As I grew up in New Jersey, my parents and I would drive through the Meadowlands on our way to New York City. The landscape consisted of mountainous garbage hills abutting low-lying wetlands, and crumbling, smokestack-studded factories on the banks of waterfowl-rich rivers. My parents would always roll up the windows as we approached. Perhaps it was the sulfurous smell emanating from the fires spontaneously igniting underneath the Kearny dumps, or the nauseating chemical fragrance wafting from the South Hackensack flavor factories. Whatever it was, the odor was pungent.
As I got older and began making this drive on my own, I became more curious about these smells. Driving through the swamp on the New Jersey Turnpike, I found myself rolling down the windows in my car. I would stick my head out, like a dog embracing a passing breeze, and inhale the toxins and exhaust fumes. I’m not sure if my neurological system began to be affected, or if the odors were like a drug that my body began to crave; eventually I wanted more than these speedy encounters would grant. I wanted a first-hand experience of the swamp and the adjacent locales where the stench was produced; I wanted to enter the landscape.
In 2002 my former college roommate handed me some satellite maps of the Meadowlands. Around the same time I became fascinated by the artists and writers who had drawn inspiration from the area. Two essays had a profound impact: “The Crystal Land” and “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” by Robert Smithson, a fellow New Jerseyite who, like me, had moved to New York City. I felt a kinship with his writings and exploration of the northern end of the state. I began visiting the Meadowlands several times each week in order to take photographs.
For Smithson, New Jersey was geology and rock quarries, monumental vacancies and ruins in reverse. By contrast, the landscape I encountered was characterized by confused ownership, competing uses, invisible pollutants, and furtive inhabitants. A state park had recently been built upon a landfill by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. The park looked pristine, but one only needed to look to the horizon to see yet another landfill, as well as a Superfund site, a congested highway, and a brick-and-metal structure processing toxic fumes. Also on the horizon, a little further out, one could see the New York City skyline. Strangely enough, Manhattan and the Meadowlands are roughly the same size in square miles, yet that is where the similarities end. Manhattan’s geology consists primarily of solid bedrock, which is what supports its orderly grid of streets and buildings. The Meadowlands lies atop twenty-stories of glutinous clay, causing everything in the swamp – trash, cedar forests, and even huge industrial complexes—to sag and collapse.
In 2004, the Mills Corporation and Mack-Cali Realty Corporation broke ground on Xanadu, a 4.76-million-square-foot megadevelopment in the Meadowlands. The entertainment complex, expected to open in 2013 (a delay of seven years), will consist of an indoor ski hill, a skydiving simulator, an amusement park, a water park, and one of the largest malls in the world. After financial troubles stalled the project and bankrupted the Mills Corporation, it was relaunched in 2009 as American Dream Meadowlands, an oddly appropriate name—though not necessarily for the reasons the developers think. “The American Dream” typically refers to aspirations for happiness and success, but in Freudian terms dreams are the operations of the unconscious. The latter sense of dream better suits the Meadowlands, since it’s a landscape filled with the forgotten and the displaced—that is, everything that needs to be suppressed or removed from view for the “ego” of Manhattan to keep functioning. Appropriately enough, there are already reports of the American Dream’s escalators corroding, roofs collapsing, and ground-level parking lots sinking six inches into the earth.
Smithson himself called the Meadowlands “a good location for a movie about life on Mars.” But when I think of a film involving interplanetary exploration, I imagine spaceships hovering overhead and astronauts crossing the terrain clad in silvery insulation. The Meadowlands cannot be comprehended from a bird’s-eye view, nor can it be experienced in a hazmat suit—or even by driving above the wetlands on the Turnpike. One must stay close to the ground and risk exposure to the environment. And so I did, armed with nothing more than a map and a camera.
The first step to exploring the Meadowlands is finding a point of entry. For me, a typical day would begin with driving to the edge of a suburb or industrial park and surveying the neighboring swamp, one eye on the road and the other on the map pressed precariously against the wheel of my car. On a summer day in 2004 these preliminary explorations led me to the southeastern tip of Gunnel Oval, a park off of Schuyler Avenue in Kearny. At one end of the park was a baseball diamond, soccer field, and playground with monkey bars. At the other end was a wall of seven-foot reeds adorned with a sign that read No Dumping $500 Fine. I looked over my shoulder a few times at the children playing soccer and forming a line in front of a parked ice-cream truck, then leaped forward and parted the reeds, walking blindly into the thirty-two square miles of swamp. The melodious sounds of Gunnel Oval were soon replaced by the din of swarming insects and thrashing cordgrass.
In atlases of New Jersey the pages that encompass the Meadowlands are blank. The adjacent highways bisect some pages, and parks such as Gunnel Oval appear as vague, green rectangles, but the rest of the Meadowlands is represented as a flat, continuous gray area. According to the cartographers there is nothing worth noting beyond the infrastructure. My satellite maps tell a different story. At the southeastern edge of Gunnel Oval, a mere few dozen feet past the reeds, the satellite map reveals a trail along an abandoned train track. The trail curves east and turns into a narrow jetty that crosses the Hackensack River and passes underneath two major highways, New Jersey Route 7 and Interstate 95.
The I-95 overpass is raised fifty feet above the jetty on a series of massive concrete columns. Walking underneath feels like entering a Roman ruin, except the marble reliefs have been replaced by graffiti, including one reading “Get Me Off Dis Rock,” and a pair of Reeboks dangling from a power line. As I emerged from underneath the overpass, I looked back and noticed a police car parked on the shoulder of the highway above me and an officer watching me with a pair of binoculars. I froze, and stared blankly back at him. I thought about waving, but, before I did, a second and third police car arrived, then a fire truck. Nearly one dozen officers and firemen got out of their vehicles and solemnly greeted one another with handshakes, turned on radios and walkie-talkies, opened notepads, focused cameras. One plainclothes officer even had a black telescope-like surveillance scope, which he placed on a small tripod and pointed toward me.
It was not clear to me whether these officers thought I was a suspicious presence, or if they simply were curious how I reached the jetty. At first I felt that arrest was imminent, but then I realized that there was no way for the officers to reach me. I was two miles from Gunnel Oval, and I doubted the police knew about the entrance hidden amongst the reeds. I was certain they would not use rope ladders or parachutes to descend from the overpass. Then again, maybe New Jersey police view any trespassing in the vicinity of this vital highway infrastructure as a grave threat. Could that explain the numerous shotgun shells I’d seen on the jetty over the years?
I hastily attempted to convince the police officers that I was a mere nature enthusiast. The Meadowlands is one of the most polluted areas in the country, yet it is also home to hundreds of flora and fauna. Luckily there was a honeysuckle nearby, so I raised my camera and began vigorously photographing the flower: moving in for a close-up, removing the Dr. Pepper can from its stem, stepping back and framing the flower against the murky brown water, adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and focus, all while carefully skirting a decayed fish carcass. The police officers and firemen soon put away their surveillance tools and began to disperse. Within a few moments the overpass was entirely clear of any authorities, so I stopped taking pictures, put my camera back in its bag and moved on.
It was late fall and I was circumnavigating the base of Snake Hill, the highest natural elevation in the Meadowlands. Surrounding me were crumbling and burnt red rocks punctuated by stray soda cans, mud flats, and oversized spools of rope. I felt like I was in Chernobyl, rather than a few hundred yards from the Burlington Coat Factory. Snake Hill was once home to a psychiatric ward, prison, and quarry, but all were detonated in 1958; the explosion left the knoll scarred and burned, reducing its height by fifty feet and width by one fifth. Snake Hill also ceased to resemble the Prudential Insurance Company’s logo, a butte designed by an ad executive after passing through the Meadowlands in the nineteenth century. I thought about the logo and the long forgotten patients and prisoners as I climbed over a large, crumbling boulder that led onto a dirt road on the southern side of the hill. There I glimpsed something I had never seen before in the Meadowlands: a white SUV driving in the distance. As the SUV got closer and the clouds of dust surrounding it dissipated, I discerned the lettering printed on its side: Secaucus Police.
I was no longer the lone figure in this desolation. The SUV approached and I decided my best strategy was to continue walking and act casual—as if such a thing were possible here. I walked a few dozen more feet, until the SUV pulled up right beside me. The driver’s window rolled down and I saw a single police officer behind the wheel. He removed his sunglasses, dangled them in his right hand, and eyed me up and down, then leaned toward me. “What are you doing here?” he asked sharply. Still shocked, I muttered a few incomprehensible words, stalling. I was further interrupted by a gust of wind stirring up the surrounding debris. I rubbed the dust out of my eyes and, finally, said, “I’m a local artist taking some photographs.” Being local meant I was familiar, safe, a neighbor—also, a taxpayer. “I’m sorry, am I trespassing?” I continued. The officer relaxed and scanned the terrain, then turned back to me and stated blankly, “I don’t know.”
Ownership of the Meadowlands is difficult to define. The swamp is a peculiar mix of land privately owned by corporations such as the Williams Natural Gas Company (whose transcontinental pipeline crosses the Meadowlands), publicly owned and preserved by the state, and owned by the state but disused and therefore ignored. There are relatively few markers of property lines, as the average visitor is a commuter passing by in a car or train. Apparently even the police patrolling the area don’t know exactly what they are patrolling. I asked the officer, “Should I leave?” He leaned his arm forward, stuck his head out of the window and answered, “Yes … I mean, I don’t know if this particular land is private or not, but I know I have to call Homeland Security if I see anyone out here. And they won’t be very happy to come to the Meadowlands. So it’s best you leave before they arrive.” I took his advice and headed west towards a parking lot on the far side of Snake Hill. As the dirt road began to curve I looked over my shoulder and saw that the SUV remained parked in the distance, with the officer ostensibly watching me as I slowly walked away.
I walked north along an abandoned train track from Kearny towards North Arlington. My destination was Disposal Road, three miles ahead. I had no reason to visit this street other than being intrigued by its name; I imagined a mountain of trash endlessly compacted by oversized cranes, monolithic balers, and chemically infused fires. On my way there I crossed an abandoned railway bridge, passed a warehouse full of pool supplies, and leaped over several two-foot-long snakes. (The Meadowlands is home to eight species of snakes; several additional species, such as the Northern Water Snake, have been killed off by contaminants.) Eventually I entered a large open field filled with dirt, debris, and rusted oil drums: the perfect place to rest and eat my lunch. Or so I thought. Pressing my hand against the ground I noticed how rough and dense the earth beneath me felt. In contrast to the sinking, permeable marshes nearby, this dirt felt solid, and as abrasive as sandpaper. I unfolded my satellite map and, as I crouched and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, followed the map’s topographical trails. After a few minutes I looked up and saw a 747 jet descend toward Newark Airport; a few hummingbirds flitted in the distance. I lowered my eyes as the birds flew toward the horizon and noticed something at the field’s edge: a series of wood and plastic signs staked into the ground and facing away from me. As with most objects I’ve stumbled upon in the Meadowlands, I couldn’t tell if the signs had been dumped here thirty years ago or installed within the past week. Time here seems folded, compacted, anything but linear.
I put down my sandwich, tucked away my map, and walked toward the edge of the field. After stepping over a crushed juice container and pushing aside a few wilted reeds, I reached a metal fence that separated me and the signs from a nearby service road. I leaned against the fence and turned my eyes toward the front of the soiled white boards, which were marked by bold, red letters: ENVIRONMENTALLY CONTAMINATED TOPSOIL. DO NOT ENTER OR DIG. Below the warning was a telephone number. I wrote down the number in a small notepad, then rushed back to the center of the field. I decided to abort my trip to Disposal Road, and left my half-eaten sandwich behind.
Returning home that afternoon, I opened my notebook and hesitantly called the number listed on the sign. The phone rang three or four times, then an operator with a high-pitched voice answered. “Amtrak reservations, my name is Joanne. How may I help you?” I froze. “Hello?” she continued, less pleasantly. “What is your destination?” I knew she could hear me breathing on the other end of the line, so I had to say something. “I am not booking a trip. I was exposed to hazardous waste in the Meadowlands, and the sign told me to call this number.” A few moments passed in silence, and then she casually said, “Please hold while I transfer your call.”
I listened to an instrumental cover of a Steely Dan song and wondered why Amtrak owns contaminated tracts of the Meadowlands. Was the company secretly dumping toxins and industrial refuse? I Googled “Amtrak toxic land New Jersey Meadowlands,” and quickly learned that Amtrak has been developing new train lines on Meadowlands Superfund sites.1 Most significant of these developments was a soon-to-be-opened train line from Secaucus to the American Dream entertainment complex. I learned that Amtrak paid $6.2 million for fifty-six contaminated acres.
The Steely Dan song abruptly ended and I heard a voice on the other end of the line, introducing himself as an Amtrak environmental scientist. “How can I help?” he asked. I told him my story, and gave him rough coordinates of the contaminated land. He asked how many people I had been transferred to before my call was directed his way. “You’re the first person I was connected to,” I said. He was shocked. He said this was the only time a ticket agent had ever directed a call his way and marveled that she would even know how to reach him. I responded by asking what I might have been exposed to: toxins, chemicals, radioactive isotopes? He answered by dictating, without pause, an encyclopedic list of known environmental contaminants in northern New Jersey. As he spoke I wondered whether Amtrak employed an army of environmental scientists, and if they worked in a nearby office or if they kept a laboratory in an underground bunker. This scientist kept mentioning how distant he was from the all-too-accessible world of ticket agents and train conductors. For an employee of a corporation that just bought a Superfund site, he seemed curiously unburdened by work and happy to indulge my neurotic concerns. He asked me to describe the contaminated location more specifically. I explained that the only landmarks were swamp, dirt, and a crushed juice container, and he requested I fax him a copy of my satellite map with an X marking the location of the signs. I paused. “Don’t worry,” he said, laughing, “we’re not going to prosecute you just yet.”
Nonetheless, I decided to err on the side of caution, and told the scientist I would rather not fax him my information. He understood. With empathy in his voice, he said, “I cannot say for certain what you were exposed to, but based on your description and locale, I think it was mercury. If you start showing signs of short-term memory loss, go to the hospital.”
During the past decade I’ve encountered thousands of objects dumped illegally in the Meadowlands. All but one of the fifty-one landfills have long since closed, so there’s no good explanation for the furniture and domestic wares discarded miles from the closest paved road. What follows is a partial list of objects that I’ve come across:
US Army helmet
Toilet bowl seat
Metal ornate fence with fish engravings
Couch with a floral pattern
Couch with a striped pattern
Tackle box and fishing pole
Loaf of bread
Melted auto muffler
Orange juice container
Pair of keys
Power Rangers back pack
Pile of paint cans and a blue tarp
Suitcase with broken handle
Unopened registered mail
Vintage Coca-Cola bottle (circa 1920)
Boat in a field
Car in a river
I returned to the Meadowlands this past June after a hiatus of a few years. I started my expedition by walking a familiar trail north of Kearny. To my surprise, after one hour the trail took a turn it had not previously. The last time I visited there had been a field of mountainous dirt that terminated the trail prematurely. Since then, someone has been developing an adjacent plot and much of the dirt has been shifted, opening up a previously inaccessible route. I walked this route for another half mile, struggling through thickets of mugwort, which made the New Jersey suburb feel more like a Vietnamese jungle. Eventually the shrubbery receded and the path opened onto an abandoned, yet pristine steel bridge passing over an unnamed dirt road. I cautiously stepped toward the bridge, removing phragmites and twigs from my clothing. Then, suddenly, I froze. Fifty feet ahead, at the northern end of the bridge, were three middle-aged men, two standing and one sitting in a lawn chair. They stared at me as I wavered awkwardly at the opposite end of the bridge. Eventually I mustered the courage to approach them.
The man sitting in the lawn chair rose to his feet and introduced himself as Eddie. He was dressed in a pair of faded and slightly torn jeans and a stained yellow Exxon T-shirt. His gray hair was slicked back and fell nearly to his shoulders, and his face showed a few days of stubble. Eddie had been living in the swamp for the past seven years, he told me, in a small bivouac built out of discarded metal siding, bed sheets, and scraps. His only company was his cat and the occasional friends who visited from town. I was aware that hobo encampments existed in the Meadowlands, and had visited one in North Bergen five years earlier, shortly before it was destroyed by an industrial fire. That colony had consisted of a series of small wood shelters built among the ailanthus trees, like children’s tree houses. But I had never spoken with a swamp vagrant before.
Eddie told me about the origins of the steel bridge, the location of an abandoned fire truck nearby, and the history of the railway within the Meadowlands. “There was a defunct railroad crossing light further east on Harrison Avenue,” he told me. “It was over one hundred years old. Someone came earlier this year and cut it down with a chainsaw,” and then he continued with a smirk across his face, “He probably sold it on eBay for a small fortune.” Eddie said that I could continue north on his trail if I followed one simple rule: Do not photograph his home. All the while his two friends stood by silently, occasionally punctuating Eddie’s tales with the sound of beer cans being opened.
As I listened to him, I began to think of Eddie as having a true dominion over the landscape, all from the comfort of his lawn chair. Unlike the authorities I had run into previously, Eddie had a deep knowledge of the landscape and its history, the kind you can only get by living in a place, not merely surveying the land from a distant office or highway overpass, or occasionally making off-road patrols. I thanked Eddie for this invaluable information, politely refused the half-empty beer offered to me, and promised not to photograph his home as I continued north. I passed his home immediately after reentering the overgrowth and carefully stepped over a series of trip lines and booby traps. The traps, which Eddie hadn’t bothered mentioning to me, consisted of thin pieces of braided rope stretched one to two feet above the ground. After the final trap, the path opened onto another clearing, where a small fleet of abandoned fuel trucks were parked. There too, as promised, was the Holy Grail: an abandoned fire truck. The fire truck was from Riverdale, New Jersey, and marked No. 2. In comparison to the nearby oil trucks, it was surprisingly intact. On the back of the truck was a white ladder, several spools of pink hoses, and a collection of scratch-free plastic emergency lights.
The fire and oil trucks were fitting monuments for this forsaken landscape, but sadly they were no longer alone. Something even more monolithic loomed over them, a few thousand feet away: the back side of a nondescript big-box store. If not for the blue-and-white stripe running across the facade I wouldn’t have been able to identify it as Walmart. I took some steps to the east and looked past the facade, toward a paved parking lot with evenly spaced white lines and decorative lampposts. All this, along with American Dream Meadowlands, may soon be swallowed up by the marsh, I thought. But if not, the marsh may soon disappear or, even worse, be placed on maps.