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Monday, June 08, 2009

Not from here 

Columnist Cliff Phillips returns with a brilliant piece about place and change, chronicling our shared modern sense of dislocation with his own poignant New Jersey narrative. There is much to chew on here and cultural advice is hard to take. But who is this other? Aren't they all us? When the tale is from the gut and viscerally we respond to it, perhaps there is hope. The potential for change lies within us. As it says in the Talmud, the power of your dreams is your belief that they will come true.

"I'm not from here"

I live in rural New England, but I’m not from here. I moved to western Massachusetts twenty years ago, and around here, I am the Other, a from-away, and I always will be. It’s an important distinction for natives to make, and I respect it.

No, I’m a native of New Jersey, or at least that’s where I was born and raised. I’ve heard all the jokes and most of them are true. People often ask “Jersey? Which exit?” but they never ask how it got that way. The truth is, nobody knows. Like any tragedy, no one can quite explain how it happened, or why. It’s been so long since I left, people are usually surprised to learn I grew up there. I’m almost surprised myself. I suppose I could go back and try to reacquaint myself, but all those places are gone. Literally, gone. Can you imagine that?

I was born in Morristown, New Jersey, a place first settled by the Dutch in the early 1600’s. It’s a real colonial town, with Revolutionary War sites, and snow in winter, which was long. It was a lot like New England in a lot of respects.

When I was small, there was still new interstate highway construction in the old Northeast, and in northern New Jersey, that meant Route 287 was gradually extending its reach northward toward New York State in an arc around the New York Metropolitan Area. At the time it stopped just north of Morristown, stalled by fervent opposition. I didn’t know it was new and I didn’t know it represented a dramatic kind of change. Maybe I assumed the highway had always been there, on a wide flat plain which happened to have been a perfectly graded, open meadow. I was a kid and I took the world as it was.

I grew up in a 1950’s subdivision carved from a wooded hillside. Mountainside Drive. I didn’t know it was new and I didn’t know our split-level was replicated all over the hillside in nearly identical neighborhoods. A kid doesn’t know the relative ages of things, let alone comprehend the scale or significance of them. Of course, the interstate and my neighborhood were a forested valley and ridge just a short time before I was born.

We were lucky to live at the end of a dead end street where our yard fronted a wide empty circle. It was a place for the neighborhood kids to congregate. It served as a paved playground and gave onto a trail which led through woods to another dead end in a neighboring subdivision. The woods seemed a vast frontier and an enduring mystery to my unchallenged mind. I have been told the roads are now connected and the woods are gone, but I won’t be going back to see that. I’m from New Jersey and I’ve seen enough of that.

From age nine, until I left the state at age eighteen, I lived in Kinnelon, a smaller, more remote town further north. A bedroom community, it was a sad, lonely, beautiful place set among wooded lakes. Dry open ridges of scrappy weather-beaten oaks and wild blueberry fell off steeply into enormous assemblages of glacial boulders, often as big as a house, among the quiet shelter of hemlock forest and the brighter but impassable thickets of mountain laurel.

In the mid-nineties, I returned to the area for the wedding of two friends from this second half of childhood. Approaching from near Morristown, I followed the wedding invitation’s directions northward to be confronted by apparent unreality where the conquering Route 287, now encircling a dominion which extended to the New York State Thruway, had obliterated miles of familiar landscape and ran screaming along the formerly quiet Ramapo Mountains.

The outlying towns were choked by pavement and frantic with pointless commerce. The approaches were a crush of seething resentment as each isolated driver, alone in their car, tried to assert their position against the Other on the already crowded superhighway. Chunks of mountain were gone, blasted away into bits of rock which were baled up in massive chain link cubes and stacked grotesquely like toy blocks. I was less than fifteen minutes from my old home. I recognized nothing. Everything was altered. I know I can’t describe the uncomprehending shock and disbelief I felt, the haunted disorientation, the sweeping sense of exile which has remained ever since.

In New Jersey, a shocking verbal assault can pass for a civil greeting, and the mild disparagement would burn New England ears. Waving is rare but the finger is frequent. In a swathe between New York City and Philadelphia, the people live in a fully developed and totally privatized environment. For many, the only accessible open space is the highway and the parking lot. Both are thronged. Many towns are completely “built out,” and the last forested ridgelines which stood between urban or suburban corridors have fallen to development. Some municipalities have hired sharpshooters to kill off deer trapped in residential settings where hunting is no longer possible. There is ample shrubbery for the deer to browse, but aside from the snipers, there are no predators. There is no habitat.

The places the people grew up are also gone. The places their parents frequented are forgotten, demolished, entombed beneath asphalt. Continuity has been banished, and history has been erased. It’s as if the people’s collective memory has been wiped clean. Social isolation is the rule, but is perversely aggravated by going out in public. Many people migrate from this toxic social and physical environment. The lucky ones, given enough time, find another chance to integrate into a community and belong to a place and a landscape again, though they be forever from-aways in their new homes. Who can blame them?

It’s difficult to see one’s place, which is a birthright, changed from the outside. It’s an injustice. Yet it is worse to see it disfigured beyond recognition. Many New Englanders resent the hypocrisy of the from-away, who would bring change from the outside even while proclaiming “your beautiful New England must be kept intact.” They mistake it for arrogance, but I have a word of advice for any native of rural New England or any other undeveloped island of our great paved country.

Please try to have some compassion and a receptive ear for the most despised of your local transplants, who have trickled into your quiet towns from America’s many ruined and impervious landscapes, like refugees fleeing man-made disaster. Wonder where they came from, with their hatchet accents and impulsive social customs, their tackiness and bad habits. Picture their forsaken homes for yourself: the invasive sameness, the fuming traffic, the blanketing fog of amnesia where corporate culture steps in to set the tone, to name the policy, and to garland the thoroughfares with stoplights, logos and trash. Once beautiful places, all of them, but indistinguishable now.

It can happen anywhere. It can happen everywhere.

Can you imagine that?

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The shock is always greatest when you don't get to see the transition take place.
I have lived almost my entire life within 10 miles of my childhood home, and there are many charmless eyesores that have popped up all over the landscape I grew up playing in, on, and around.
But I remember when they went up. I remember the fights, I remember the big yellow machines and the pink X spray-painted onto countless trees.
I remember sneaking in with my friends and taking planks out of the makeshift dam that had been set up to drain Forge Pond. That was the best we could do, we were 12 years old. Living in the trees was not an option.
Those of us who remain here, who remember not only the way it was, but the process of it being obliterated, can sometimes feel a sense of duty, or even privilege. We can point at a long row of identical streetlights and say, "That's where Forge Pond was." We can look at an ugly hotel and say, "Right around here we had a treehouse." We are a living record of the process.
We can foster the enclaves of natural peace and beauty that are still around, tiny and isolated though they may be.
There are plenty of from-far-away's coming here, too.
Visit www.weirdnj.com
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