Two Highways and Two Eras in New Jersey

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The drive into Newark, Jersey, shows you two very different approaches to land use and transportation

If you want to get to Newark or New York City from central New Jersey, you have two options. Well, four. One is NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley rail line, and one is Interstate 78. But the two I’m interested in here involve long drives, and they give you a chance to observe two very different approaches to land use and transportation.

I’m talking about New Jersey Route 28, a state highway that tracks a NJ Transit line and which serves as Main Street for over a dozen small towns and cities; and U.S. 22, which by the 1960s was already known as a premier example of American commercial roadside development, in all its neon-lit, exaggerated-modern glory. (An outpost of a regional electronics chain, one of the last of its kind, inhabits the third ship-shaped building to stand on a tenuous strip of commercial land, islanded by 22’s east- and west-bound lanes.)

The development along 28 is small to medium in scale and fine-grained, and the road itself is no more than two lanes at many stretches. Along 22, things are larger and more spread out, with a handful of mid-century roadside buildings still intact. The giant Channel Lumber man no longer lights up 22, and a small amusement park, first opened in the 1940s, recently gave up the ghost and became a modern apartment complex. Some modern apartment buildings are going up amid smaller, older neighbors along 28. Bits and pieces of these two landscapes come and go and get remade, but nothing in the last 60-odd years has really changed their fundamental characters.

What’s more, highways 22 and 28 run parallel and very close to each other, at times less than a mile apart north–south. Within basically the same place, they’re two incredibly contrasting corridors. Of course, many places have a traditional core with car-oriented development along the edges. But what’s interesting and less common about the contrast here is that these are both long, linear places, and so traveling both of them allows a sustained view of two different development approaches. 

Let’s Take a Road Trip

One of the first things I noticed was some evidence of the difficulty traditional retail is facing. And that’s notable, because in addition to a New York-bound access highway, 22 is also a major shopping corridor (such that rather than knowing what town along 22 you’re in, you’d mostly refer to “driving down” or “shopping on” it).

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