New Jersey Meadowlands
GETTING TO THE Meadowlands is easy. You can go by train from New York City to Secaucus Junction, one stop away from Penn Station, and you are in the middle of the Meadowlands. Or you can drive there on the Interstate from anywhere on the continent, ending up on the northern part of Interstate 95, the New Jersey Turnpike, which runs through the heart of the Meadowlands. Or you can fly there from anywhere in the world, landing immediately in the Meadowlands.
Arrival: Newark Airport
Let's begin at Newark Airport. If you are flying in, and the winds are from the south, you will have a map-like view of the Meadowlands as you descend. If you get to the airport by train from New York, you get a great ground view, passing many of the landmarks and back-spaces on the way. Come by car, and you get the view from the turnpike. Each of these serves as an introductory overview of sorts.
No matter how you get to Newark Airport, it’s likely you will end up on the AirTrain, a link between the ground and the sky. It’s an elevated monorail, like at the Getty Center or Disneyland. Futuristic, unpiloted, and automatic, it loops around and around, whether you are there or not. Like a flux, it does nothing but connect: air terminals, rental cars, long-term parking lots, and the train station.
The AirTrain interfaces with the carscape at a multitude of parking garages and rental car agencies, from which you can make an escape from the airport, that great beast of conveyance, through its intestines and service arteries, out of this urban digestive tract of arrival and departure, this multilayered system of modes, out of its orifice and orbit, on to the open road.
Of course the Turnpike is not always liberating, but it can be. Like most things, any fear or anxiety about it can be addressed through familiarity and repetition. The Turnpike travels the length of the Meadowlands and provides elevated views throughout. Even better, the Turnpike splits in two in the Meadowlands. One route stays on the western edge, another goes up the eastern side, then they both reconnect at the other end. This makes it possible to do a loop around the Meadowlands, around and around, until you get used to it. All the while you will see the landmarks go by, and get to know them.
Consider the first toll booth you hit after the airport as the starting gate for this looping turnpike track. Heading north, on the western spur, you pass under the Pulaski Skyway, then over the Passaic River, past landfills 1D, 1A, and 15W (named after their Turnpike exit number), then through Saw Mill Marsh, past the Meadowlands Commission Headquarters, past the Harman Cove Towers, over Berry’s Creek, through the sports complex, the Empire Tract, then over the Hackensack River–all within a few minutes, if you’re lucky. Exit at the Vince Lombardi Service Area, and you can make a pit stop before heading on the south-bound part of your turnpike loop. The plaza has Nathans, TCBY, and free brochures.
On your way out, look for the Turnpike South signs for the eastern spur (Exits 18, 16, and 15X). On this side you’ll pass by the clothing warehouses and data centers of North Bergen, through the office plazas of Secaucus, and past the Alexander Hamilton Service Area, named after the founding father who was shot in a duel that took place over the hill in Weehawken. The Turnpike passes Secaucus Junction Station nearly close enough to touch it, and what’s left of Laurel Hill, then flies over the Hackensack, with tremendous views, then joins its western spur for the trip over the Passaic, and under the Pulaski, after which you can get off at Exit 15, pay the toll, and start the loop over again, heading north, under the Pulaski and over the Passaic …
Once you feel you are acclimated, oriented, and ready to enter the Meadowlands at street level, you can begin, as we often do, at the top, and work your way down to the bottom. To do this, go one exit past the Vince Lombardi Service Area, to Highway 46 westbound, which becomes Sylvan Avenue in Little Ferry, a classic New Jersey car strip, built on filled-in swamp.
Headwaters: Airports, Office Parks, Contamination, Restoration
Highway 46 leads to Teterboro Airport, at the northwest corner of the Meadowlands. The Meadowlands are anchored by two airports, Teterboro at the top, and Newark at the bottom, both built on filled-in swamp, like many airports. Teterboro is one of the busiest small jet airports in the nation, serving corporate jet activity for the NYC and northern NJ region. Sony Aviation, for example, has a hangar and aircraft fleet for celebrities and VIPs, with limos waiting to take them into New York City. Dassault Falcon, the French business jet company, has its main business office for the Americas here.
At a dead end past the control tower is a regional aviation museum, with a number of interesting avian specimens, like fragments of the Hindenberg, which burned at New Jersey’s Lakehurst Navy Base in 1937, ending the use of blimps as passenger vessels. The museum has an array of unusual small aircraft including the Glidemobile, an early hovercraft test flown on a New Jersey pond in 1959, and a flight simulator used to train pilots in the dawn of the jet age.
There are displays about Newark International, the Meadowlands’ other airport, which was the first major airport built in the New York City area. In 1935 Amelia Earhart was on hand for the opening of the nation’s first commercial airline terminal there, and it was the busiest airport in the world at the time. In the 1970s it was expanded into its current form with circular terminal hubs, and it now handles 33 million passengers a year, more than La Guardia, but less than JFK. United Flight 93 took off from Newark on September 11, 2001, crashing into a field in Pennsylvania two hours later.
On the other side of Teterboro Airport is the former Bendix plant where things like flight control systems for military aircraft were made for half a century. It was bought by Honeywell in 1983, and was closed in 2008, when the work was moved to Albuquerque, and the building was recently demolished. All that is left of the legacy of Bendix is the Bendix Diner, across from the airport, at the corner of Highways 17 and 47. This intersection makes for another good place to pause, poised at the northwest corner of the Meadowlands.
Heading south on Highway 17 from the Bendix Diner you are on the road that defines the western edge of the Meadowlands. Residential hills on the right side and industrial flats on the left. Though it is filling in with contemporary national chain retail and restaurants, part of the great “Bed Bath & Beyonding” of the area’s suburbs, the old corridor still has vestiges of character from earlier times, like the Fiesta restaurant and event space, full of colored fountains, and a favored prom party and wedding banquet location since the 1960s.
A more recent and austere addition to Highway 17 is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s East Rutherford Operations Center, the main electronic processing center for the busiest district of the Federal Reserve. It was built to process all the checks used in transactions in New York and northern New Jersey, which annually numbered more than one billion checks, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. The security around it is understandable, given that it can hold as much as $60 billion in cash in its vaults.
Nearby, Berry’s Creek, a drainage artery of the northern Meadowlands, flows south out of its headwaters, the runways of Teterboro Airport, and into an industrial area south of Moonachie Avenue. A chemical processing site in the industrial area dumped hundreds of tons of mercury-contaminated wastes onto the ground and into the creek, over the years. Called the Ventron/Velsicol site, it is owned by Morton International, the same company that built space shuttle boosters, and sells consumer salt. It is one of dozens of contaminated industrial sites laying fallow in the Meadowlands.
Nearby, the Universal Oil Products Superfund site consists mostly of fenced mounds of earth, next to a new Fairfield Inn. It was the site of a chemical plant that over the years drained millions of gallons of waste solvents into unlined ponds, which then leached into the underlying swamp. The site, on the Superfund list since 1983, is still being addressed.
Orphaned and without personnel on site, a number of former industrial sites in the region are suspended in a bureaucratic and litigious limbo, without anyone wanting to pay bills and claim liability, so they just sit there, and become a new kind of forbidden public space, post-industrial funhouses for marginal and illicit activities of both a creative and destructive nature. They become part of the community in ways that cannot be designed, or officially recognized.
Many other interesting active businesses are located in the industrial park area between Teterboro, East Rutherford, and Moonachie, on filled-in Meadowlands drained by Berry’s Creek, including the world headquarters for the Pantone Company. This is the company that manages color standards for the graphics, printing, and other color critical industries worldwide, a veritable ground zero for color. Macy’s department store built a facility nearby for their Thanksgiving Day Parade floats. The floats have been stored and serviced in the Meadowlands for decades, lore referenced in Woody Allen’s film Broadway Danny Rose.
At the end of the road in the office park are the gates of the Bergen County Utilities Authority’s water treatment plant, one of the larger wastewater plants discharging into the Meadowlands. When overloaded, it sometimes ships sewage by barge to a treatment plant in Newark. South of the plant is a construction entrance to the Kane Mitigation Bank, a major marsh restoration project on the Meadowlands. The 240-acre site is owned by the Meadowlands Conservation Trust, and is being turned back into estuary. This is done by erasing the linear canals built a hundred years ago to drain the marsh, replacing them with a network of small meandering channels that allow tidal water from the Hackensack to penetrate the marsh. A major part of marsh restoration involves clearing out the invasive, non-indiginous phragmites that took over the Meadowlands, killing native vegetation, and clogging up flow. The project is being financed as a mitigation bank, meaning regional transit authorities (road and rail) that build projects in the swamps have to also pay for restoration efforts here. This land is part of what was formerly known as the Empire Tract, over 500 acres left undeveloped as part of an exchange that allowed the Xanadu entertainment complex to be constructed nearby. Fundamentally, it’s a massive reengineering project to create a landscape that functions, as much as is possible, like we were never here.
Recreationscape: Megacomplexes, Abandoned Driving Range
On the other side of Walden Swamp is the Meadowlands Arena and Sports Complex, what most people think of when they think of the Meadowlands.
The sports complex was an early development project by the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. It is a cluster of a half dozen megastructures, surrounded by an ocean of parking lots.
The complex is dominated by the new Meadowlands Stadium, also called the MetLife Stadium, since the insurance company bought the naming rights for it. It is the home field for the NY Giants and NY Jets football teams, who sometimes play each other here, an unusual rivalry on shared home turf. The stadium cost $1.6 billion, and opened in 2011. In 2009, the 33-year old former Meadowlands stadium was demolished, following a closing concert by Bruce Springsteen. It was located next to the new stadium site, so as the old one was torn down, the other was being built. The debris from the old stadium filled its own hole, and is now covered over by the parking lot.
Next to the new Meadowlands stadium is the Meadowlands Racetrack, a horse track built around the time of the first stadium. Like people at the track, the track itself has been losing money for years. The state has considered casinos, NASCAR, and other enhancements for it. The lake in the middle of the track was built to resemble the shape of the state of New Jersey, though this can only barely be discerned from the stands.
Another large facility at the sports complex is the Timex Performance Center, which is used as the practice facility for the NY Giants football team. They train on three and a half football fields outside, and one under the big shed roof. Next to it is the water park, once used for boat races and waterskiing events, but now hardly used at all. The Izod Center holds around 20,000 people, and was built in 1981 originally as a basketball stadium and a hockey rink for professional teams. All of these teams now play elsewhere, and the arena is used just occasionally for rock concerts. Called the Continental Airlines Arena before the pro sports teams moved away, the clothing company Izod pays around a million dollars a year for the naming rights.
Next to Izod is the latest and largest Meadowlands attraction, which has been under construction for nearly a decade. Called Xanadu, it was to be the largest entertainment, sports, and retail complex in the country. Ground was broken for the project in 2004. In 2009, with about 80% of it complete, and nearly $2 billion spent, financing fell apart, and construction was halted.
The unfinished complex is topped by what was to be the nation's only indoor ski slope. Other features were to include a 26 screen movie theater, bumpercars, laser tag, a giant Best Buy, Cabellas, a Virgin megastore, and a 300-foot tall Pepsi logo-emblazoned Ferris wheel next to the turnpike. For two years the 2.5 million square foot building was quiet, and began to decompose. It was scorned as one the nation’s largest retail failures, and called “the ugliest building in America” by the governor of New Jersey.
But the project was too big to fail, and a new team and concept is at work on it again, by the group that built the Mall of America in Minneapolis (the largest mall in the USA) and the Edmonton Mall (the largest mall in North America). The new plan, announced in mid 2011, would make this the largest mall in the world, with 7.5 million square feet of retail space. The new name: American Dream Meadowlands.
Patterson Plank Road goes over the turnpike on a bridge, heading from Xanadu to an interesting area of relics on the Hackensack River. The road’s name comes from the fact that it once connected Patterson New Jersey to Jersey City–an early diagonal thoroughfare through the Meadowlands, partially made of wooden planks laid out on the swamp.
The old roadbed up to the water’s edge is still visible. It follows electric lines across an abandoned driving range to the base of a bridge that is no longer there. The bridge connected to Secaucus, on the other side of the river, but was torn down after Route 3 was built in the 1930s. Before the bridge, ferries would take people across the Hackensack here.
The driving range was abandoned after a storm a few years ago, though the owners have since used it as a paintball park, and some colorful splatters are washing away. It is next to the Dragonfly Bar and Grill, the only active business left at this old marina area. Two small private boat clubs, the Snipe and the Majestic, still occupy the site, with a few recreational boat hulks in and on the shore.
This old marina area, a rare remnant of old Hackensack River life, is almost gone. The old barge landing is bargeless, and as of 2012 is River Barge Park and Marina, operated by the New Jersey Meadowlands District Commission, a site where people can take official eco-tours on the Hackensack on the Commission’s fleet of pontoon boats, and read historic plaques that talk about what was there. Meanwhile, the abandoned home of the Steiner family, who owned the property until the 1970s, is collapsing in the bushes under the shadow of the pleasure dome of the American Dream Meadowlands.
This is a dead end. To return to the Meadowlands, you have to head back over the bridge over the Turnpike. Head east past Xanadu, and onto Route 3, and in minutes you’ll be back on the west side of the Meadowlands, and into the next zone.
West Side: Dumps, Graves, Communication, Interpretation
Route 3 is the principal east/west highway cutting across the Meadowlands, connecting Secaucus in the east to Rutherford in the west. At the west side of the sports complex, Route 3 passes over Berry’s Creek, at the point that the natural drainage channel through the swamp meets the canal dug by the Erie Railway Company a hundred years ago. The canal helped industries develop upstream which would later pollute the creek to the point that fish cannot survive in it.
Near the intersection of Route 3 and Route 17, the road that travels along the base of the hills on the west side of the Meadowlands, is the Meadowlands Museum, housed in one of the area’s oldest homes. It is a local history museum full of information about the region’s recent past. Upstairs the walls have been painted with displays about local minerals, natural history, and the more distant past. Coincidentally, this house was once the home of Charles Smithson, an ornamental concrete sculptor and plasterer who worked on the subway stations of New York City, and who was the grandfather of the artist Robert Smithson. Robert Smithson was a pioneering conceptualist and land artist who grew up nearby, and who wrote the essay Tours of the Monuments of the Passaic, and made Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery, across Route 3 from the Meadowlands Museum. His grave overlooks the Meadowlands.
Medieval Times, a themed entertainment and dining establishment, is located at the base of the cemetery. It’s an anachronism in a warehouse, and one of several interesting businesses in the Meadowlands Corporate Center, an office park at the base of the hills here. The Sika Corporation, a Swiss chemical conglomerate, makes plastic sealants at a plant on Polito Avenue, next to Medieval Times.
Across from Sika is the antenna field for WINS, an AM talk radio station, one of more than a dozen radio transmission tower sites in the Meadowlands. Radio stations use the undeveloped marshy areas as it is otherwise economically unproductive land, and because it is open, so radiowaves can radiate unobstructed in the direction of their main audience. Also, radio ground waves propagate well over brackish water, especially AM. Thus the swamps of the Meadowlands are the origin for the talk radio of the New York region.
Past the warehouses along Valley Brook Avenue in Rutherford is the northern gateway to the land of landfills, an area of terrestrial transformation, interpretation, and remediation on a large scale. For over a hundred years dumping took place all over the Meadowlands, in part to fill them in so they could be built on, but also as the expansive urban area needed a place to put it’s wastes. The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission was established in 1969 to control the filling of the swamps and to deal with the unsanctioned landfills, some of which were visibly smoldering along the New Jersey Turnpike.
Now called the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, it is a regulatory agency that controls environmental projects, landfill closure, and redevelopment over 30.4 square-miles, most of the partially or minimally filled-in Meadowlands swamps, and all of its landfills. The area along Valley Brook Avenue, much of which is former dumps, has been slated for redevelopment on a large scale. The EnCap development proposal, which involved a golf course, hotels, townhouses, and retail, was to cover 800 acres here. After nearly ten years and $300 million in planning and site work, the project went bankrupt a few years ago.
The headquarters of the Meadowlands Commission is past the EnCap site, at the end of Valley Brook Avenue, where the street name changes to Disposal Road. The main building has administrative offices for the Commission, as well as some displays and a gift shop. The former and notable “garbage museum” on display here in the early 1990s, has been replaced by an educational center for teaching school kids about natural science and ecology. A promontory extending from the building out over the water enables visitors to feel more immersed in the marsh. At the end of the walkway is the Marsh View Pavillion, surrounded by canted plaques providing interpretive captions for the views of the marsh and the landfills.
The Commission headquarters is located on the Kingsland Impoundment, a 90-acre bermed enclosure in the swamp, filled mostly with open water. The Impoundment was slated to become a landfill in the 1970s, but was instead purchased to be the agency’s headquarters and a natural preserve. It is now part of Richard W. DeKorte Park, which has a number of trails and viewing areas around the impoundment. Interpretive devices such as viewing tubes and descriptive plaques are in abundance in the park. The Transco Trail is a mile-long nature trail on a berm covering the three-foot diameter Transco gas pipeline, which runs inches below the surface, and brings natural gas from the Gulf of Mexico to the northeastern U.S.
The Amvets Carillion is one of a few memorials in the park. It was made in 2007 and its bells chime daily. Nearby, a September 11 memorial faces the distant view of the Manhattan skyline, and has twin tower-like piers that are roped off. Next to the piers is an overlook where you can stand in footprints painted on the ground, to line up a steel silhouette of a skyline which has the twin towers on it, which overlaps with the actual skyline in the distance–which does not.
The Meadowlands Commission office is located at the foot of the Kingsland Landfill. The Bergen County Utility Authority operated the site as a municipal landfill for the region for decades. It was being remediated as part of the failed EnCap project, and was supposed to be part of the golf course. Disposal Road continues south along the base of the Kingsland Landfill, past landfill gas collection points, where the methane from the landfill is burned to produce electricity.
The road leads to an abandoned baler facility once operated by Bergen County at the former entrance to the Kingsland and Erie Landfills. The Meadowlands Commission helped pioneer a number of aspects of landfill management, including techniques for compressing the incoming garbage so that it could be more easily transported, and so it would take up less space in the landfill. Trash would come first to large sheds next to the landfill where it would be compacted by hydraulic compressors into squares, roughly a cubic yard in size, weighing around 3,000 pounds each. These bales would be loaded onto trucks, and stacked in the landfill with front loaders. This system was abandoned here when these landfills were closed. The county baler building is abandoned and overgrown–the trash buildings themselves have become trash.
The original Commission building which housed the largest waste baling machines in the nation is located a mile south of the Bergen County facility, next to the Saw Mill Landfill in North Arlington. It is still being used to handle trash, though in the usual way, dump and load. The Saw Mill Landfill, known in Commission terminology as Landfill 1E, and locally as Mount Arlington, is one of the largest landfills in the Meadowlands. It is a consolidation of adjacent landfills: Landfill 1C, a 212-acre mound operated by the town of Kearny; and North Arlington’s 195-acre Balefill Landfill (so named as it was full of bales from the baler). As one of the tallest hills of the Meadowlands, it has a panoramic view of the landscape north, south, and east; across the Saw Mill Marsh, the New Jersey Turnpike, Jersey City, Secaucus, and Manhattan.
Kearny: Turnpikes, Tracks, Ponds, Trucks
Kearny is the town at the bottom of the Meadowlands. Its ten square miles span from the Passaic River in the west to the Hackensack in the east, and covers their confluence at Newark Bay. Most of its population of 40,000 live on the hills to the west, above the Meadowlands. An equally large area is the industrial peninsula of South Kearny, at the confluence of the rivers, intensely developed, but with no housing. Between them is a chaotic labyrinth of lines of conveyance and terminal eddies, landfills, and impoundments in the swamp.
The Belleville Turnpike is one of the great roads of the Meadowlands. Hardly anything like the New Jersey Turnpike, it is an old two-lane surface road that runs diagonally across the southern Meadowlands, connecting to the Newark Turnpike. Belleville Turnpike was macadamized in 1914, but dates back to 1765, when it was used to carry copper from the Schuyler mines, one of the nation’s earliest copper sources, located in what is now the residential part of North Arlington, on the edge of Kearny. Though long since closed and built over, the old underground mining area is full of caverns and shafts, just below the surface. In 1989, some of these cavities collapsed into sinkholes, damaging the Schuyler condominiums, on Schuyler Avenue. Secret entrances to the mines are on the slopes north of the Belleville Turnpike.
The Turnpike leaves the hilltop grid of the residential area through the cemetery, and enters the flats next to the base of Mount Arlington (Landfill 1E), across from the Jeryl Industrial Park. This industrial area has had its share of contaminated brownfields, and is also prone to flooding. South of the industrial park is Kearny Marsh, a freshwater marsh that is contained within a 310-acre impoundment of roads and railbeds. The Keegan Landfill, one of the few active landfills left in the Meadowlands, leaks leachate into the water, adding to the already high levels of contaminants in the landlocked marsh. South of Kearny Marsh is the southwest corner of the Meadowlands, on the north side of the Passaic River, with Landfill 1D, and 15W, named after the adjacent turnpike exit. Here, too, you will find Walmart, postal processing centers, and scrap yards filling in the triangular voids in-between things.
This stretch of the Passaic is called the Harrison Reach, and it is often cited as the most contaminated stretch of river in the nation. Industries along the banks include the former Diamond Alkali Plant, which made DDT in the 1950s and Agent Orange in the 1970s. It is now owned by Occidental Chemical of Los Angeles, and has been partially remediated. Some of the wastes at the facility have been covered by a berm, but the sediments of the river have hardly been addressed. The river here flows under the New Jersey Turnpike, and rounds its final bend in South Kearny, across from a peninsula named Point No Point.
The Belleville Turnpike continues its cross-section through the swamps, the roadbed creating more incidental impoundment along with the other random criss-crossing trajectories of pipelines, rail lines, roadways, landfills, on-ramps, and berms. Each pond between these lines is its own anonymous ecotonic soup. The turnpike passes more radio transmitters, blasting scratchy AM hysteria invisibly through and over the land. Some of these transmitting stations are abandoned and used as squats for swamp rats, human and not.
Nearing its southern end, the turnpike passes Landfill 1A, the first Commission landfill to be closed in a modern way. Closure here used technologies which are now commonplace, such as digging a deep channel around the entire base of the landfill to isolate it from surrounding groundwater, and pumping the collected leachate out through a series of wells, sending it by pipeline to the local sewage treatment plant. Other innovations at this landfill include building a pond on top of it, a pond that has since collapsed, as the landfill has settled considerably over the past thirty years.
The Commission worked with artist Nancy Holt to turn the landfill into a sculpture and celestial observatory, called Sky Mound. She spent years on the project, though only a few of her ideas were implemented. It is unknown if the public would have ever been able to visit the Sky Mound earthwork and taken in its views directly, or if they would have just enjoyed what they could see of it–such as the planned methane flares–from the turnpike.
Across the Belleville pike from Landfill 1A, next to the towers of WMCA, Christian talk radio, is a road that heads out behind Royale Linens, to a network of linear berms with interesting landmarks and overlooks. The main road ends where the Portal rail bridge for active NJ Transit and AMTRAK lines cross the Hackensack River. North, a road continues on an undulating paved berm along the river’s edge, and leads to an underlook of the New Jersey Turnpike and onward to the rotating Conrail Swing Bridge, on a line taken out of service in 2003. On the other side of the bridge is Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus, one of the few public boat launches in the Meadowlands.
South of the Royale Linens road is an underpass that serves as the northern gateway to one of the largest, and most complex contaminated brownfields in the Meadowlands. The property is generally referred to as the Koppers Coke Site, as much of it was a coke plant operated by the Koppers company from 1917 to 1979. Most of the buildings, including a coal tar processing plant and storage facilities, have been removed, and the landscape is being remediated. The northern part is the former Diamond Shamrock chromate chemical plant, a 30-acre industrial site that operated from 1916 to 1976. It is owned by Tierra Solutions, a corporate entity derived from its successors, Diamond Shamrock and Occidental Chemical.
Another part of the property, located in the middle, operated until more recently, and still has buildings and many contamination issues yet to address. Known as the Standard Chlorine site, it operated from 1916 to 1993, producing chemicals such as drain cleaning products and mothballs. Contaminants on-site include hexavalent chromium, dioxin, chlorobenzene, and naphthalene. It was put on the federal Superfund list in 2003. The former distillation tower is a landmark on the Hackensack.
The Koppers Coke site is one of the largest redevelopable heavy industry sites in the region, and many interests are at work planning its future. Among the problems at the site, though, is its abrupt proximity to the fast-moving traffic along the Belleville Turnpike. Currently the main entrance is on its eastern end, where the county’s Improvement Authority controls access. Earthmoving has been going on at the site for years, using a barge loading site on the east end to move larger quantities of clean material to the site and contaminated materials from it.
Much of the work is being done by the Sevenson company, an environmental services company at work on over a hundred superfund sites around the country. Sevenson was the principal contractor for cleaning up Love Canal at Niagara Falls, where the company is still based. The Clean Earth Company, a hazardous soil handling company, also works at the site. An Owens Corning asphalt roofing shingle plant is adjacent to the Koppers Coke site, a still active remnant of the local former industries of coal, coke ,and tar.
The Koppers Coke site is at the northeast corner of the peninsula of South Kearny, an industrialized fulcrum between Jersey City and Newark, a long-ago paved over marsh at the confluence of the Hackensack and Passaic. The peninsula is separated from the more open lands of the Meadowlands to the north by railyards that span the peninsula from the Hackensack to the Passaic, centered around the Meadowland Maintenance Center, a repair facility for NJ Transit. The rail company CSX also operates at the site, an intermodal yard moving goods between truck and rail.
The Belleville Turnpike ends here and merges with the Newark Turnpike, which heads eastward over the Hackensack, out of Kearny, merging with the mess of transit. A careful meander around these fast-moving pikes onto Fish House Road, and into the South Kearny Peninsula.
You’ll first pass the Kearny Generating station, a power plant that resembles a gothic cathedral looming over the Hackensack. Thomas Edison was on hand for its opening in 1925, and since then it has been updated several times, most recently in 2001. The four current units at the plant now all burn natural gas, and generate up to 500 megawatts of electricity for the region.
In the middle of the peninsula is the Skyway Diner, a favored stop for fans of the TV show The Sopranos, who come on guided tour buses to see this icon of an Italian American mob sort of place. It was used as a location for at least one shooting scene in the series. The Skyway Diner sits under the Pulaski Skyway, which soars over South Kearny, with one exit along its 3.5 mile path–a narrow ramp dropping into South Kearny. Built in the 1930s, the massive steel overpass flies over the peninsula like a giant steel blimp.
Trucking dominates the South Kearny peninsula like nowhere else. The Highway 1 and 9 Truck Route was built in the 1950s to take truck traffic off the narrow and structurally limited Pulaski Skyway, and encouraged the development of South Kearny as one of the major truck logistics sites in the nation.
South Kearny was home to Western Electric, whose plant here was a major manufacturer of electronic components for the Bell Telephone system, operating from 1926 to 1986 and employing thousands. The building is still there, but is now leased space used for trucking and storage. North of it, along the Passaic River, is the former Syncon Resin plant, a contaminated industrial site awaiting treatment. Part of the site is used by the Clean Earth Company as a hazardous waste handling facility for regional projects.
The largest site in South Kearny is the former Federal Ship Building yard, which dominates the southeast side of the peninsula. It was started by a U.S. Steel subsidiary in 1917 to build ships for WWI. In WWII it built destroyers and other ships, and employed 32,000 people. The yard became a shipbreaking facility in the 1970s, taking apart battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. The site is now the River Terminal distribution facility, with 5.5 million square feet inside, and 300 acres outside, but it makes no use of its waterfront location. Most of the shipways have been filled in. It’s just warehouse space accessed by trucks.
The very tip of the peninsula is a no man’s land, divided in half. The east side, on the Hackensack, has a former waste treatment plant, with some intermodal rail shipping yards and overgrowth. The west side, on the Passaic, is a former industrial site that is being remediated, and is also off-limits. South of the tip is Newark Bay, no longer the Meadowlands.
Secaucus: The Jewel of the Meadowlands
Situated between the base of the Bergen Hills to the east and the Hackensack River to the west, Secaucus is the heart of the Meadowlands. The community is surrounded completely by the Meadowlands, and is therefore in and of the swamp, whether it looks like swamp anymore or not. Like Kearny, the town is divided distinctly into a residential part and an industrial part. The town’s 17,000 residents live in a cluster at the northern end, and an office park area covers the southern end. Then there are green holes where the swamp dominates still.
Numerous rail lines and roadways converge at the base of the hills at the southern tip of Secaucus, entering tunnels and roadcuts heading towards tunnels under the Hudson. It’s as if nearly all the linear elements of the southern Meadowlands eminate or converge from this place. And it’s usually under construction, being completely rejiggered, at a cost of hundreds of millions. If you can find your way out of the mess, off highway 1-9, go north on County Road, the southern gateway into Secuacus.
On one side is the Croxton railyards, on the other a massive postal processing center, one of three in the Meadowlands. This one handles most of the bulk mail for the New York City area. This is where your junk mail comes from. County road crosses the town line into Secaucus unmarked, near an anomalous old brick farmhouse. Secaucus was famous for its pig farms. In the old days much of the food wastes from New York City restaurants and grocery stores would find its way to the farms over here on the edge of the swamps, like this one. Due to the proximity of area industries, even this hemmed-in farmstead has its soil contamination issues, running down Penhorn Creek.
Across the tracks from the old farmstead is the Secaucus Junction rail station, a key in the effort to create a transportation hub in Secaucus. A veritable temple of transportation, the station is still considerably larger than its usage demands. It opened in 2003 at a cost of over a half a billion dollars. It was built over the crossing of two lines, and allows people to transfer from one to another, and a direct connection to Penn Station in NYC, one stop away.
In 2005, Exit 15X of the of the New Jersey Turnpike opened in front of the station, connecting it to the Interstate road network. The exit ramp passes by the station building then heads out over the interstitial zones by the Croxton railyards on a 2-mile long loop, rising over the swamps in order to site the toll booth, then heads back to the station. Despite this asset, it’s the least used exit on the turnpike.
Part of this new hub notion for Secaucus Junction was the construction of a large residential community across from the station and Exit 15X, called Xchange at Secaucus Junction. Construction of the project began in 2006 with the grading and filling of land next to the Hackensack River. After a number of delays the project’s first and second phases were complete in 2010. Infrastructure has been laid for a possible expansion of the project.
The Xchange apartments are next to Laurel Hill Park, a county park established at the base of the largest natural hill in the Meadowlands. It’s not quite natural anymore, though, as most of the hill was removed over decades of use as a quarry. Laurel Hill Park has one of the few boat ramps on the Hackensack River, and is thus a portal for aquatic forays. It’s across from Saw Mill Marsh, and canoes are available to rent here in the summer. Other amenities in the park include sporting grounds for sanctioned activities. The area around the hill has a complicated past. The site has been a church, a poor farm, an insane asylum, a prison, and in 2012, a mechanical dinosaur park. On the other side of the hill is the River Bend Marsh, and the old, overgrown Malanka Landfill, named after its owner, Tony Malanka. The mounds have sunk to less than 70 feet in height.
Continuing northward into Secaucus on Seaview Drive, you enter a large warehouse and office park zone, developed by Hartz Mountain. The privately held Hartz Mountain Company is the largest developer of commercial real estate in Secaucus, and was the first to develop here in a major way. The company expanded from its roots in the pet food industry to real estate by purchasing 1,250 acres of landfilled swamp here in 1969, and turning them into Harmon Cove and Harmon Meadows. The company now has real estate and financial assets all over the NYC region.
The success of Hartz Mountain’s developments is based on the once inexpensive real estate and the proximity to the densest and largest markets in the country. Many retailers, especially in the clothing industry, have warehouses here, including Macy’s. Data centers are also increasingly being built in a ring around New York City for reasons of economy and security. Equinix’s NY4, one of the largest and newest data centers in the region, is on Secaucus Road, near a Burlington Coat factory warehouse and a Gucci outlet.
Seaview Drive turns north after the Macy’s logistics center, and travels along the river as the Meadowlands Parkway. The looming Harmon Cove Towers, a landmark visible all over the Meadowlands, was part of the first major shoreline development negotiated by the Hackensack Meadowlands Commission, in the 1970s. Next to the towers, the rest of the rambling condo development on the river is hard to see from the road, but occupies a considerable amount of frontage on the river.
The HX drawbridge spans the river at the Harmon Cove condominiums, providing an industrial pastoral vista. It is a drawbridge of the bascule type, lifting a counterbalanced span on a hinge. The bridge was built in 1911, designed by Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Strauss was also a poet who wrote lovingly about redwood and sequoia trees.
Across Meadowlands Parkway from the condos is the North American headquarters for the Panasonic company, a major early anchor tenant in the office park, building the largest warehouse building in the area in 1973. In 2010, the company announced that it was moving to Newark. So much for that. North of the condos is the Crowne Plaza hotel, offering the best views of the Meadowlands available on a daily basis.
Nearby, the Red Roof Inn offers views from a lower elevation, but at half the cost. The Red Roof also offers parking for boats at its docks, including those of the Hackensack Riverkeeper. It is a central Meadowlands location, between the eastbound and westbound bridges of Route 3, across the river from the Meadowlands Sports Complex, and Exit 16 W of the turnpike.
Further up the Hackensack in Secaucus is a small park called Trolley Park. This is where the Patterson Plank Road crossed the river on a now-gone bridge. On the other side is Barge Park, the abandoned driving range, and Xanadu.
At the north end of Secaucus’ frontage on the Hackensack is Mill Creek Point Park. Owned by the town, but developed by the Commission, the park provides access to the river and the Mill Creek Marsh, the Commission’s first wetlands enhancement project. Mill Creek Marsh extends south of the river to the shopping center at Harmon Meadow, and is bounded on the east by the New Jersey Turnpike’s eastern spur.
The marsh is here in part due to mitigation regulations that required the destruction of the marsh for the Harmon Meadows commercial park to be offset by the preservation of marsh here. Recreational crabbers tie traps to the sheet piling at the point, though downstream, in Newark Bay, the crabs are considered so toxic that it would be dangerous to eat more than one every 20 years. Commercial fishing has been banned since the 1980s.
Harmon Meadow is the other big Hartz Mountain development in Secaucus, surrounded by landlocked swampland, and bisected by the Turnpike at its intersection with Route 3. Businesses in the area are mostly big box retail and large chain business hotels. Along West Side Road, which runs along the east edge of the Meadowlands, are the North Bergen Railyards, and the trash sorting and loading facilities of Westside Trans Load, which ships New York regional trash to faraway states by rail.
Up the tracks is Frutarom, the point of origin for some of the mysterious smells that waft over Manhattan, causing alarm and concern. Also along West Side Road are more clothing warehouses, and another major co-location data center, owned by Equinix. Behind it is a Liz Clairborne distribution center, and the Cromakill Creek portion of the swamplands, which flows under the Turnpike and into the Hackensack.
Heading south along the base of Bergen Ridge, the hills that form the eastern boundary of the Meadowlands, the landscape of logistics intensifies. Eastbound, Route 3 goes into a deep roadcut then plunges into the Lincoln Tunnel at Weehawken. The New Jersey Transit rail line goes underground here too, stopping next at Penn Station in NYC. The portal site for the recently abandoned ARC tunnel project, proposed to relieve congestion and provide more public transportation to and from NYC, lies vacant next to the NJ Transit portal.
In the search for remains of the original Penn Station (the ornamental railroad terminal that was torn down in Manhattan in the 1960s, and whose debris was dumped in the Meadowlands) attention has focused on one truck yard in particular on the edge of Secaucus. Remains have been recovered here and in the swamps around the yard. Though in general its hard to say for sure what came from that building in particular, since the Meadowlands are filled in with material from everywhere.
Dumped material dissolves, and is pulled down into the groundwater, the boggy soup that underlies and defines the Meadowlands. The saturated ground leaks and moves, flowing around and through the landfills, and finds its way inevitably to the creeks, like Penhorn Creek, that flows through the truckyards in Secaucus, behind the office parks, past the old pig farms, under County Road and the Croxton railyards, past Secaucus Junction and the Exit 15X toll both, past the Malaka Landfill, and into the Hackensack River, Newark Bay, and out to sea.
Departure: Leaving the Meadowlands
Head back into the great bottleneck at the confluence/effluence of Secaucus, Jersey City, Kearny, and the Hackensack, a scene dominated by the smokestacks and the big piles of coal of the Hudson Generating Station, where Penhorn Creek enters the river. The best choice for a way out of here is the Pulaski Skyway.
Leaving Jersey City the Skyway lifts off the ground and flies over the Hackensack and South Kearny. Though it is only a few miles long, the Skyway is in a world of its own, connecting Jersey City with Newark, without hardly a stop in-between. Composed of more steel than the George Washington Bridge, and held together with 2 million rivets, the rusty hulk opened in 1932, as America’s first superhighway. What used to take over two hours, zig zagging through the Meadowlands, now took 15 minutes. Some kind of landscape bypassing steampunk time travel machine.
Before you know it you are over the Passaic, past Point No Point and the New Jersey Turnpike, and are whizzing by the Northern State Prison in Newark, headed for the Newark Airport. Before departure, you can take one more stop on the ground, in these former swamplands of the airport, at an overgrown memorial to a Potter’s Field. The unvisited memorial is a forgotten place of remembering, it seems, a monument to forgetting to remember. “All around you are the graves of people who, because of life’s circumstances, found no other final earthly resting place,” say the carved stones at the memorial. “It is appropriate that we remember these lives so long forgotten.”
Then back to the AirTrain, and into the world above and beyond the Meadowlands. ♦