Monday, November 2, 2009

Why the New Jersey Turnpike Sucks

I've heard from some friends and acquaintances that parts of New Jersey are beautiful. Most of these people are from Jersey, so their opinions are somewhat suspect, but I assume that there are areas in the Garden State that have at least some natural beauty. I have little firsthand knowledge to draw on here. The only times I have been in New Jersey I've either been in Atlantic City―coast to coast, card rooms all look the same―or traveling, usually by bus, on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Before I moved out East, I always pictured the “New Jersey Turnpike” as an industrial wasteland, with smokestacks steaming under a heavily-polluted sky. Pipes and overpasses and underpasses crisscrossed one another in my head's version of the turnpike, with trucks towing immense tanks of chemicals from factory to factory. Basically, the New Jersey of my imagination was the real world from the Matrix. This vision would be a lot more interesting to drive through than the real thing.

The Turnpike isn't devoid of nature. There are shrubs and grass and small- to medium-sized trees between the multi-laned highways, and you can spot patches of forests from your car window. Animals―birds, small rodents, the occasional deer--must live somewhere in these places. I've never seen any; they've probably learned that going anywhere near the roads makes them targets for the world's most dangerous animal, the Tri-State driver. If you squint, or if your brain has been corroded by psychotropic drugs, you can imagine what the land must have been like before the freeway, cars, or Christopher Columbus: gently rolling hills, occasional streams lined by cattails, forests that turn picturesque shades of red and orange during autumn―if not for the Turnpike, you could see that section of Jersey being a tourist attraction, the sort of thing that nature-starved Manhattanites would drive for hours to see.

Then again, without the Turnpike, Manhattan wouldn't exist. We need some way to transport a whole lot of goods and people between several major metropolitan areas and the places that supply them with food―it wasn't like we decided all of a sudden to tear apart the landscape and install concrete instead of grass. But the Turnpike is still hideously ugly, ugly in the way usually only airports are ugly. It's not a destination for anyone, only a means of getting from one place to the other. There's never any effort to do anything with the empty, grass-and-asphalt landscape because we don't want to stay there long enough to do anything to improve the area.

There is nothing on the Turnpike except cars. There are no people not in cars, there are very few visible towns, there are no signs of humanity except for what humans have built and, occasionally, the graffiti that humans have scrawled on things other humans have built. Even the billboards are about cars--car insurance, car dealer ahead, sell your car for cash. Sometimes, you will see a building in the middle of all these cars. Sometimes, it isn't even a car dealership. These are usually malls, casinos, discount liquor stores--in any case, there will always be a parking lot stretched out in front of the building, inviting cars to come and stay.

The Turnpike sucks because it is an example of what happens when we don't build cities and don't care how the land looks, what happens when an area is allowed to be built on with no plan in mind. It represents what aesthetic develops when there is no thought given to aesthetics at all. Above all, it demonstrates that America, vast and complex creature that it is, has some bits in it that are amazingly boring and should be driven through as fast as possible. Fortunately, thanks to the highways that have ruined the landscape, it's possible to drive extremely fast when you are in New Jersey.

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