Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres

In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kevin Riordan writes about Daniel Nester, an author who recently wrote a memoir about growing up in Maple Shade, Burlington County. As Nester tells it, his book Shader is “mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and ’80s South Jersey – a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries” that’s immediately identifiable to anyone who grew up in the area.

But just because malls, Wawas, and cemeteries are universally recognizable parts of the South Jersey landscape, that doesn’t mean you could pick Maple Shade out of a lineup. If you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve passed through Maple Shade even if you didn’t realize it. For much of the later half of the 20th century, Maple Shade’s story, like those of Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, or Marlton, was centered around roads like Routes 38, 70, or 73, those huge, fast divided highway that are today icons of suburban sprawl.

Route 38 through Maple Shade.

Route 73 through Maple Shade.
Routes 38 and 73 through Maple Shade are prime examples of soulless, placeless development representing a true geography of a cultureless nowhere.

Built during the time of suburbia’s relentless outward expansion, these roads offered a quick way to bypass the towns they run near. But over time, in an era of obsession with quick and easy accessibility by car, these highways became shopping centers in their own right. As towns like Maple Shade sought to cash in on the highways within their borders, they either let their downtowns decay or branded them as “historic” and relegated them to the nostalgic past (a problem that handicaps their viability to this day) . The car and the modern suburbs were king, and no one had a need for small, cramped storefronts anymore.

Or so they thought. What seemed like the new way of American life seems more and more like somewhat of a phase. We still live with these highways, though far from being the beacon of some American dream, they’re clogged with insufferable traffic during commuting hours and alternately lined with placeless big box stores and their own version of roadside decay. They’re nuisances at best — unwalkable, unpleasant to live near, and dangerous for cars, pedestrians, and people on bikes alike — and disastrous at worst — expensive to maintain, clogged with time– and health-robbing traffic, and physically decaying as their economic promise fades but still holding the attention of town halls as nearby downtowns await their revival.

Meanwhile, the focus of a lot of young people has moved back to the historic downtowns long forgotten. Towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Merchantville, or Bordentown that didn’t entirely let their downtowns implode are seeing a lot of interest from people who want to live in walkable communities. The towns that did are scrambling to create the arts districts, foster the coffee shops, or improve the public transit links to Philadelphia that people are once again looking for. In short, these towns are trying to figure out how to get back what they lost to highways and cars over the past sixty years: the community that comes from a town where neighbors meet each other on Main Street, the ease and convenience of life along a train line into the jobs of the city, and the economic advantage that comes from having a thriving, living downtown.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town's success, if they embrace it.
Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town’s success, if they embrace it.

3 thoughts on “Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres

  1. Spot on.

    There’s good news and there’s bad news for the future of this set of arrangements. The funding mechanisms that build and maintain these massive eight lane highways is rapidly drying up. Try as we may the money simply isn’t going to be there to preserve them in their current form for very much longer. Some version of triage (probably unintentional rather than planned) will set in. Only the most crucial roads will be properly maintained. Getting people and goods over the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges will rank high on the priority list. Getting cars from the convenience store to the dog food emporium to the drive-thru burger joint to the discount sneaker warehouse? Not so much… These car oriented environments will simply lose value and decline as pot holes multiply and rusting overpasses fail.

    People with money will gradually choose to live in places with better prospects. New investment and social/political capital will migrate to neighborhoods with better bones that can manage to work around the deteriorating highway infrastructure.

    Personally, I’ll never shed a single tear over the demise of a strip mall on the side of a miserable highway. I say let things fail. Failure fixes itself. Success breeds imitators as people follow the money to a better set of living arrangements.

    1. Definitely agree. With the way we fund (or don’t fund) transportation right now in New Jersey, and the fact that you’ve got terrible roads and transportation infrastructure combined with people not wanting to actually pay for it, something’s gotta give.

      What you said about the bridges, that “getting people and goods over the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges will rank high on the priority list” is definitely true, too. Though we don’t have it yet, and it seems to have stalled with other regional transit projects, there’s an idea out there to start BRT in South Jersey. Check out this site, which maps a few different routes: http://www.southjerseytransit.com/. I’ve reached out to the DVRPC to suggest thinking about this for other suburban towns closer to those bridges, too. If the generally too-wide routes 130, 70, 73, and 38 are good for anything, maybe it might be bringing BRT to communities that don’t have good transit links to jobs in Camden or Philadelphia. It’s a long-term pipe dream though, and market forces will definitely do their job in the meantime.

      I think there’re some good indicators that people at various levels of government and industry in the state are realizing that endless sprawl is bad and reinvesting in our older places is good, so I’m hopeful we’ll see progress on this all over the next several decades. All I know is I’m happier being in a place that gets it now rather than later.

      1. BRT could easily and cost effectively be implemented along the highways of suburbia. But it isn’t politically likely at the moment since so few voters in the region value transit. As a young person in South Jersey I took the bus on occasion and it was a miserable experience. It was easier for me to move to a real town than to make life palatable without a car in the sprawl. I think that’s the most likely trajectory for a lot of people who have a choice in the matter.

        I see the process of road triage being crisis driven and chaotic rather than intentionally planned and implemented. There are going to be a lot of pissed off losers. Political leaders will necessarily promise things they can’t deliver. I anticipate slow motion failure and a gradual shift in where people with resources chose to locate. Everyone else will just suck up an incrementally lower quality of life.

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