Amy Klinger

American Dream in the Garden State

New Jersey is my embarrassing cousin. The one who talks too loud, who fake jabs at my head and gives me noogies when I get too close. Who always knows someone who knows someone. Who insists there’s only one right way to do something (everything else is bullshit). And like a relative, there’s a common DNA that bonds us in complex ways.

At this point, I have lived as many years outside New Jersey as I did in it. From Utah to Vermont, I chose to root myself in places that are as vastly different from my birth state as they could be. But a trip to “The Jerz” a couple weeks ago reminded me that at least some of the things I love about where I live now once existed in the “The Garden State” back when the nickname wasn’t ironic. 

We had driven down for my mother’s birthday. My husband, daughter and I were staying at a Marriott Courtyard where, coincidentally, I’d spent two high school summers as the hotel pool lifeguard, back when it was a Ramada Inn. So the shuttles between the hotel and my parents’ house held the muscle memory of my commute all those years ago when driving was exhilarating and new. 

Today’s Chestnut Ridge Road still features a few of the fixtures from my childhood. The Dairy Queen my parents would take us to on special Friday nights—dressed in our pajamas, tumbled in the wayback of the station wagon. Saint Joseph’s, the boys’ Catholic high school. And our go-to take-out place: Phil’s Pizzeria.

But pretty much everything else is changed. Not surprisingly, the roller rink is gone. But really it’s the loss of the farms, orchards, fields and forests starting in the mid-80s that was most transformative. And like phantom limbs, their names are the only trace of what was once there. Tice’s Farm is now Tice Corner’s Marketplace, a mini-mall housing upscale retailers like Apple, Talbots, Williams-Sonoma, and Anthropologie. The Bear’s Nest, an old Girl Scout camp, was turned over long ago to developers that built The Bear’s Nest luxury condos, where its most famous resident, Richard Nixon, lived between 1989 and 1993.  

None of this is news to those of us who saw the slow and yet seemingly overnight selling off of our towns’ open space. But it threw me anew during this visit, hearing that the area’s last holdout farm had fallen to make way for a Wegman’s supermarket, and that still more retail stores would be rolling in where Van Riper’s Farm had once ruled supreme every Halloween with loads of pumpkins, rickety hayrides and spooky displays of goblins and witches.  

About a week before my visit, I heard an interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatric endocrinology at UC San Francisco. He talked about the essential difference between happiness and pleasure. To grossly oversimplify his neuro-scientific explanation: happiness is a feeling of contentment, a peaceful sense of needing nothing more; pleasure, by contrast, is fleeting—once it dissipates, you’re left hungry for its return. Our persistent pursuit of pleasure, he suggests, can be seen in today’s addictions to things like sugar and our digital devices.  

It was through this lens that I started to see Bergen County’s retail-soaked landscape as a manifestation of our cultural prioritization of pleasure. Because just 20 minutes away from these “mini” shopping outposts are malls of massive scale, selling all the same brands and more. When it comes to grocery stores and pharmacies and grocery stores with pharmacies, you can throw a stone in any direction and hit three. Meanwhile, homes of families that I grew up with have been purchased for the sole purpose of razing them and rebuilding bigger: looming “colonials” with 4.5 baths and three car garages. In other words, the area that raised me to value nature, space, agriculture and a close-knit community—all the things that today contribute to my happiness, in Dr. Lustig’s definition of the word—now seems characterized by an obsession with “the new.”  

Look, I’m not the crunchiest of Vermonters, by far. I buy things. I appreciate having access not just to our outstanding local businesses, but also Lowe’s and yes, Amazon. And it would be disingenuous to not disclose the fact that I work in advertising (take it easy, a good portion of my work aims to improve public health and safety, not sell things). But for me, happiness—there’s that word again—comes from simple things like watching hummingbirds at the feeder or pulling carrots out of the garden. 

Dear Jersey brethren, I’m not trying to shit on you. Unlike your detractors who only know you from the Turnpike drive between Newark Airport and Manhattan, I know there is a lot of beauty in the state, beyond the beaches, in modest places like Paterson Great Falls, High Point State Park and the Gardens of Wyckoff.

And I find deep inspiration and hope in the story of the Meadowlands. Previously a toxic dumping ground for nearly a century, major efforts over the past 10 years have begun to recover the 8,400 acres of wetlands and riverbanks. The clearest indication of success has been the return of close to 300 different species of birds, including swallows and egrets, kestrels and falcons. And just recently, the EPA approved a $332 million plan to remove mercury and other pollutants from Berry’s Creek in the area. The commitment shown by the state’s leadership, environmental groups and passionate citizens suggests there is a tipping point when our remaining pockets of nature will be valued simply for being. 

Just kidding. Because right in the neighborhood of these same wetlands—actually on top of a good portion of them—construction is nearly complete for the American Dream Meadowlands Megamall, a 3.2 million square-foot shopping and entertainment mecca designed to “meet the demands of the modern consumer” with an indoor snow park, a water and amusement park, aquarium and roughly 450 shops, services and amenities. Planners expect 40 million people to visit the mall each year, which will require 33,000 parking spaces, a train station and buses shuttling from ferry terminals. Speaking plainly, if this is the American Dream, we are the biggest crop of suckers the world has ever manufactured. 

When I began writing this post, my aim was simply to explore the sense of mourning I felt in driving past the place where Van Riper’s Farm once stood at a time of year when it would otherwise have been reveling in the abundant beauty of the harvest. Clearly, it hit a nerve that’s goes beyond a little melancholy.

On the upside, I realize how grateful I am to be able to raise my daughter in a place that still wears the rhythms of the seasons in its landscape. But even Vermont is struggling against the tide of development. In most cases, it’s far more lucrative for farmers to sell their land than to work it. In that sense, New Jersey remains an obvious cautionary tale.

In a few weeks, I’ll make the pilgrimage back to Jersey for Thanksgiving. I’ll find familiar comfort in the great feast with my family and short visits with childhood friends. But I’ll also find time to stroll up the road to Atkin’s Glen, a tiny strip of remaining woodlands along Bear Creek that was preserved and donated to the town in 1956 by the property’s owners, Daniel and Virginia Atkins. I will listen to the quiet running of the stream, breathe in the smoky, musky smell of the fallen damp leaves and give silent thanks that they had had the passion and heart to protect a place that has nothing to sell, but renews the soul.

5 thoughts on “American Dream in the Garden State”

  1. Hi Amy, I hope all is well. I enjoyed your article. At first I was a bit defensive, and then I was dismissive of it, but ultimately I kept thinking about it so clearly you pulled at something – which is what good writers do.

    So, here’s my response. First, I agree with just about everything you wrote to some degree. It makes me sad that the farms aren’t there anymore on Chestnut Ridge Road. It is hard to believe that I used to fill up tractors with gas while working at my dad’s gas station next to Tice Farms. Yet I still love this area, and I think New Jersey is one of the greatest states in the country. There might not be farms within walking distance of my home anymore, but there are loads of them around the state. I spend my summers at the Jersey shore, and I’ve hiked the Appalachian trail during the cooler months. My favorite canoe trek was down the Batsto River in the Pine Barrens. There are parts of the state that make me feel like I’m in Colorado, and other parts that make me feel like I’m in Kansas. At the same time, I have quick access to Manhattan and Philadelphia.

    Perhaps what I love most is the diversity, not just in the geography but the people. I teach 3rd grade in Ridgewood. When we were kids, the town was even more "white" than our hometown of Park Ridge. However, in my current class, I have 3 native Spanish speakers and at least 1/3 of the kids are Asian. In time, I’m sure it will be even more diverse. As a country, we are becoming more diverse, but New Jersey is definitely one of the states leading the way in that regard.

    I love Utah, and I love Vermont. In fact, we are considering retiring go to Vermont. Yet I don’t see them as better than NJ, just different.

  2. John, I am so glad you commented. Your feedback fills the holes that a tidy blog post aiming to persuade and entertain doesn’t necessarily want to admit. It might have been hard to attract readers if I’d titled the piece "American Dream in the Northeastern Part of New Jersey, Specifically Chestnut Ridge Road." Just kidding. Without a doubt, there are still beautiful and inspiring places in NJ. And I didn’t mean to suggest Vermont is better—just better for me. But ironically, that’s specifically because of what I loved about growing up where we did, when we did.

    I have to wonder if I would have had as strong a reaction if it had simply been homes and neighborhoods that replaced the farms. Sure, that would have also been a bummer, but it really was that over-the-top retail sprawl that struck me as disheartening, especially given the number of massive malls already blanketing the region. And then when I read about American Dream, there was really no turning the piece around to a place of optimism.

    Despite significant loss of natural space, I know there are inspiring and beautiful places throughout the state that deserve respect and care. And without a doubt, the diversity of the populace is an important leg up that NJ has over VT.

    Rest assured, yours isn’t the only ribbing I took for the post with a few people reminding me that northern NJ is just 1/3 of the state. And my mother certainly must not have read the post yet, because I know she’s going have a few choice words for me. I’m hoping I’ll still be allowed to visit over Thanksgiving.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful response. I suspect your students are a lucky bunch.

  3. Wonderfully stated. You got me excited with your comment about all this bird species, before I read on, I found myself wondering if the birds were returning to take advantage of the new mall, especially the indoor ski slope. I hear Kestrels are great downhillers, and egrets outperform most other birds on the slalom.
    As a New Jerseyan, non-native, I moved here for love, I have always gotten a kick out of Bergen County. They take great pride in their religious based Blue Laws which keep shopping closed on Sundays, except for during the Christmas season! Call me cynical– but it seems to defeat the purpose.
    Keep writing and we’ll keep reading.

    • If there are going to be birds into extreme sports, they’re going to be from Jersey. Flying anywhere near the Turnpike toughens them up when it doesn’t kill them.

      Yeah, those Blue Laws. They’re cute, aren’t they?

      Thank you, as always for your encouragement, Mike.

  4. I have to admit I don’t like going back to our home town. I barely recognize it. Most of what I loved about Park Ridge has long since faded away. Not just the various homes and commercial structures that have replaced the landmarks of our youth. Most of the shops and stores are just gone. I get it. I really do. Our sleepy little suburban town “grew up” along with us. Our generation especially as we saw the demolition of Boroughs Typewriter ribbon factory. There’s ’s three words “Ridgers” of today have never used in the same sentence. The old brick and mortar building with it’s giant smokestack were replaced with maybe 100 town homes strategically located right along the train tracks. The “yuppies” as we called them, short for young urban professionals, could walk out their front door and be at the train station faster than they could warm up a car. What was once a blue collar mostly bedroom community evolved into a white collar commuter town. There were so many new faces moving into new homes where our friends grew up and eventually moved on because they couldn’t afford to buy a home there.

    I was of course one of those who eventually had move. Having spent nearly 6 years away, the reality of our demographics became apparent to me on Sept 11, when we lost 8 residents who were commuters. When the names were reported I realized I didn’t know a single one of them.

    I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who has found happiness in a new home in Park Ridge. I’m not sad for the stores that closed or the old homes that were razed to make room for McMansions . Sometimes 4 new home would replace one of the old Victorians. There were so many that the town had to make new streets. Many of these folks did quite well as the town evolved. They took their gains and went somewhere more affordable and in some cases, more like the place where we grew up.

    It’s the municipal circle of life. Time goes and and we advance in technology, population and progress. Old eventually has to make way for new, bigger and better.

    But I’ll always miss “our” Park Ridge. The wooded areas like the Glenn near your house. Being within minutes of the beautiful farms. It’s still alive and well in our hearts and memories. Even though you and I are no longer there, and “there” is no longer there, the essence of what Park Ridge was will always live inside of us.

    Thanks for sharing and keeping the Memories alive.

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