Oak Tree Road and the Second Life Cycle Blues

5.+Iselin

I recently visited my parents in central New Jersey, and during that visit I drove out east to the Edison/Iselin area to see the Oak Tree Road corridor, sometimes called Little India. I knew I was going to write something about it, but I wasn’t sure what my angle would be. Then, I came across an old Strong Towns piece, at just the right time.

In the piece, headlined “Second Life Cycle Blues,” Charles Marohn talks about the “second life cycle”: the point when the inherent fragility of the suburban land use pattern begins to appear, following the initial period when everything is functional, shiny, and new, and when developers are paying for infrastructure and national chains are knocking.

“The Suburban Experiment creates an illusion of wealth early on, which makes it very seductive,” he writes. “As the city enters the second life cycle and all of the dispersed systems that came with the growth now need costly maintenance, the seductive illusion is slowly destroyed.”

The Strong Towns critique of the suburban development pattern is twofold: one, it’s very expensive to maintain (its relatively low densities are part of this, but we like to talk about “productivity” rather than density alone); and two, it’s built “to a finished state,” making it more like a product than a place. As it ages, and its financial fragility begins to show, people move away and build the same thing, brand new, somewhere else. This is what’s meant by “sprawl,” but that term implies disorder. This process is highly ordered, just badly ordered.

What does any of this have to do with Edison’s Little India? Well, the Oak Tree Road corridor, where the linear South Asian neighborhood sits for a couple of miles, is at least at its second life cycle. Many of the strip plazas and commercial buildings, and the houses on adjacent streets, are from the 1960s and 1970s. Some are even a little older. The typical house I saw was a cape (many with a full or partial second-floor expansion).

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