For decades Meadowlands referred to the odiferous stretch of swamp glimpsed from Route 3 and the Turnpike. That changed on July 2, 1981, when the Brendan Byrne Arena opened, joining the five-year-old Giants Stadium and Meadowlands Racetrack.
The 30-second brief: It emerges from the swamp, a behemoth of sport and commerce billed as unparalleled on this planet. Forget that its acres consist of trucked-in sand that obliterated a fragile ecosystem blanketed by tasseled marsh grass. Forget that it’s accessible only by car or bus belching toxic fumes. Forget that some tenants have been carpetbaggers from the metropolis across the river who scoff at a New Jersey identity. Behold, these are the Meadowlands, home of traffic snarls and champions. Sing a hosanna, because this veritable Xanadu is the state’s legacy—blimp shots, unpaid debt, and all.
In the beginning, wilderness: In his 1998 book The Meadowlands, Robert Sullivan cites a prophecy put forth nearly a century before by writer Charles J. McGillycuddy: “Within three miles of the New York City Hall is a tract of wasteland, 72 square miles in extent. Its reclamation and utilization is an achievement of the near future which will prove an object lesson to every community in the United States.”
Then, a vision: In 1968, the state cobbles together a 20,000-acre Meadowlands District from fourteen Bergen and Hudson county municipalities. A year later the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission unveils a master plan. Ensuing protests and legal challenges are subdued.
On the first day, fast horses: The sports complex debuts in 1976 with a palatial thoroughbred harness track, opening to a night session marked by 42,000 giddy patrons and the mother of all traffic jams. Proceeds from this operation will pay for bonds, expiring in 2009, which will cover everything to come.
Opening-night take: $2,448,855
Next, brute humans: Giants Stadium, built for $68 million (or $894 per spectator on opening day), is unveiled on October 10, 1976, with the hosts losing to the dreaded Dallas Cowboys. Fearful of traffic, thousands show up hours early and loiter in the parking lot. The Cosmos arrive in 1977—and die in 1985. The Jets join the party in 1984. That’s right, the New Jersey Jets.
Singers, shooters, skaters: A 20,000-seat arena, named for former governor Brendan Byrne, opens on July 2, 1981, with the first of six Bruce Springsteen concerts, which sell out in 36 hours. Anon arrive two nomads: the Nets and an NHL team fleeing the fiscal impossibilities of Colorado. The arena’s price tag: about $85 million.
P.S.: That’s Continental Airlines Arena, Governor. As of January 1, 1996, the Brendan Byrne Arena is history.
What, no Bruces?: Ten other choices on the newspaper ballot to name the home hockey team are Americans, Blades, Coastals, Colonials, Generals, Gulls, Jaguars, Meadowlanders, Meadowlarks and Patriots. Devils prevails.
Championship tote board: Cosmos 5, Devils 3, Giants 2, Jets 0, Nets 0
Giants Stadium’s biggest match: Pope John Paul II takes on temptation on October 5, 1995. 82,948 attend.
Alas, a stumble: Horse racing wanes by the early 1990s, as the bucks fail to cover the bonds.
What, no curling? Dreams to energize the complex include a super mall with housing (1978), TV and movie production city (1979), Disney World resort (1982), Major League baseball stadium (1985, 1989, 2004), site of the Olympic or Pan-American Games (1989), riverboat gambling center (1994), sports-themed retail center (1997), NASCAR super speedway (2000), golf courses (2003), and the Xanadu complex with snow dome, wildlife museum, and aquarium (2003).
P.S.: Xanadu? Developer develops headaches. The project will take longer, cost more, and earn less money than originally projected.
The exit sign lights up: By the new century, everyone wants out. In 2001 the Devils whip up a deal with Newark for a downtown roost. In 2004 the Nets row their boat ashore in Brooklyn for 2008. The Giants and Jets agree in September 2005 to build an $800 million stadium in the parking lot by 2009 and demolish the existing facility, which still bears a big debt.
The bottom line: At least the ponies still run nearly 200 nights a year for a few thousand warm bodies.
JULY IN NJ, 1976–2006
July 2, 1999: Rocked by scandals, state Attorney General John Farmer Jr. rescinds the authority of the New Jersey State Police to direct itself and decrees that from now on a civilian will fill its top post.
July 10, 2004: Martin Finkle and Mike Plake, wearing matching T-shirts emblazoned with I DO, enter South Orange Village Hall to receive the first set of documents recognizing same-sex relationships under the state’s Domestic Partnership Act.
July 10, 1979: Gas stations get the okay to price by the half-gallon for the next six months, in a stopgap effort to manage spiraling gas costs at pumps equipped with meters that register no higher than 99.9 cents a gallon.
July 11, 1978: The House votes 275-110 to discontinue the Tocks Island dam project—initiated partly in response to flooding —and designate 37 miles of the Delaware River as part of the country’s Wild and Scenic River System.
July 20, 1993: President Bill Clinton taps federal judge Louis J. Freeh, 43, a Rutgers Law School grad, to replace FBI director William Sessions, who was fired over concerns about his conduct.
July 23, 1984: Reigning Miss America Vanessa Williams resigns after pageant officials learn she posed nude for photos published in Penthouse magazine, giving first runner-up Suzette Charles of Mays Landing the crown.
July 30, 2002: The U.S. Senate admonishes member Robert Torricelli for breaking a ban on gifts, requiring him to pay as much as $2,000 to a New Jersey businessman who gave him a 52-inch TV, a stereo, a compact-disc player, and earrings.
Click here to leave a comment