TCS Daily

A New Jersey State of Mind

By Ilya Shapiro - August 25, 2005 12:00 AM

PRINCETON, NJ -- Whenever I visit my alma mater, I am reminded of how beautiful a state New Jersey is. Yes, you read that right: The land of Tony Soprano and James "I am a gay American" McGreevey, of big hair and nasal accents, is officially wonderful.

Stop your snickering. No, I haven't been drinking from the Hudson River or partaking of Camden's choicest refined cocaine. But the fact remains that "Joisey," the densest state in the union -- in population per square mile, not IQ (in which it does rather well given the concentration of telecom and biotech firms) -- has plenty to commend it.

It can't do cities, mind you -- the benighted Trenton as capital? The afterthoughtish Newark as major city? The flagship state school in New Brunswick? -- but the rest of the place is an American gem, both topographically and historically, and even culturally. If you get off the Turnpike and forget about the chemical plants you see out the window of the Metroliner you take into New York, New Jersey really is (no, really) the Garden State.

And my affection for it has little to do with having gone to college there -- other than that those four years gave me the opportunity to appreciate New Jersey in all its verdant and varied forms. Take the shore: from the blue-collar redoubts that Billy Joel (who, as a Long Islander, may as well be a Jerseyite) sings about in "Allentown" -- and that gave birth to that blue-collar institution, Bruce Springsteen -- to the private clubs sprinkled along the coast, the poor man's Vegas of Atlantic City to the serenity of Cape May, New Jersey outdoes both the pretentious Hamptons to the north and the gawdy Delaware beaches to the south.

Take the middle: the lush, rolling hills play host to some of the nation's finest golf courses, equestrian centers -- is that what you call places where you can keep and ride horses? not my bag, but I've heard folks rave -- and plain old hiking and biking trails. I mean, Steve Forbes could buy himself any number of islands (and maybe even Rhode Island), but instead chooses to maintain his familial estate in central Jersey. Even governors have long eschewed urban living to settle in Drumthwacket, the manse that occupies land that witnessed the 1777 Battle of Princeton -- you know, the one after which Washington crossed the Delaware -- and where this columnist once worked as a busboy.

Take suburbia: one of the reasons that New Jersey's cities are so underwhelming is that the state is famously one huge suburb -- of New York in the north, of Philadelphia in the south. Bedroom communities sprawl out from the spine that is the Amtrak/NJ Transit track like so many ganglia, making New Jersey a ghost-state during weekdays when the bankers are in Manhattan and Penn profs in University City. But this isn't the pundit's suburbia; instead of hundreds of identical pre-fab subdivisions anchored by man-made ponds, you have mature towns with Volvo dealerships and houses dating to the Second World War and beyond.

In other states, many of the abodes found here would be considered "places in the country" -- next to streams and woods and such -- but with all the modern conveniences nearby, and your neighbor sharing your fern-covered hill (which overlooks Main St., U.S.A.), New Jerseyans truly have the best of both worlds. And they take pride in their schizophrenic statehood; I always smile when I hear the station identification of "New Jersey 101.5: Not New York, Not Philadelphia."

Moreover -- and in case you're wondering why I'm writing this without remuneration from the state tourist bureau -- New Jersey is a quintessential purple state. Not that I'm revamping my thesis -- Purple America is more about states of mind than states -- but of all the states out there, which (on the whole) better combines cosmopolitan tastes and the spirit of free enterprise? There are strong arguments to be made for places like Florida and Arizona (though the former is polluted by stodgy retirees and the latter by even stodgier Californians) but certainly no state outside the Sun Belt has come closer to embracing globalization while maintaining a sort of live-and-let-live individuality. Maybe New Hampshire -- in the parts easily accessible to Boston -- but I just wouldn't be able to stand the winters there.

Sure, New Jersey has gotten increasingly screwed up politically of late -- viz. Messrs. Torricelli and Corzine -- but an honest pol has never quite fit in among that state's establishment. And the state isn't nearly as monolithically Democratic as many think; the Bush campaign put resources there in the last weeks of the 2004 campaign.

In any event, purple or not, please join me in raising a glass of River Horse lager -- to New Jersey!

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer who writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS. His last piece described a lawsuit against the Tobacco Settlement.


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