People see endless acres of swamp, gasoline storage tanks, refineries, and rail yards flanking New York City, and they think that’s New Jersey. They listen to Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi and think of snarling tough guys from rude strips of convenience stores and beaches and hot rods. They get lost on the bewildering interchanges of our highways and so conceive of the state as nothing much more than a forest of asphalt and concrete. Or they think of Newark, and picture the classic urban ruin.
They do not know about towns like Westfield, where I live, where the train from New York City runs through, where there is a neatly laid-out grid of turn-of-the-century buildings in a graceful downtown. Downtown, the local cops stop in to josh with Elenie, the proprietress of the Greek diner, who knows my family by name. You can buy everything from bagels to hummus to home-made pasta. With a population of 33,000, Westfield supports two big bands, two concert bands, a symphony orchestra, and a theater. Various churches and synagogues sponsor concerts and lectures every weekend.
And they do not know Cranford, right up the tracks, with two rivers and with green-hulled canoes drawn up on the banks, with the sloping yards of Victorian houses going right down to the water, with the town’s own hundred-year-old clay tennis courts, and with some of the best restaurants and bakeries in the area. Cranford and Westfield both boast their own neighborhood movie theaters, which are doing just fine, thank you. No megaplexes for us.
Town after town after pretty little town greets you throughout northern New Jersey: Springfield, Millburn, Chatham, Summit, Madison — and that’s just in a single direction. In town after town, you find neat, charming business districts, big comfortable houses with porches in front, and with the area’s most distinctive feature, trees. Trees everywhere, giant, century-old trees. You can grow anything in the Garden State, and people do. Landscapers bucket around the local roads in their big pickup trucks, prosperous and busy nine months a year. We have the best weather in the United States, all seasons taken together.
All this grace and charm and culture and prosperity do not merely reflect today’s money and today’s suburban settlement. In New Jersey, one of the original thirteen colonies, you see as much history in its geography and in the patterns of its growth as you see in New England. The dominant forces are different, that’s all. In New England, harbors and rivers shaped the civilization. In New Jersey, the railroads did that. In the nineteenth century, Northern New Jersey was a posh vacationland for New Yorkers, reached by the same trains that served the local farms. When the first highways were built, they cut across the typical fan-shaped pattern of railroad ways (centered on New York) and left many formerly vital towns cut off from the new commerce — towns like the Queen City, Plainfield, just south of us, which fell into ruin for decades, and is only now just making a comeback.
But look: Here is a Revolutionary War cemetery, right in the middle of Westfield. Here is a Civil War monument. Here is a seventeenth century farmhouse, preserved as a museum. Here is a 200-year-old white clapboard Congregational Church. Common stuff. As a friend of ours, marooned here by car trouble a few weeks back, remarked wonderingly, “This looks like Newton (Massachusetts).”
New Jersey is, of course, as Italian as Massachusetts is Irish. See the New Jersey guy getting out of his car (a convertible) on a hot Saturday, his arm around his ten-year-old son, who wears a baseball uniform. New Jersey guy wears a silk T-shirt in a subtle color (sand, russet), and matching pleated slacks. Polished brown loafers, no socks. Gold watch, gold bracelets. Grizzled beard, hair pulled back in a pony tail. Sunglasses. Cell phone stuck in his ear.
Jersey guy’s equivalent Jersey girl goes in for tan: tan skin, tan lipstick, tan hair. (She gets a little wrinkled from so much tan over the years.) Chrome-rimmed sunglasses, cleavage, the ubiquitous cell phone. Jersey girl’s teenage daughter blossoms in the long hot summers, with those Anna Magnani Italian genes crossed with contemporary New Jersey prosperity to produce a spectacle to make the hardest-hearted man gasp: Skin like poured butterscotch, a pneumatic figure swelling in tank top and short shorts.
The Italian heritage shows up in the workmanship of houses and gardens, in the wide availability of masons and carpenters, in the number of automobile mechanics, and in the popularity of restaurants. All restaurants, no matter the style, somehow manage to serve ravioli or tortellini — if they purport to be Mexican, they add cilantro to the sauce. You can’t buy a used Cadillac without a coach roof. You still find backyard grottos dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
And grandma and grandpa are still around, handy and doting, to help take care of the kids. I envy these families. They came here a long time ago, they spotted something good — a lot of things good — and they stayed. They show every sign of staying a whole lot longer.
Sadly, we have to leave. I would stay, if I could.