Two professors look for answers on the Jersey Turnpike


"Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike," by Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland," 219 pages, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J., $18.95.

THE NEW JERSEY Turnpike is a great awesome and awful monster machine for moving traffic, efficient and economical, but so cold and ugly only a traffic engineer or a Turnpike commissioner could love it.

Like nearly everybody who has driven up to a toll booth on the Turnpike, Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland, the authors of "Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike," approach the NJTP with fascination and trepidation.

And like almost anybody who has driven the 142 miles from the Delaware Memorial Bridge entrance to the George Washington Bridge exit, these professors from Rutgers have a love-hate relationship with the Turnpike.

But unlike most drivers on the Turnpike, Gillespie and Rockland teach American Studies and therefore they are looking for the meaning of it all. They offer tons of facts and anecdotes and they find a theory for every mile and a symbol at every rest stop.

They believe the NJTP embodies the perpetual American contradiction between its pastoral ideal and its industrial reality, between the machine and the garden. The Turnpike rolls through plenty of industry, but north of New Brunswick, where the Turnpike really gets serious with its 12 lanes of cars, buses and trucks, there is hardly a blade of grass, let alone a pasture. "Here is where you come to see the Twentieth Century . . . For here the machine is not only in the garden; the garden has been obliterated, has disappeared. Here the machine is the garden."

The NJTP, they say, "is the American dream of unhindered mobility pushed to malevolent excess." For many the Turnpike is a place of loneliness, dehumanization and alienation. But some find appeal in precisely the NJTP's "drama of world-class ugliness."

The Turnpike has been cursed and reviled and celebrated in songs and novels and poems, in painting, sculpture and movies -- but not very often in anything but official photographs. Taking pictures on the Jersey Turnpike is forbidden by law. And people, in fact, have been arrested for photography.

The Turnpike is very defensive about its image. It's a kind of authoritarian principality within the State of New Jersey, with its own rules and regulations, morals and customs, history and propaganda.

The Turnpike Authority, in fact, seems to have revived a kind of rule by Divine Right. One lawyer who fought the Turnpike's incursions on her town recalls an executive director who said things like "God created New Jersey as the corridor between New York on the one hand and Philadelphia, Delaware and the South on the other, and it is the mission of the New Jersey Turnpike to serve that God-given responsibility."

Rockland and Gillespie see the Turnpike as an industrial product that is an artifact of its time, the late 1940s and early 1950s: "It is a realization of its designers' concepts. they did not worry at all about how the turnpike would look; they worried only about whether people would use it."

The NJTP was built with remarkable dispatch. The first contracts were awarded in December 1949 and the final link to the George Washington Bridge into New York opened in January 1952.

"The engineers did their job well," the authors say. "They followed the political mandate of the day -- to build the road as quickly and cheaply and safely as possible . . . The stolid engineers . . . built a road that mirrored their own tastes and values.

"The roadway was utterly straight and boring and bleak, but it was somehow magnificent. It conveyed an image of strength and permanence and stability. It enhanced the citizenry's sense of well-being. In its day, the New Jersey Turnpike seemed just right."

But the builders didn't worry about beauty, history or environment: "The Turnpike . . . doesn't see itself as a purveyor of scenery, architecture, or geography. It moves traffic. Period."

Actually that should be an exclamation point. The authors assert that the NJTP moves more vehicles more miles than any other roadway in the world.

At the end of the '80s when the book was being written, 190 million vehicles traveled 4 billion miles a year on the Turnpike. And it was one of the safest roads in the world: 123.0 accidents and 0.65 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled.

The NJTP also produces a river of cash: $182 million in tolls yearly. But don't expect courtesy at the toll booth. The authors spend practically a whole chapter deploring the lack of even a cursory "thank you" from the toll collectors.

There is sex on the Turnpike. For some people the NJTP is a turn-on. Look in the chapter on "Rest Area Culture." But don't skip the rest of the book. That's pretty sexy, too.

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