Happy birthday, Garden State

In 1664, English colonists wrested from the Dutch a tract of land that later would become New Jersey. Throughout 2014, the state is observing its 350th anniversary. Here’s a hearty Happy Birthday to the place where I was born and raised.

New Jersey, on the cover of the New Yorker

There we are, in Saul Steinberg’s classic New Yorker cover. Things have changed since then.

When I was growing up, New Jersey’s image was that of a featureless nowhere stuck between the busy metropolises of New York and Philadelphia. (Well, almost featureless. There were smokestacks. Lots of them.)

In Saul Steinberg’s classic New Yorker cover, Jersey appears as a brown smudge across the river from midtown Manhattan.

But over the last few decades — the part of New Jersey’s history that I can remember — the state has built up its brand in a pretty impressive way. Is today’s New Jersey perfect? Of course not. But it has its own identity, and I’d say it’s a pretty strong one.

(Note: I haven’t lived in New Jersey since 1979. But most of my family is still there and I visit often. And, hell yes, I care what people think about the place.)

"Welcome to New Jersey" road sign

The first time I saw this postage-stamp highway sign, I felt like I was coming home.

Here, then, is a quick and highly selective summary of the last 40 or so of New Jersey‘s 350 years:

Music – In 1975 Bruce Springsteen releases Born to Run, which quickly becomes the unofficial state anthem. Sample lyrics: “It’s a death trap….We gotta get out while we’re young.” The song makes Springsteen a wealthy man — wealthy enough to live wherever he chooses. To date he’s chosen to live nowhere but in New Jersey.

Sports – In 1976 the NFL’s New York Giants start playing their home games in New Jersey — but keep “New York” in their name. Within a few years, though, we have pro basketball’s New Jersey Nets and Hockey’s New Jersey Devils. (The NFL’s Jets join the party in 1984, but they also keep “New York.”)

Cuisine – In 1987 the owner of Mike’s Subs on Arnold Avenue in Point Pleasant — my hometown — changes the name to Jersey Mike’s and opens stores up and down the east coast. They’re a hit, with out-of-staters lining up to get a taste of real Jersey cuisine.

Media – In 1990 radio station New Jersey 101.5 takes to the FM airwaves with the slogan “Not New York. Not Philadelphia. Proud to be New Jersey!” That’s a bigger deal than it sounds: previously, you lived either in the Philadelphia media market or the New York media market. Now New Jerseyans have a broadcast outlet they can call their own.

More media – In 1999 The Sopranos debuts, revealing that (gasp) there are mobsters in New Jersey. 2009 brings the first episode of Jersey Shore, revealing I’m not sure exactly what.

But guess what? The stereotyping didn’t stick. My impression is that people judged the shows on their own merits and hardly made any judgement at all about their setting. New Jersey and its people have forged a real identity. No longer do the stereotypes, or the “featureless nowhere” image, hold any water.

People – In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastates the state, and the world learns what New Jerseyans already know about themselves: they’re tough and resilient.

So Happy Birthday, Garden State. You deserve it. I’m proud of you.

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