Recap | American Dream: A Tour of the Meadowlands

On Saturday, August 11th, Matthew Coolidge, Director of The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), presented to a packed room at Studio-X. The topic was CLUI’s ongoing project aimed at understanding the complex network of manmade and natural elements that make up the landscape we know as the New Jersey Meadowlands.

Everyone present was handed a guide map with points of interest, hot off the presses that afternoon. The map is also available at the Vince Lombardi Service Station, the first southbound rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, to accompany a photographic tour of what CLUI calls a space “formed more by incident, accident, and happenstance.” Coolidge explained that the physical map and the digital version available on its website are the primary products of the project. His talk, entitled “American Dream: A Tour of the Meadowlands,” offered personal reflections on the process and journey of compiling these resources.

He began with a Google Earth shot for scale, showing that the 30.4 square miles officially labeled as the Meadowlands by the Meadowlands District Commission is roughly the same size as Manhattan. He then showed Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover of the world as seen from New York’s 9th Avenue, pointing out that the landscape directly across the Hudson is shown as a nondescript swath of a brown that contains nothing, a place of transition between here and the rest of the world. This is how most people view the Meadowlands, a place of nothingness, of passing through. Coolidge’s quick account of what exactly makes up the Meadowlands included simple, sometimes even dull, images accompanied by flourishes of descriptive language. Introducing us to the main water source of all that underlies the Meadowlands, he characterized the Hackensack River as “a spine of water” crisscrossed with “tendons of infrastructure” and possessed — in the soft tissue of the marshlands — of the literal underbelly of the urban world that surrounds it.

CLUI has broken up the area into five zones:

Zone 1: Headwaters — airports, office parks, contamination, restoration

The Meadowlands is anchored by two airports. Newark Airport brings 30 million people annually into the New York/New Jersey region, and therefore the Meadowlands is the first landscape travellers are introduced to upon arrival to one of the most dense regions in the country. Teterboro Airport services mostly private jets for celebrities and millionaires. Between the airports, the built environment is largely composed of diners, road signs, highways, remediation sites, parking lots, chain stores (a real estate development trend Coolidge referred to as “the Bed Bath and Beyonding of New Jersey”), and the ever present creeks and swamps. Among the many industrial buildings and corporate headquarters of the area exist companies that seem out of place, like the Pantone Company – ground zero for color in a dreary and colorless landscape. A large windowless structure nearby holds the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats. The largest marsh restoration project is also in this zone; 248 acres being turned by human hands into what we think something untouched by human hands would look like. This site, like other ecological preservation or restoration projects underway in the Meadowlands, is funded by projects being built elsewhere in the swamps in exchange for construction rights. In this case, the cost is being picked up by the American Dream mall, formerly known as Xanadu and a major structure of Zone 2.

Zone 2: Recreationscape — megacomplexes, abandoned driving ranges

A sports complex looms over this zone, holding a half dozen stadiums and sports structures, some new and some almost completely abandoned. Next door to the complex lies the infamous Xanadu mall, which has in the past ten years had more than two billion dollars invested in it only for it to become another abandoned ruin of the real estate crash of 2008. It has recently been deemed a project too big to fail and was purchased by the company behind the Mall of America, renamed American Dream, and had five million extra square feet of space added to its plans. Once open, it will be one of the largest malls in the world and, as the governor of New Jersey claimed, perhaps the ugliest building in America. Surrounding these megastructures lie the ruins of Meadowlands past: Patterson Plank Road, forgotten marinas, landings of former bridges, abandoned and decaying homes.

Zone 3: West Side — dumps, graves, communication, interpretation

The Meadowlands Museum is situated near Berry Creek, which has been so polluted by upstream chemical plants that no fish can survive in its waters. The museum’s location bears incidental significance: it’s in a house that was once owned by the grandfather of famous land artist Robert Smithson, author of A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey and whose grave is located nearby. The area is dominated by large corporate centers, antennae fields — beaming talk radio from an area no one talks about — and old dumping grounds. This is the land of landfills, a landscape that could been seen burning from the New Jersey Turnpike during the 1970s before various environmental laws took hold and most of the landfills were closed. The Meadowlands Commission has its headquarter in this zone and runs an environmental learning center among restored marshlands and nature trails, teaching the next generation of New Jersey’s children to be better stewards of this badly treated landscape.

Zone 4: Kearny — turnpikes, tracks, ponds, trucks

The city of Kearny is equal size residential area and industrial park. Once home to one of the country’s first copper mines, the land is prone to sinkholes and flooding. Leachate from landfills, scrapyards and post-processing plants fills the voids below and between everything. The Harrison Reach, considered to be some of the most contaminated water in the nation, flows alongside factories that used to make DDT and Agent Orange. Impoundment ponds, each with its own ecosystem, exist everywhere between the crisscrossing of roads and highways, making it seem as if anything not covered with a structure or pavement is liquid. As if each zone is competing to have the most polluted sites, various long gone chemicals companies gifted much of the land here with chromite, coke, chlorine, chromium, mercury and various other chemicals. Many of the remediation sites throughout the Meadowlands are testing grounds for new ways of remediation and brownfield clean up.

Zone 5: Secaucus — Jewel of the Meadowlands

Secaucus, with a residential population of 17,000, is centrally located but almost completely isolated by a tangle of converging roads and highways, making it seem like all the linear elements of the Meadowlands emanate or converge here. A bulk mail processing plant that services New York City is located nearby, where much of the land used to be pig farms before given up and paved over. Exit 15x, the least used exit on the Turnpike, leaves you near a newly-built train station where two rail lines converge – its sole purpose to make the transfer to New York Penn Station easier. Ironically, it is also said that the remains of the marble McKim, Mead & White masterpiece lay nearby in an old dump. This, like much of what is said about the Meadowlands, incorporates both truth and myth. And like most tours, Coolidge abruptly ended after a whirlwind 1.5 hours, leaving the audience slightly disoriented. For me, it felt similar to driving through the Meadowlands, entering the tunnel, and suddenly finding myself in the middle of the canyons of Manhattan. In proper CLUI fashion, Coolidge presented the tour without judgment. Rather, he recounted a landscape and its points of interest and invited his audience to come to our own conclusions.

All images courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Allison Carafa is a student in Columbia’s Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture program. She is interested in documenting the hidden and often disregarded architectures that are essential to our understanding of space.