotypes like The Sopranos, Frank Sinatra, the Real Housewives, and OMG the hair. News flash - everyone had big hair in the 80's! And though admittedly, stereotypes are often rooted in truth, we also know it's the fringe extremes in any community that sell news.
New Jersey is like Buffalo, New York, arguably the poster child for 'Great Places with An Undeserved Bad Rap'. Buffalo is really a great place. Having lived in both places, I write this objectively from experience. Yes, Buffalo gets a ton of snow, most of it dumped in the towns further south of the city before Lake Erie freezes over. But if you actually visit Buffalo and explore the region, you'll find beautiful scenery, cool urban experiences which include gallery trails, live music, historic homes, integrated park systems, and the Albright-Knox Museum, one of the finest art museums in the east. And the food! It's so much more than Buffalo wings, with the likes of Beef-on-Weck and the still-traditional Friday Fish Fry. But I digress.
Back to New Jersey.
It's harder for me to be objective about my home state. Like most New Jerseyans, it's personal. Jersey (and please - it's not Joy-zee - only people from Jersey City, Bayonne, and those parts can utter that beautiful accent correctly) is one of those places the natives are passionate about, and will defend to the death (probably yours, not ours). It's not without its warts, believe me, so don't mistake our defense of it for denial. We defend it because it's simply not true. The bad rap you often hear usually comes from outsiders, or frequent flyers into Newark airport, or drivers speeding down the parkways and turnpikes on their way to some other state. You think New Jersey roads are bad? Next time you're passing through, consider the price residents pay to support your road trip to NYC, Long Island, or Connecticut.
New Jersey is New York without the pretense. It's grittier, and maybe a little defensive at the credit New York often lays claims to - Go Giants! And granted, the Newark airport area is possibly the worst tourism advertisement ever for visiting the state.
But just minutes outside the landfills and pollution around Newark airport are urban communities being revitalized and restored. Younger residents are sprucing up and celebrating the heritage of older ethnic neighborhoods with new energy. At the shore, New Jersey beaches rank up there with some of the prettiest in the world. Yes, you can find the Jersey Shore and that Situation if you really want to, but you'll also find many nostalgic shore towns still offering families a slower pace and the chance at treasured vacation memories. Further south and west are the verdant green pastures of the Garden State, and trailheads leading to the Appalachian Trail in the northwestern Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. I've lived all of this in New Jersey. Unlike the Jersey Devil, I know it exists.
I grew up in Blairstown, in Warren County, a rural county in Northwest New Jersey which runs along the Appalachian Trail adjacent to the Pocono Mountains. I also worked my early career in downtown Newark in the late 80's, and discovered the redeeming qualities of the suburbs of Orange, Bloomfield, Hoboken, and the Ironbound. I've never had Portuguese and Italian food like I've had in the Ironbound, or Down Neck, section of Newark. Today, many historic downtowns throughout Bergen, Essex, and other neighboring counties are revitalizing their downtowns with vibrant cosmopolitan scenes.
In the many years since my childhood, not much has changed in my home town, with the exception of the people and addition of a traffic light or two. I don't recognize as many people at the A&P grocery store as I used to, but I always seem to spot some familiar faces whenever I visit. Recent efforts at revitalization in town are cause for optimism, and many residents seem eager to share the area's rich history amid new farmers markets and local events.
Some of the old landmarks are even still there, perhaps most importantly Hot Dog Johnny, home of the WORLD'S BEST HOT DOGS and source of contention amongst hot dog lovers, including my Pennsylvania-born husband who continues to insist Yocco's is King. Hot Dog Johnny may be gone but his daughter Patsy and her staff continue this Jersey tradition with pride. Where else can you still get two dogs with everything (yellow mustard, day-old onions, and a dill pickle wedge) with a frosty mug of birch beer (or icy cold buttermilk) for under $5 bucks? Had you any idea that New Jersey hot dogs are deep fried, some to the point of splitting open at the ends (called 'Splits')? I mean, come on!
There's flavor and nostalgia in every bite.
Summer is the perfect time for fun on the river, and it brought back many nice memories to see kids of all ages paddling and floating down the Delaware River in their overinflated tire tubes. The river has quite an influence on the childhoods of kids growing up in rural New Jersey counties. String a bunch of tubes together into a giant flotilla and you've got yourself a perfect summer afternoon.
And true to its agricultural heritage, people still venture out "to the country" and more rural counties year 'round to pick their own fruits, vegetables, and trees. Strawberries, apples, blueberries, lopes, Christmas trees, pumpkins, sweet corn, cranberries, and other produce are plentiful at quaint farm stands or larger Pick-Ur-Own farms open to the public.
In fact, in terms of fruits and vegetables, the Garden State leads the country among the top 10 for growing cranberries, bell peppers, spinach, blueberries, peaches, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, apples, sweet corn and snap beans. The middle and westernmost counties of New Jersey remain largely suburban and rural, respectively, with countryside punctuated by dairy farms, antique shops, historic towns, wineries, and opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.
So the next time you snicker at a reference to The Garden State, or think you've been to New Jersey because you landed in Newark, think again. You haven't. You don't know New Jersey. Like countless defenders before me, I'm saying the bad reputation is unfounded and undeserved.
Get back in your car and venture out. Go just a few blocks to the old Ironbound neighborhoods of Newark and have some authentic Portuguese paella. Get on the Garden State Parkway south and take the scenic route to the shore points south of the New Jersey Highlands, or further south yet to historic Cape May. Head west from Newark airport on Interstates 78 or 80 and watch the concrete yield to thick lush greenery, and visit the countryside.
Only then can you render an opinion of what New Jersey is, and then issue an apology for what you thought it was.
It may not all be green, but it's all beautiful.
Sha la la la la la.