DATELINE: NEW JERSEY

A distasteful slice of American pie

Officially nicknamed the Garden State, often known as the garbage state

Rita Christopher January 19 1981
DATELINE: NEW JERSEY

A distasteful slice of American pie

Officially nicknamed the Garden State, often known as the garbage state

Rita Christopher January 19 1981

A distasteful slice of American pie

Officially nicknamed the Garden State, often known as the garbage state

DATELINE: NEW JERSEY

Rita Christopher

When an American magazine wanted an in-depth article on the intractable problems of urban decay, one visionary editor came up with what he considered the perfect solution. “I have it,” he exclaimed, “let’s do a profile of New Jersey.” America’s most heavily industrialized and densely populated (7,300,000) state, New Jersey, officially nicknamed the Garden State, rejoices in popular esteem as the garbage state.

Comedienne Gilda Radner summarized what much of the rest of America

thinks when she cracked, “New Jersey? It makes me wanna die.” And one of America’s master wiseacres, Woody Allen, immortalized his own anti-New Jersey sentiments when he observed, “A certain intelligence governs our universe except for certain parts of New Jersey.”

It’s not necessary, of course, to be a professional comedian to insult New Jersey. It’s a game anyone can play. A favorite Watergate quip gave Richard Nixon the choice of life in prison or life in New Jersey. When authorities searching for the body of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa burrowed through a particular New Jersey garbage dump, where legend has it many mob figures have found eternal peace, one sage observed, “The Mafia regards the dump in much the same fashion as the military regards Arlington National Cemetery.”

Image problems are nothing new for New Jersey. More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin took one of the first recorded potshots at the state. With the major metropolises of New York City to the north and Philadelphia to the south, Franklin referred to New Jersey contemptuously as “a barrel tapped at both its ends.” (Franklin’s lack of charity may well have been inspired by his enmity toward his illegitimate son William, the last loyalist governor of New Jersey—no doubt a thorn in the side of a father who so ardently supported the American Revolution.)

Many residents blame the state’s persistent image problems on one of its best-known landmarks—the New Jersey Turnpike, famed for its unsurpassed vistas of mammoth fuel storage tanks. “The turnpike is one of the most heavily travelled roads in the entire country, and there’s no denying that it’s just a very ugly road,” says Howard Shapiro, deputy director of New Jersey’s Washington lobbying office. “That’s all many people see of New Jersey and it accounts for what a lot of outsiders say about the state.”

Even those who are not familiar with the turnpike are likely to know about what is often considered one of New Jersey’s major growth industries—governmental corruption. When Thomas Gangemi Sr., a former mayor of Jersey City, was forced to resign in 1963 after investigation had unfortunately revealed he was not an American citizen, his parting comments were eloquent testimony to the power that local political boss John V. Kenny exercised over many municipal officials. Said the disgraced politician, “I’m proud to be a puppet of John V. Kenny.”

The justice department’s current Abscam probe has focused so unrelentingly on New Jersey politicians, from municipal officeholders to United States Senator Harrison Williams, that local political observers have taken to calling the entire operation “Jerseygate.” Humorist Marvin Kitman, how-

ever, finds cause for celebration in the regularity with which the network news airs FBI videotapes of New Jersey lawmakers carting off bribe-stuffed briefcases. “For a while I was worried when former governor Marvin Mandei of Maryland was sent to jail,” confesses Kitman. “It looked like Maryland might have stolen New Jersey’s first place in crime status. After Abscam I guess it’s quite clear that we’ve gotten it back again.” But Phil Longman, chief political writer for New Jersey Monthly disagrees. “We have a reputation for corruption, sure,” he points out, “but part of the reason is that we have good law enforcement. When somebody gets caught in this state, it makes headlines. Nevada doesn’t make that kind of headline with its crime. Out there they more or less just roll with it.”

Governor Brendan Byrne has his own novel explanation of why his state is held in such low national esteem. He has, on occasion, chided his fellow New Jerseyans for spreading some of the downbeat propaganda in order to preserve for themselves the state’s miles of sandy ocean beaches, unspoiled tidal marshes and piney woodlands crisscrossed with pollution-free streams. The governor’s theory finds support in a recent poll by the Eagleton Institute of New Jersey’s Rutgers University. It reveals the good news that 68 per cent of the New Jerseyans questioned rated the state as a desirable place to live. “We had the impression when we started doing polls a decade ago that, since there was such a feeling of negativism, even people who lived in New Jersey hated the state. But we have discovered that at least those people who live in New Jersey have a very positive image of the state,” notes Janice Ballou, associate director of the poll.

There are growing indications that New Jerseyans are at last ready to

spread the good news about their state beyond their own borders. The Federal Communications Commission has taken a major step toward granting the state, one of the two that lacks a VHF television station, its first major commercial television outlet. “I don’t know that a New Jersey network outlet can counter all the negative images that out-of-staters have about New Jersey,” concedes lobbyist Shapiro, “but there’s no doubt that a VHF channel will make a major impact. New Jerseyans will no longer have to rely on New York and Philadelphia stations for news about their state.”

Meanwhile, some New Jersey residents see a way by which their state’s reputation can be used to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat—the defeat, in this case, of the National Football League’s Giants, whose losing seasons have become a fixture in the annual standings. Although they have played all their home games at New Jersey’s Meadowlands stadium for some five years, the Giants, much to the annoyance of local fans, have refused to adopt New Jersey and are still known as the New York Giants. With faith born of adversity, one New Jersey fan sees some hope in the Giants’ dismal wonand-lost record. “If they lose more games,” he predicts, “they’ll call them the New Jersey Giants. Nowhere but New Jersey would claim such losers.”