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Myth...Or Not

Posted February 8, 2008 by John T. Ward, Erik Ortiz, Alexis Crisman, David Chmiel, Christopher Hann, Pamela Redmond Satran

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Unflattering stereotypes about our state have circulated for years. We take a look in the Garden State mirror to see if there’s an iota of truth to any of them.

Attitude

T-shirts with the slogans Welcome to New Jersey…Now Go Home and New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive suggest that citizens of the Garden State move with a brazen, unapologetic swagger. Or maybe we really are just plain rude. Well, not necessarily, according to njattitude.com, which declares New Jersey the “Attitude Capital of the World.” “It’s not that we have AN attitude, it’s that WE HAVE ATTITUDE,” the site clarifies, sort of. “And we’re not afraid to use it.”
All of which means that maintaining a Jersey Attitude requires that you disregard how how others perceive you. So swagger on.
—Erik Ortiz

The Hair

Why do we have to fall on the sword for big hair? Sure, 65,000 beauticians, barbers, cosmetologists, and hairstylists call the more than 8,700 shops here home. And we do license 675 cosmetology/hairstyling teachers and 28 beauty schools.

But let’s stop being embarrassed by that which makes us so Jersey. It’s time we embraced our place in the national pantheon of big hair.

Catherine DeLuca, a Clifton hairdresser for more than 30 years, agrees. “I don’t think the hair here is any bigger than anywhere else,” she says. “It depends on the generation. People in their fifties and over are still hanging on to big hair.”
— Alexis Crisman

The Mob

We’ve seen headlines above photos of guys with raincoats draped over cuffed hands and watched police draw a chalk outline around a steak-house regular who never got past the Caesar salad. We’ve heard the stories about shady waste-management companies and a certain missing labor leader buried in the end zone. And we know that RICO isn’t a grade-school pal from the old neighborhood. So is organized crime in New Jersey a myth? Yeah, right. The state’s Genovese, Gambino, Colombo, and Scarfo crime families have dominated as the models embodied on screen by Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and James Gandolfini. FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone, a Paterson native who infiltrated the mob as Donnie Brasco, also enjoyed his celluloid moment in the sun. But just as the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mobsters once shared in this dubious tradition, these days the state’s newest immigrants are showing up on the police blotter. Colombian, Russian, Jamaican, and Latino gangs have created underworld “success” stories. Given New Jersey’s access to ports and its site as a connector state for distributing goods and services—legal and otherwise—all along the Eastern Seaboard, it’s a logical though not exactly pride-inducing outgrowth of our history and geography.
— David Chmiel

Toxic Dump

True or false: New Jersey is nothing but poisonous smokestacks belching filth into a gritty sky, highways crowded with vehicles spewing toxic exhaust?

While its levels of air pollutants such as lead and sulfur dioxide have dropped dramatically over the past twenty years, New Jersey’s air quality still falls far below national standards. “There’s a lot of pollution from energy generation and cars,” says Dena Mottola, executive director of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

Not all the news is bad. Last November voters approved a plan to reduce diesel emissions from buses and publicly owned trucks by 10 percent over the next decade, and New Jersey no longer operates primary treatment plants along the Shore. Still, Mottola says a 2001 federal study showed that 43 percent of our watersheds had the poorest water quality.
—Christopher Hann

The Malls

Those 1,354 big, boxy beacons of consumerism also known as shopping centers appear to have us surrounded, especially in North Jersey. Yet the state ranks merely tenth nationally in the tally by the International Council of Shopping Centers. (For those of you scoring at home, California leads the nation with 6,291; Wyoming is last with 55.) Are we not the shopaholics that myth has ascribed us?

New Jersey still boasts plenty of enclosed shopping malls, with at least ten that the council considers “super regional centers,” structures of at least 800,000 square feet. The largest is Garden State Plaza in Paramus, whose 280 stores stretch across nearly 2 million square feet—just picture 44 football fields—of shopping nirvana.
—Erik Ortiz

Congestion

We have 7,417 square miles crammed with 8.4 million residents. That’s 1,134 per square mile; the national average is 80. Stats like those could earn us distinction as the most claustrophobic state.

Reputation notwithstanding, we have only six towns—Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Edison, and Woodbridge—that top 100,000 people, which makes the density problem seem worse. Without a metropolis to absorb a massive number of New Jerseyans, virtually every town feels the squeeze. South Jersey is seeing the greatest population spurt, with exponential growth in new-school construction and other infrastructure elements.

So as we strive to protect our open spaces, we sit and wait. We know that it rarely takes less than 30 minutes to drive 15 miles—after all, we have more registered vehicles than licensed drivers. We expect a wait at the ATM and can make six phone calls before we get a coffee and bagel. And we know it’s not going to change. Besides, what would we do with all that free time?
—David Chmiel

Diners

It’s no mystery why New Jersey is dubbed the diner capital. We are as dense with diners as we are with people.

New Jersey may not be the birthplace of the diner—thank you Providence, Rhode Island—but we sure ran with the idea of a cheap, quick, sit-down meal. According to Richard J. S. Gutman, author of American Diner Then and Now (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), the state’s first diner was Kelley’s Lunch in Arlington, built in 1913.

Everyone has an opinion on what makes a true diner— french toast at 2 am, anyone?—but most agree that our diners have a certain unmatched vibe. Think about it, do you want to pull a Big Mac out of the bag or have eggs, gravy fries, and apple pie served to you any time? The state’s diner estimates range from almost 200 to more than 1,200. Peter Genovese, author of Jersey Diners (Rutgers University Press, 1996), says it’s 625. Trust him. That’s how many he’s been to.
— Rema Rahman

Culture

When it comes to culture, New Jersey just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of states; it gets no respect. The attitude comes from outsiders and Garden Staters. Native filmmaker Kevin Smith, whose New Jersey–based comedy Clerks was a surprise hit in 1994, has joked of his wife’s desire to move to New York: “What do we want to move to New York for? We’re already in Jersey; it’s the next best thing—better, even. There’s no roaches or muggers.” Smith concedes that when he does travel into Manhattan, it dawns on him that, Oh, yeah, there’s all this culture here.

It’s true that our state lacks the concentration of culture found in Broadway’s theater district or Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile. Our culture is sprawled throughout the state, and we generally drive rather than walk to get to it. But from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark to McCarter Theatre in Princeton to the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville and the nightclubs of Atlantic City, there are plenty of opportunities here to enrich one’s soul.
–Jennifer Melick

Baby Names

When it comes to naming their babies, American parents are taking their cue from cities. Take the 186th and 232nd most popular baby names in the U.S. in 2004, according to the Social Security Administration: Trenton and Camden, respectively (both are considered boys names). “They went from nonexistence to groovy-ness,” says Montclair writer Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of Cool Names: for Babies, (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003). “People might be choosing the names without even knowing the places exist or what they’re like.”

Nevertheless, Satran credits the appeal of these names to their sense of place, like Savannah (number 41 for girls), Brooklyn (number 101 for girls) and Madison (number 3 for girls and number 859 for boys). Missing from the list is Jersey, although Satran says it, too, could catch on. “It’s a reverse chic thing,” she says. “Not being considered a cool place makes it more cool.”

But it’s a mixed bag for other distinctly Garden State names. “I don’t see Hoboken or Hackensack coming in any time soon,” Satran says, “but you never know. Brunswick? Maybe.”
—Erik Ortiz


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