Regarding the Garden State
08 Oct, 2010
For most of my life I have delighted in my identity as a New Englander. At different stages, this meant different things. When I was very young it meant I came from the place in America where the history was made. I remember feeling prepubescent pride as my Cub Scout troop traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts to see the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation, a replica of the pilgrims’ settlement there. In my backyard I dug for what I hoped would be arrowheads from Native American tribes, and even created short stories about the history of my hometown.
As I got a bit older I loved being from the same place as John F. Kennedy. I loved that my name referenced his. I was proud of my part-Italian, part-Irish ancestry and fancied myself the very embodiment of a Bostonian — not the Boston Brahman type, of course, but the working class, fresh-off-the-boat-and-now-we-own-this-town kind of Bostonian.
In college I moved further north of Boston and claimed the beaches, the rocky cliffs, the wooded forests, and open fields as my own. In autumn there was apple-picking; sledding in the winter. The spring couldn’t be appreciated, I was sure, without having lived through a Nor’easter or two, and the summer brought with it boiled lobster dinners and night walks on the beach.
When my wife and I moved to New York City (well, Jersey City, really) over two years ago, I felt strongly about bringing New England here with us. We proudly told visiting friends as we toured them around the city that our favorite places were those that most reminded us of Boston. And in the summer and fall we made near-weekly trips back to our former home so as to not miss what we loved best.
Recently, though, a change is beginning to take place in my perception of my identity. It’s not that I’m becoming a New Yorker. No, in fact I probably have a stronger aversion to that word now then I ever did while living in Boston. I could never feel pride in being a New Yorker as, it seems to me, I could never truly be a New Yorker. None of us transplants can. The only New Yorkers are those people who were born and raised here. But those aren’t the people who like to tell everyone that they’re New Yorkers. Rather, it’s the transplants who so perpetually self-identify. They come to the city, spend a few years dressing up and going to work, before returning home, back to the South or Midwest to live out the rest of their days reminiscing about when they were New Yorkers.
I could never be a New Yorker. Rather, there’s something about living in New Jersey. There’s something about living in a place that is always the brunt of a joke — a punch line — that really grows on you. I’m tempted to say that this effect is particularly felt by a former self-deprecating Bostonian, but I see it taking hold in all kinds of people that move here from all over the country. I never cared much for Springsteen, but I love him now. My wife and I admire the raw and unexpected beauty of the rows and rows of those shipping cranes that hunch over Newark Bay as we drive south down the New Jersey Turnpike.
There’s a dull shine to the people who were born and raised here, like brushed metal. They’ve heard all the jokes but, at the end of the day, they love living in a place that has easy access to New York City and Philadelphia, the Shore and the Poconos. Mock all you want, they say to the rest of the country; it is your aversion that keeps us pure.
Here in Jersey City this “Jersey-ness” manifests itself in not quite a chip on the shoulder, but an understanding: we are all here for the same reason. We don’t need to feel cool. We want more space. We love to have a good time, but want it quiet where we sleep. And, most importantly, we’re here for the long run. People in Jersey City aren’t here to fulfill a life-long dream of living the city life, or, if they were, they’ve changed their mind. You don’t have access to any of the superficial benefits of living in New York City. If someone asks you where you live and you say New York, you’re lying. If you say New York City, you’re within your rights (I say I grew up in Boston though I grew up ten minutes outside the city), but the follow-up question is always “What part?” and Jersey City is never the right answer. If you live here, it’s not for the cool factor.
And yet, there’s plenty to feel cool about. Read Junot Diaz or marvel at the way life-long Garden State resident John McPhee describes his home state. Listen and identify with any of the angsty Jersey performers, from the original, Frank Sinatra, to Springsteen, to the punks like The Misfits or Patti Smith, the Fugees to The Gaslight Anthem. Hell, if angst ain’t your thing, Jersey even gave us the Jonas Brothers.
But none of that is really the point for Jersey residents. You can see this in the way they welcome newcomers. I’ve heard stories of how people never fully integrate into some states, Maine for example. I used to try to convince my wife that we should move to Portland, Maine until a friend who grew up there advised against it. “They’d never accept you,” he assured us. Jersey residents, on the other hand, have this subtle kind of welcome. It says, “Okay, you’re here now. Don’t make a big thing of it.” This is precisely why we hate “Jersey Shore.” We get it. People come from all over to vacation on the shore — just be quiet about it.
Eventually, my wife and I often think, we’ll head back to our beloved New England, back to Massachusetts. That is, after all, where our families live, where our roots are. But I can say with a hint of certainty: if, by some chance two years ago, we hadn’t made the decision to forego Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Queens, if we had spent these past couple of years trying, fruitlessly, to convince ourselves that we were New Yorkers, we would’ve packed up and moved home by now. Instead, we find ourselves identifying with the families more and more that have made Jersey City their permanent home; we visit open houses “just to see” and spend lazy afternoons browsing real estate websites, thinking, We could start our family here, maybe.