Praise for New Jersey as it celebrates its 350th birthday

Posted: July 07, 2014

The first time I saw New Jersey was from the backseat of the family car on a summer night in 1966. We were headed to Washington on the turnpike; I was 12 and in love with the future.

Riding on that thrillingly "super" highway, with its ultramodern speed-limit signs, convinced me I might one day be living on Mars.

I never imagined I'd be living in New Jersey.

So as the Garden State celebrates its 350th birthday, or Sesquarcentennial, I'm considering this vital, sometimes challenging, and frequently surprising place in the light of history. Including my own.

I visit the excellent New Jersey 350 website (officialnj350.com). It features a blog, information about local events and themes of innovation, diversity, and liberty.

Some of the excellent short videos on the site focus on famous residents like Paul Robeson and Woodrow Wilson.

Others examine less well-known events, such as the 1936 takeover of the Assembly chamber by protesters demanding restoration of emergency relief.

"We wanted to explore the essential Jerseyness all of us who live here know," says Medford resident Sara Cureton, director of the N.J. Historical Commission.

Each video opens with a montage that includes a black-and-white clip of traffic and turnpike toll booths - a particularly Jersey touch.

The state's embrace of icons others dislike or even despise may explain our larger-than-life governor, or my fascination with the turnpike.

I even like Admiral Wilson Boulevard - among the first densely developed highway commercial strips in the nation.

Alas, as was the case with our pioneering movie industry (check out the 350 site's video about early filmmaking in Fort Lee), the Garden State was quickly eclipsed by California.

So I take perhaps inordinate pride in those concrete highway dividers nicknamed for my state. I treasure New Jersey's cheap, they-pump-it-for-you gas, jughandles, and Wawa (the company was founded in Cumberland County in 1803).

It's ever so cool that the Garden State has its own mythological monster, the Jersey Devil.

Having grown up in an obscure corner of New England, I enjoy living in a place that's not only nationally famous but has - is - a national brand.

I like the fact that pretty much everybody has heard about New Jersey, or driven through it. Even if what they saw were oil refineries and what they heard was about as real as reality TV.

That faux Garden State is a high-decibel traffic jam of fake tans, hair salons, and mobbed-up pizzerias. It was mercilessly lampooned in the 2010 "It's a Jersey thing" episode of South Park, which featured Snooki as a sex-crazed Jersey Devil.

"New Jersey has had this amazing impact on popular culture," observes Cureton, noting that "very often in pop culture you get stereotypes that are not the most flattering."

When I moved here in the late 1970s, friends worried that all of New Jersey resembled the most hellish stretches of the turnpike.

But as I worked as the editor of a since-defunct weekly newspaper in Cherry Hill, the unpretentiousness of South Jersey grew on me. I went on to a daily newspaper and began writing about Camden, a story that captivates me to this day.

The struggles of the old towns and new suburbs have become more and more interesting; the hidden beauties in a seemingly nondescript landscape can still take me by surprise.

I've spent more than half my life and my entire newspaper career in this lively, loud, in-yo-face place. The pipeline of stories to tell shows no signs of running dry.

This isn't Mars. It's home. And there's no place like it.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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