Here’s a blog I wrote last September for Jerseywise Fiction.
Why do I set my mystery series (one book published*, one making the rounds** qualifies as a series, right?) in New Jersey? Well, for one thing, I live here. In fact, I’ve lived here for 30 years, after my first 21 years in Boston, followed by 9 years in Philadelphia and 2 years in Jerusalem. In other words, almost half my life has been in the Garden State, a place I denigrated as much as anyone else who knew of New Jersey as this dirty, crowded, crime-ridden, polluted hyphen plunked between New York and Philadelphia. Then I moved here and discovered how great it is to live in a place where I am within 40 minutes of five large malls (15 minutes from three of them – too bad I hate shopping in general and malls in particular); 15 minutes of fresh produce you can buy from the back of a farm truck; 60 minutes of the Shore; 30 minutes of Philadelphia; two hours of Manhattan; 90 minutes of Cape May; twenty minutes of several 24-hour diners; a few minutes of some of the cheapest gas prices in the country (and no self-service allowed); and no minutes of terrific bird watching (I just look out the windows into my backyard).
Free associate the words “New Jersey.” What comes to mind? In no particular order:
Real Housewives of NJ
Jersey Shore (the show, not the real thing)
Garden State Parkway, where you do feel as though you are parked
Janet Evanovich (who lives in NH)
Atlantic City casinos
The highest density population in the US
Jimmy Hoffa’s grave under the end zone in the Meadowlands
(Okay, I admit this last item is an urban myth, but it gained popularity because it’s so plausible.)
And what do I think of?
Best birding spots anywhere
Cape May-Lewes Ferry
Delaware Bay Shore
Jewish chicken farmers
Sugar sand roads
Salt water taffy
A major bridge named for poet Walt Whitman (who is buried in Camden)
Cranberries right from the bogs
Corn right from the fields
The pre-casino Atlantic City
And what is the major feature that defines each list? The first one describes North Jersey, while the second one describes South Jersey.
Ten years ago, on June 25, 2001 to be precise, a column I wrote about the differences between North and South Jersey was published in the Burlington County Times. If it’s possible to plagiarize from one’s self, I’ve just done so. But so much of what I wrote then still applies.
Poor New Jersey. It’s bad enough that we have the reputation of being a dweeb, that we’re the butt of jokes not just in this country, but internationally, that we have the ugliest Turnpike in the Boston-D.C. corridor, but we have a split personality, too.
Whenever someone asks me where I live, I explain that there are two New Jerseys-Philadelphia, NJ, and New York, NJ-and that I live in the former. I don’t want to be associated with the part of the state that has inspired such “quips” as “Dump the garbage in New Jersey. No one will notice the smell.”
Yes, they are two different states, with the dividing line somewhere around Trenton. Or maybe Princeton. Those two towns are in a sort of limbo state (so to speak). Forget about demographics. Forget about political affiliations. Forget about the cost of living and real estate values. The defining characteristic is sports. In Trenton and Princeton, some residents are fans of New York sports teams and some root for Philadelphia teams. As you go further north or south of the center section of the state, the team loyalties become more solidified.
Before I discovered how much easier it is to fly into Providence, RI, and rent a car to go to Boston, I used to drive the 500 miles myself. It was during those drives that I discovered just how unattractive the New Jersey Turnpike is, especially north of Exit 7. The road side is lined with factories, oil refineries, airports, megastores. New York City shimmers and wavers in the distance, the outlines of its buildings blurred by pollution. Yet after I would finally cross the George Washington Bridge and maneuver through the maze of highway connections into Connecticut, all I would see until I reached Boston were trees on both sides of the road. (Not that Connecticut is perfect – there were plenty of trees, but no rest stops. And every time I drove through that state, no matter what route I took, there was road construction.)
Several years ago, the weekend after I returned from a trip to Boston, I went to Cape May for the annual Spring Birding Weekend from the New Jersey State Audubon Society. There’s no Turnpike down there, but there is the Garden State Parkway. What a difference from the GSP in North Jersey, which I had taken on my way home from Boston. I much prefer looking at trees instead of concrete.
One exception is the Tappan Zee Bridge area, which I often took on the way back from Boston, mainly because I could never find the entrance ramp to the GW Bridge back into NJ. The view across the Hudson River is breath-taking. (Of course, it may just be that I was holding my breath while trying to dodge the huge semis and maniacal New York drivers.) And there are some areas of northwest New Jersey, in the mountains it shares with New York and Pennsylvania, as well as the corridor along the Delaware River from Washington Crossing north that rival South Jersey for rural calm and beautiful scenery.
I remember that years ago there was a movement to encourage South Jersey to secede from North Jersey. I don’t know what happened, but the idea seems to have lost momentum. It may be time to revive the concept.
Instead of drawing a line across the state to separate north from south, though, I would carve out a semicircle surrounding New York City. It’s that part of the state which gives New Jersey its negative image. With one swipe of a pen, we could get rid of the area which makes New Jersey the most densely populated state in the country. We wouldn’t have to take it personally when sitcoms make jokes about big hair mall rats and Mafia strongholds. We wouldn’t become defensive when people would say disdainfully, “You live in New Jersey – voluntarily?” We’d could proudly point to the gardens that give New Jersey its motto. We’d no longer have to explain that we come from Philadelphia, New Jersey, but could proudly say, “New Jersey.”