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Driving and Thinking on a Classic New Jersey Highway Strip

When I visited my parents in New Jersey for the holidays, I brought my camera and drove down U.S. Route 22 to take some pictures. Route 22, which traverses New Jersey east-west from Pennsylvania to Newark Airport, is one of the state’s most heavily retailed corridors [1] and one of its first major post-war highway strips, in other words a four-lane highway cluttered by fast food, big box stores, plazas, motels—everything imaginable.

This stretch and many others in New Jersey—the Lawrenceville/Princeton Route 1 strip and Route 10 in East Hanover come to mind—was once a motel-and-diner route that was bypassed but not killed by the Interstate. Some of the original build-out, both architecture and signage, still remains, albeit largely transformed and repurposed. As a child, a drive down Route 22 meant a family shopping trip. As recently as the early 2000s, it included such vanished outposts as Sports Authority, Sixth Avenue Electronics, The Wiz, and many others for which, in our dizzying economy, there’s little evidence left of their erstwhile existences.

A peculiar building transformed and maintained through multiple business changes [2]—kitschy, but good urbanism.

I can’t say why this old strip in particular interested me so much, but in addition to taking photographs I also did some reading about some of the shopping centers there, trying to figure out their retail history. One of the first along Route 22, built in the mid-1950s, included a large discount department store: first the long-vanished Great Eastern [3] and Valley Fair chains, and eventually a K-Mart and Pathmark [4], also now closed. A few years ago, before the vacant space was razed and replaced with a Costco, nearly the whole center sat empty. The real estate holder for the center is a company called Vornado Realty Trust [5]. Vornado was a midcentury appliance maker that was purchased by Two Guys [6], a New Jersey-based discount store chain with locations along Route 22. Two Guys, before going defunct in the ’80s, branched out into the real estate business, using the Vornado name (which was later licensed to the company currently making Vornado-branded fans). The short of this is that a little, odd remnant of a midcentury discount department store still remains in that dead, and now revived mall.

This anecdote has something to teach us, reinforced by observing countless other shopping centers and even whole development patterns: Our basic modes of living have remained basically unchanged over the decades. It is very easy to absorb by osmosis the pseudo-theology of progress that animates much American thought—the hazy idea that God wants us to live in ever-larger single-family McMansions and drive two SUVs in ever-longer commutes out from the exurbs, along with its corollary that this upward progress represents a large and desirable break with the past. One could easily think that America’s true rulers are prosperity gospel preachers and the Jetsons.

change_me

Yet while the cosmetics of cars and buildings might evolve, and the suburbs might inch their way out into the farms, not much has really changed since at least 1950. Costco and Great Eastern are not the same store, but both are discount department stores that have occupied the same piece of land on the same road for nearly 70 years. Go several decades back, long before the neon and the chrome, and Route 22 is still there. Historic imagery shows a gradual build-up, not an explosion. The change is real, but it is gradual and path-dependent. Look at the historic satellite imagery on Google Earth or historic aerial photos [7], and you’ll see that “development” quite often means “a little more of what we already have.” Satellite maps, like ruins, are a good antidote to delusions of grandeur. Everything we have built is just a swatch of gray in a sea of green. Our mighty highways are thin lines, mere impressions in nature.

Another thing I noticed is that despite traveling through dozens of towns—or perhaps because of it—the highway strip becomes something of an entity unto itself. Nobody in my family ever said “let’s drive through North Plainfield” or “let’s go shopping in Springfield,” though we passed through and stopped in land belonging to those municipalities plenty of times. We simply said “let’s drive down Route 22.”

A 1960s motel sign; building recently demolished. Probably among the first post-war structures built on Route 22.

There are, of course, plenty of real towns behind and between the “retail corridors” of strip malls and chain restaurants. It is true that the coveted several miles of highway frontage that each distinct municipality on the route claims are a major source of revenue and jobs [8]. Most articles about the economy of North Plainfield, for example, center around projects along the North Plainfield stretch of the Route 22 strip. Yet these strips display little of the character, human interest, and diversity that off-highway places do. For example, mostly absent on the strip are niche or ethnic businesses, which have more trouble affording the high rents. Within a couple of miles of Route 22 are a Polish deli with an excellent homemade $6 lunch special, a German grocery shop selling locally produced kielbasa and smoked meats, and a small butcher. Along the nearby highway itself are a stranded motel sign—the motel has been torn down—and large centers featuring Target, Walmart, and Best Buy. Driving these strips can feel uncannily like running somewhere in The Flintstones. [9]

Peruse the Google Maps satellite view overlaid with state and Interstate highways, and you’ll notice that there are large areas that have no state highway frontage at all [10], and that are nowhere near an Interstate exit. Geographic space is not linear, of course, so this should not be surprising. Yet it is easy to forget that the major highway strips cover only a small slice of the given land area. Some of this “stranded” area consists of vast tracts of cul-de-sac developments with an occasional fossilized, semi-engulfed main street, the kind of place where a half-gallon of milk requires a 15-minute drive. But much of it is forest or farms, where a surprising number of people still seem to subsist on the land in some manner.

Martinsville, NJ: a small Main Street-style commercial strip, center, entirely surrounded by cul-de-sac neighborhoods. Copyright Google Maps 2018.

When I drive along the backroads of New Jersey or Virginia, I see plenty of small homes and fields with tractors, aging cars, stacks of firewood, and horses and cows. One can almost imagine that this is real land, lived on, worked on, and passed down, and that the Interstate and the mall build-up and now the retail apocalypse and even the financial crisis mean nothing here. It is not that simple, but it at least means the uglification of the American landscape has been far from comprehensive. One knows this from the fact that many American backroads, even in 2018, have no Street View imagery in Google Maps. Still, I did not drive around small towns and farm country to take pictures of a fading way of life. I took pictures of fading suburbia.

Another remnant of early post-war signage. There were originally five cans.

It is possible to recognize, at a high level, that suburbia and sprawl are faulty modes of development, and still feel nostalgia for them and chronicle their history. The suburbs are old enough to have developed their own history and culture—human realities that can be appreciated and coexist with another reality: that, ideally, there might be no suburbs at all.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [11].

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Driving and Thinking on a Classic New Jersey Highway Strip"

#1 Comment By Keith Crossley On January 24, 2018 @ 9:50 am

I worked at Great Eastern after school in 1966 while living in Bridgewater – 25 minutes along Rt. 22. When I go back so much has changed; but it is still Rt. 22; turning in on itself; maintaining its character.

The author might Google Map Cedar Bluff, TN for a newer, more stark version of the story. The Kingston Pike (Rt. 11), to the west of Knoxville contains a compendium of every franchise known to America. But if you pan out there is a slim surround of cul-de-sac land then… right there… endless countryside.

The pattern, I’m sure, is often repeated. However, though many places have the name, I think only Rt. 22 has (had?) an actual Leaning Tower of Pizza.

#2 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On January 24, 2018 @ 10:07 am

Keith, the Leaning Tower was demolished I believe in the 80s or early 90s – this was it: [12]

I think it became the Shogun 22 Hibachi place, which has actually survived for quite a few years now.

#3 Comment By Iohann On January 24, 2018 @ 10:14 am

I quite enjoyed the article. Oct-Dec 2017 saw me on a 5000-mile auto journey from Mississippi to Friday Harbor, Washington. Two months of camping along the way made manifest to me that the country is not about to explode in revolution. Great human solidity and resilience is to be found throughout the land. And yes, much of the America I knew 60 years ago remains.

#4 Comment By Jon of Connecticut On January 24, 2018 @ 11:15 am

About a year ago, I started getting into Roadside America after reading about blackout parties in my native Connecticut. New Yorkers would come up here in the early 1960s to watch blacked out New York Giant football games at motels with antennas strong enough to pick up a signal from Hartford.

My link is to a blog that is nostalgic for some of those old suburban stores. It isn’t my blog, but I stumbled across it last year when I was on this jag.

pleasantfamilyshopping.blogspot.com/

#5 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On January 24, 2018 @ 11:50 am

Jon, I love that blog. As I wrote in the piece, it all looks very different, and yet very much the same. I suppose people will feel the same way about contemporary big box stores one day, though that’s hard to imagine now.

#6 Comment By Mark Lesniak On January 24, 2018 @ 11:56 am

You forgot another ethnic business – the Asian Foods in North Plainfield!

#7 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On January 24, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

Mark, I shop there a lot when I visit NJ! I believe it’s a chain and more of a big-box though. The Polish deli I mentioned (off 22 in Union), for example, has room for about 8 people!

#8 Comment By Jon of Connecticut On January 24, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

Addison, I’m glad that you loved it. Inspired by this, I wound up created an Instagram page titled This Used To Be The Future to capture road signs. Some were more modern, but there were a few older ones I was able to find on my commute up the I-95 Corridor from Groton, CT to Riverside RI. I’m not sure if it is still up. After that project, I moved on to some other pursuits.

#9 Comment By Mark On January 24, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

I grew up along US Route 22, but further west in Whitehouse Station. It was our main retail corridor as well, even though the surrounding area was mostly rural. I was recently reminiscing on FB that our local strip mall (now called Station Center) had everything you needed: Foodtown, Dominick’s pizza, Davids clothing, Mini-chek 5&10, dry cleaner, bakery and pharmacy. If you needed a department store, Falk’s was down the road (later Laneco and now a Walmart).

#10 Comment By SteveK9 On January 24, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

You are really taking me back. Great Eastern Mills, Two Guys from Harrison and Korvettes (founded by 5 Korean War Vets) … to give them their full names. Route 22 the original combination shopping mall and highway. With stores on an island in the middle and on both sides going in either direction, and entrances from the parking lots directly onto the highway. If you could drive Route 22 regularly and live … you were a skilled driver. Actually many people got their first driving experience in the vastness of Great Eastern Mills espy parking lot in the evening.

#11 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On January 24, 2018 @ 9:39 pm

Mark – That’s actually close to where I grew up. I remember Laneco, and we used to eat at Mangia Pizza next door all the time. The Station Center had an A&P back then, converted to King’s in the early 00s or late 90s. I remember when the giant Branchburg Shop Rite went up too.

Steve – Yes, that parking lot is way too big, especially given that the outparcels weren’t built in the beginning. (As far as the outparcels, I remember the current Texas Roadhouse used to be a sushi buffet literally called Sushi Buffet).

I’ve heard many complaints about the safety. The worst stretch for me is in the Watchung part, along a strip mall that now has a Unique Thrift at the corner. (Can’t recall what used to be there). The part with the wide median and stores on each direction and in the middle is quite a sight..

#12 Comment By Bill On January 24, 2018 @ 10:43 pm

“that, ideally, there might be no suburbs at all.”

Really? That’s certainly not my ideal. I live in a suburb — coincidentally, one right off Route 22! We have a nice downtown, park, and library within a short walk of our home, charming streets, a train to NYC, and easy drives to everywhere else. Why is this bad? The author wishes to cram every family into an expensive city apartment? Force us to live on a mass scale? Many, many people have never wanted to live that way. That’s why, as soon as it became practical (initially with rail lines), suburbs appeared.

I’ll take my suburban life, thank you, and certainly hope that your “ideal” never comes to pass.

#13 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On January 24, 2018 @ 11:05 pm

Bill:

“The author wishes to cram every family into an expensive city apartment?” Not at all. I don’t mean suburb in the technical sense of “anything outside of a city” but in the colloquial sense of sprawl and what we tend to call “suburbia.”

I would probably prefer an actual town over either a large city or suburban sprawl. There wasn’t a place to talk about it in this piece, but there are specific zoning codes that distinguish towns from suburbia. One of them, for example, is minimum parking requirements, which is why so much of the space on highway strips is parking lots. Another is the separation of uses – it’s generally illegal to have a corner store inside a cul-de-sac neighborhood, for example, or to have homes above storefronts.

James Kunstler wrote about this in “The Geography of Nowhere” – in many places it is against code to build actual towns, even though they combine the benefits of cities with a lot of the pleasant aspects of suburbia.

#14 Comment By Blog Goliard On January 25, 2018 @ 10:11 am

The cul-de-sac sprawl that I see around me in the South has never seemed at all right to me.

I’m a native of the West, and grew up with towns that had street grids. Open up Google Maps and take a look at Great Falls, Montana, for example. Then compare that with, say, Conyers in exurban Atlanta. It’s a radically different human landscape…and, I think, a radically atomizing and deranging one. I struggle to find the right words to fully explain what I mean by that; what I keep going back to is not just the overall sprawl but the distance and disjunction that is enforced between even small sub-units.

(Another small totem of atomization that I typically see down here–small, but I think telling–is that neighboring parking lots on the same block of the same commercial strip often do not connect with each other. Sometimes this isn’t just an oversight–they included physical barriers in their original design.)

Another thing to mention: rural sprawl is a major thing around these parts as well. One might very well think that everyone is trying to move as far away from everyone else as possible. To this Westerner, the sensation of driving around even a low-population county in Georgia is that one never seems to ever get entirely out of town, and the towns and their boundaries aren’t always obviously evident.

In towns of around 5,000 – 15,000 population, a typical pattern is that not just the new Wal-Mart shopping center, but even the new middle school and high school, and new churches, et cetera, are built well outside of the already-spread-out developed area. Soon, the residents find that a daily circuit of home-school-work-lessons-shopping-church activity-home involves 15-20 minute drives in each and every stage. In what is still a surprisingly small town! (population-wise, if no longer quite so small geographically).

It’s actually that kind of sprawl (more than Atlanta’s) that made me more sympathetic to our old friend Kunstler when he gets super-ranty.

#15 Comment By Ken T On January 25, 2018 @ 10:26 am

Thank you for noticing that behind the highway strips, a lot of NJ is still rural/agricultural. I don’t know how many people I’ve spoken to over the years who honestly think that the mile-wide strip along the Turnpike is representative of the entire state.

The distinction you draw between “towns” and “suburbia” is interesting. I’ve never heard it expressed that way before, but I think it does a good job of explaining some of the differences. I grew up in one of those NJ “towns” in the 50’s/60’s, but it was always referred to as part of the “suburbs”. And yet I knew quite well that the cul-de-sac style “suburbia” I kept reading about had no resemblance whatsoever to what I lived in, which had a real walkable downtown with apartments over the storefronts; and streets that actually went somewhere other than all emptying out onto the same arterial drive. I think this is the concept that has been lost in the “city vs. suburbia” arguments – that there IS a middle ground.

#16 Comment By Ben Tr. On January 25, 2018 @ 7:50 pm

“The author wishes to cram every family into an expensive city apartment?” Not at all. I don’t mean suburb in the technical sense of “anything outside of a city” but in the colloquial sense of sprawl and what we tend to call “suburbia.”

I would probably prefer an actual town over either a large city or suburban sprawl. There wasn’t a place to talk about it in this piece, but there are specific zoning codes that distinguish towns from suburbia. One of them, for example, is minimum parking requirements, which is why so much of the space on highway strips is parking lots. Another is the separation of uses – it’s generally illegal to have a corner store inside a cul-de-sac neighborhood, for example, or to have homes above storefronts.

James Kunstler wrote about this in “The Geography of Nowhere” – in many places it is against code to build actual towns, even though they combine the benefits of cities with a lot of the pleasant aspects of suburbia.”

Thanks for that comment. I always get annoyed when I people trash on the burbs, because that’s where I grew up and loved it. At least, we always called in the “burbs”, when it reality, it was a town, with grids, streets, etc. You could walk into town, bike around with your friends, do errands.

And then I moved to California and learned what real “suburbs” look like and why everyone hates them. Now, we had cul-de-sacs and subdivisions at home too, but we still had the character of a town.

It’s too bad. I’m not a fan of big cities, but need to live near one. And all that seems to exist near big cities anymore is miles and miles of sprawl.

I would love to one day move back to a town that is walkable, once I no longer need to work in a city.

#17 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 26, 2018 @ 8:47 am

Back in the 60s there used to be a disc jockey named Charlie Greer who broadcast during the late night “graveyard shift” on WABC radio in NY. As a kid I vividly remember Greer advertising “Dennison’s–a men’s clothier on Route 22 near The Flagship.”

Those were the days!

#18 Comment By Patricus On January 26, 2018 @ 10:27 pm

Like Bill I think suburbs are an improvement over cities. I don’t want a walk-up flat above a noisy smoky bar. I like that we have a car for every adult, and a place to park these. I know about busses and trains. Thank God I can afford to avoid these. I don’t want a deli or sports bar next to my house. Please enjoy the city life with the smells and the criminals and noise. I think there are good reasons why people abandoned urban life.

#19 Comment By Josep On March 1, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

@ Patricus
Well, there are people like me who don’t see the need for an oversized house or useless lawn. They don’t want to suffer from the hassle of owning a car and its effects on health and the environment. They also refuse to be isolated from other people.

#20 Comment By Brian M On March 5, 2018 @ 9:46 pm

Josep: Somewhat shocked to find you on The American Conservative. Patricus is AMERICA aand CONSERVATIVE writ large.

(I agree with you, but most people don’t