The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

The Space Between: Thoughts on the New Jersey Meadowlands

NEW JERSEY'S MEADOWLANDS ARE A broken hole in the densest state in the nation, with two distinct kinds of landscapes. There are structures built for movement, like traffic flowing along linear turnpikes, goods through railways and container yards, energy through electrical wires, and planes along runways. Then there are the static places, the eddies and stagnant pools between these areas of flow. These include the cul-de-sacs for burnt stolen cars, the closed dumps, and industrial relics, tangled in terminal litigation. The economic precipitate of the big city next door.

These two worlds are networked and mutually dependent, antithetical and divided. For every overpass there is an area passed over. Though bordered by high volume corridors, these static zones can be nearly impossible to reach by conventional methods. You may momentarily be within a few feet of something on the edge of turnpike, and it could take you an hour to get to it on the ground. The Meadowlands are either a place to get through without being there, or a place to end up for good.

It is a place made from of other places. Artificial islands of solid ground amidst the transformed marsh are composed of concrete rubble, broken glass, and ground up architecture, including even parts of bombed London, brought as ballast on the return trip of WWII supply ships, and the fragments of the romantic ruin of the neoclassical Penn Station, exposed on the edges of muddy truck yards.

Once the Hackensack River, the spine of the Meadowlands, was an open sewer of the byproducts of industry, and two dozen garbage dumps, with underground fires from the heat of decay, emitted spires of smoke and zones of haze. It was a landscape at the distant end of civilization, where the frayed edge of the Great City was turning back into the organic muck from whence it came.

Today, most of the 2,500 acres of smoldering dumps have been extinguished and closed. In some cases moats constructed at their bases collect the billion gallons of leachate ooze they collectively excrete each year, pumped out by trucks and redeposited in the sewers for treatment. Methane from the decomposition is collected to heat homes and businesses in the area. The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, established at the peak of the chaos in the late 1960’s, has indeed been busy.

But all is far from lost for the Meadowlands. In the future, as it simultaneously gets paved over in some places and broken into protected wildlife marshland elsewhere, the contrast of the landscape may increase, but the grey zones will prevail. Waste is stubborn, archeology remains longer when buried, and not everything can be put back the way it was before you found it. The Pulaski Skyway, called the Nation's first superhighway, will continue to soar through the Meadowlands, providing furtive, tense and fleeting panoramic views for those heading elsewhere, while providing shelter, isolation, and fodder for the layers of accumulated wastes in the limited access land below.