I Sing the Meadowlands*

Robert Sullivan



Whenever I'm in New York and I have a little time on my hands, I grab a backpack and some maps and a compass and maybe some lunch and I hike through Times Square and up the stairs of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I catch a bus to the Meadowlands. The bus winds down the terminal's four-story ramp and dives into the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, which surrounds the bus with darkness and thick gray exhaust until it spits it out on the other side. As the cars around us scramble to be the first onto the highways of New Jersey, the bus struggles up the eastern side of a big red cliff referred to only on maps as Bergen Hill. Behind us, the skyline of New York seems to shout at the bus's back, asking it where it is going. The leaves of the scraggly ailanthus trees wave in the wind of traffic as the bus passes through the cut in Bergen Hill that separates New York from New Jersey and the Meadowlands from the rest of the world.

And then, in just a few minutes, as we drop down the other side of Bergen Hill - as we cruise into the low flatland of lush grays and greens and pockets of rust and more and more circles of concrete - the bus seems to genuflect toward the landscape before us. When the sky is clear, the water in the far-off creeks and rivers shines like a sheet of aluminum foil that has been crumpled and then spread out again. When the sky is gray, the clouds mingle with the smokestacks' clouds of steam and smoke and it is difficult to tell which is which.

After the bus descends through cloverleafs and exit lanes, after it passes through fields of cars waiting to pay tolls, after it turns down onto smaller and smaller ramps and roads and finally onto little local streets, I get out at a bus stop at a mall that, I happen to know, was once an old cedar swamp, or at a bus stop in a grove of outlet stores or at one in the center of Secaucus. To me, Secaucus is the capital of the Meadowlands. And when I get off in Secaucus, often walk a few miles and climb to the top of Snake Hill.

Snake Hill is cragged and denuded, a 150-foot tall, all-but-removed casualty of a gravel company's demolition work. But what's left of it is still the only real hill in the Meadowlands. The rest of the hills are garbage hills, the Meadowlands having once been the largest outdoor garbage can in the world. Snake Hill is to the Meadowlands what the Empire State Building is to New York or the Space Needle to Seattle, only instead of looking out on a living city, it looks out on the world's great postindustrial landscape. If I climb leisurely, it takes about an hour to reach the top, and when I get there, I look out at the not-quite-drained glacial lake that makes up the Meadowlands, and I marvel.

I marvel that I am in the middle of a 32-square-mile wilderness, part natural, part industrial, that is five miles from the Empire State Building and a bit bigger than Manhattan.

I marvel that the land before me was called ''a swampy, mosquito-infested jungle. . .where rusting auto bodies, demolition rubble, industrial oil and cattails merge in unholy union'' by the authors of a 1978 Federal report, and that it is now a good place to see a black-crowned night heron or a pie-billed grebe or 18 species of ladybugs, even if some of the water these creatures fly over can sometimes be the color of antifreeze.

I marvel that American diplomats supposedly once tried to find a way to avoid driving Leonid Brezhnev, then the leader of the Soviet Union, through the Meadowlands on his way from New York to Washington because they were embarrassed, but they couldn't and it ended up being O.K. because he thought it was terrific.

I marvel that when Orson Welles broadcast ''The War of the Worlds,'' in 1938, many of the people who lived near the Meadowlands and had tuned in to the program late just assumed that the Martians had landed in the Meadowlands: it was the obvious place.

I marvel that in 1956 a man set out in the fall to walk across the meadows, which are now paved concrete from Newark to Elizabeth, and that he didn't show up until next spring, when his body was found in a creek.

On top of Snake Hill, I am on mysterious ground that is not guide-booked and that reads like a dead language. I am at the center of a place that people rush past on their way to the rest of America, where they remember the Meadowlands as the most disgusting area in the world. I have spent time there digging things up, and I have spent a lot of time hearing stories about the place from the people who live in the little swamp-front towns, but when I am on Snake Hill I feel as if I am listening to a beat-up old rock tell the very best stories about the world's most forgotten ground. There, with the sun burning through smog and lighting up the reeds, with eight lanes of turnpike traffic providing backup, I sing the Meadowlands. I am the dot on the Meadowlands' exclamation point.

The Meadowlands is a big place and there are a lot of different ways to explore the area, which I've been doing for years, having lived and worked in New Jersey and then in New York before moving west. Sometimes, I'll go out in a canoe and course through the marshes and the chocolate-milk-colored streams and look down into cigarette-butt-strewn flotsam and jetsam. On these canoe trips, I have noticed that there is plenty of pollution and plenty of nature in the Meadowlands and that they seem sometimes to have reversed roles. The little streams that run from the old garbage-filled hills there are composed of things like oil and grease, cyanide and arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, mercury and zinc; the herons are the color of white Styrofoam cups thrown out of cars, their necks curved like highway offramps.

Once, on a canoe trip I got stuck in a body of water so polluted that when I touched the paddle to the bottom, huge cabbagelike clumps of garbage floated up to release a scent that I thought for sure was going to cause me to throw up. Another time, I paddled over a radio tower that had fallen and was submerged. It is thought to be the first in the world to have transmitted the voice of Frank Sinatra, and when I looked down on the tower, with its accompanying submerged control-room building, I felt as if I were over an Atlantis.

When I'm not canoeing but out hiking in the Meadowlands, I'll usually start in a town - Kearny, for instance - and look for where the swamp grass begins on my maps, and I'll just start walking out into the phragmites until I can look up and see only sky, until I can barely hear the rush of traffic on some highway somewhere. A couple of summers ago, in East Rutherford, a half mile through swamp grass from the football stadium where the Jets and the Giants play, I found a very comfortable purple couch. On another occasion, when I was in Kearny, I found a rusty old barrel that was on its way back up from underground. Occasionally when I'm out there in the middle of nowhere and all alone, I get a little spooked. One time I found a spongy old trail through the swamp grass and I walked for a while. Suddenly, I noticed something flesh-colored sticking out of some tall grass up ahead. At that point, I stopped dead in my tracks and caught my breath and then moved closer to it cautiously. Eventually, I realized it was just one loaf in a huge pile of abandoned loaves of Italian bread.

On trips into the Meadowlands' high ground, up onto the lip of the bowl that is the old glacial lake, I have confirmed that the Meadowlands was once the giant sewer of a great industrial machine that was mostly based in Newark, the Meadowlands' biggest city. In fact, in the 1860's, when Newark was America's major industrial city, the Meadowlands was like Silicon Valley, a technological paradise, full of entrepreneurs who were inventing all kinds of wires and filmmaking processes and railroad engines and even toys. (The first doll that said ''Mama'' was invented in Newark.) Plastics were the fiber-optic cables of their day, and the very first plastics, called celluloids, were manufactured in Newark. They were used to make knife handles, hair ornaments, horse harness buckles, buttons, combs, brush handles and artificial teeth. In fact, celluloid collars replaced mens' paper shirt collars, and instead of washing the shirts, people just removed the collar, wiped it clean, and replaced it, prolonging by several days the length of time men felt they could wear their shirts without having them laundered. In the Newark library one day I read that a problem developed with the collars and the ornamental hair combs and other things that were made with the celluloid shortly after it was introduced. They began to explode. People died when their hair combs caught fire, when their shirt collars burst into flames. The recipe was successfully adjusted, however, and in 1921 the new, improved celluloid was used, redemptively, to make the first automobile safety glass.

Before industry came and the camphoric smell of plastics filled the air of the meadows, Newark was just a little village and the Meadowlands - the same area that is today reviled nationally as the archetypal stretch of disgusting New Jersey real estate - was Newark's beautiful if mosquito-plagued backyard. A French visitor in the late 1700's called Newark ''the most beautiful village on the continent,'' and landscape painters painted sunsets on the meadows. Today, public-health historians say that by the middle of the 1800's, Newark was the unhealthiest city in America.

Because most of the Meadowlands consists of things that are buried - garbage, chemicals, bodies, demolition rubble from neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey and even part of a mountain that used to stand proudly in northern New Jersey - the Meadowlands can be thought of as a kind of iceberg, in that most of it can't be seen. For this reason, I often end up exploring the Meadowlands by digging. When I dig I usually do so with my friend Dave. Dave and I have dug through the dumps, on unmarked, reed-hidden trails, in jittery groves of garbage-supported Aspen, sometime using metal detectors, even though metal detectors tend to get a little tired out and confused in the Meadowlands, given the subterranean richness. But a while ago, Dave and I undertook what would be our greatest semiarcheological feat. We began our search for a buried train station, the great old Pennsylvania Station that was ripped from its eight-acre home on Eighth Avenue in New York City in 1963 and dumped in the Meadowlands. To my mind, Penn Station is a perfect thing to dig for in the Meadowlands, because it's one of the many things buried there that I like to think may momentarily confuse actual archeologists in a far-off future. (Was New York City situated somewhere in the swamps of Jersey? is the question I like to imagine them posing.) The other reason Penn Station is a good thing to dig for is that it's one of the really big things out there that nobody has ever looked for.

Penn Station was difficult for me to find in the Meadowlands, but it must have been easy to spot when it was still in New York. (I never saw it.) The station's interior was modeled after the baths of Caracalla of ancient Rome. Its exterior featured the kind of huge Doric columns (84 of them) that Giovanni Bernini used to surround the Piazza of St. Peter's. When Penn Station was torn down, architects picketed in protest; an editorial in The Times lamented, ''[W]e will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.'' But while it was a big deal when the station was demolished, it wasn't such a big deal when it was dumped. ''Penn Station Columns Dumped in Jersey,'' a headline read. ''Doric Splendor Had an Ignoble Ending in the Meadows.''

An old newspaper clipping that I carried around listed an address where the big granite columns were said to be taken - 2800 Secaucus Road - but when I hiked there to check it out, the address didn't exist anymore. When I talked to people in Secaucus, no one seemed to believe me when I told them about Penn Station. (In retrospect, I know that only something not dumped in the Meadowlands would have been news in Secaucus in those days.) So over the next several months I searched by foot, rented cars to drive around the dumps, called up the heads of old demolition companies and looked through piles of old newspapers. I thought I had struck gold when I talked to Tony Malanka, a Secaucus dump owner; he took me over to the house of Paul Amico, a former mayor of Secaucus. Amico had only a vague recollection of its burial, however, so we passed the rest of the afternoon reminiscing about Secaucus's reputation as a place for pigs and trash. ''You know, Secaucus is well known for pigs and such, but before that we had fields and fields of flowers, all kinds of nurseries,'' he said. ''There were flowers everywhere. Flowers, flowers, flowers. There were beautiful flowers. But we never got any credit for that. When I was mayor I wanted to set up a little exhibit in town - you know, dedicated to flowers and the role that flowers had in Secaucus. Because after all, why shouldn't we be known for flowers, really? Unfortunately, that never happened.''

I was eventually able to get a pretty good idea of where Penn Station might be buried, and one muggy summer day, I picked up Dave and we drove to a field in Secaucus along a stream called Penhorn Creek and began to dig. First, we poked around in a patch of tall swamp grass, where we found hidden piles of rubble, none of them resembling Penn Station. Then we moved on to a bigger field where, as luck would have it, a backhoe had already been digging the week before, apparently in connection with the construction of a new office building. The ground was soft and easy to shovel. In just a few minutes, we dug up some old china, a few oyster shells and a piece of glass that was Milk-of-Magnesia-bottle blue - the remains, it turned out, of a pig farm. We then began uncovering larger pieces of rock, and soon everything started looking as if it might possibly be from Penn Station. Excitedly, we pulled up several bricks imprinted with the dates 1912-1913, and we found a piece of marble so big that the airline I flew home on to Oregon a few days later didn't want me to take it on the plane. But after a couple of hours with nothing really decisive in our hands, we quit for the day and drove into downtown Secaucus, where we had beer and sandwiches. No one asked us why we were covered with dirt or why there were shovels stick-ing out of our rental car.

It's a long story, but the next day when I went back to the field that Dave and I had dug in, I ran into some people who referred me to a Secaucus go-go bar owned by an old pig-farming family. One guy I met at the bar remembered some objects that matched my description of Penn Station's columns having been just down the street on a trucking firm's property when he was a kid. I thanked the guy and jumped into my car. In a few minutes, I entered a parking lot the size of a small village that was filled with dozens of tractor-trailers, their drivers either asleep with their feet on their steering wheels or milling around in small crowds. The drivers eyed me curiously. Behind an aluminum-covered lunch truck, only a few hundred yards up Penhorn Creek from where Dave and I had dug for hours the day before, I saw three huge chunks of rock surrounded by minimal dirt and debris. I parked the car and locked the doors and ran over to touch them and I knew in an instant what they were.

It is difficult to describe exactly how I felt at the moment I found my pieces of Penn Station. With the cold granite of the column beneath my hand, I felt as if I wanted to cheer, so I did. I collected myself and saw that the rocks were definitely granite - pinkish dotted with black and gray - and they were cylindrical and roughly four feet long. In the bottom of each were several small holes, where joiners would have allowed one to be stacked upon the other, a la the classic Roman column. They were immovable due to their tremendous weight, so I chipped off several pieces of one column with great difficulty. (Only later would I come back with a chisel and, with Dave's assistance, successfully break off a good-size chunk to take home with me.)

I shot two rolls of film of the columns. I began to attract the attention of several truck drivers, and then a Barbadian truck driver offered to take pictures of me standing next to them. I accepted. In the afternoon, when my photos were developed, I drove to the nearest notary public and asked her to verify the date of my find. She did, stamping her name, Aida G. Zakhary, and the date, Sept. 17, 1996. And then she politely asked me what it was that I was standing next to in the photos she had just notarized. I told her about Penn Station being dumped in the Meadowlands, but she had never heard of Penn Station. So I said it was the ruins of a great building that once stood proudly in New York City. She smiled and squinted a little and looked in my eyes and said, ''Oh.''

*Robert Sullivan is the author of "Meadowlands", a book about the Meadowlands region of New Jersey.

**New York Times Magazine, February 15, 1998.

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