Hoboken, New Jersey is closer to NYU than almost any neighborhood in New York City. It’s closer to Bobst Library than Bushwick, Astoria, or Harlem, in measures of both distance and commute time. But tell people that you live in New Jersey as opposed to a New York neighborhood, and you’ll get glares worse than if you stole the last marble rye.
If you hail from New Jersey or the tri-state area — and if you attend NYU, there’s a good chance you do — then you likely encountered Garden State hate while growing up. Maybe a family member joked about how you pay to cross into New York but the tunnel to New Jersey is free (True). Perhaps you heard someone say “Well, at least I’m not from New Jersey” (Now a Facebook page with over 80,000 Likes).
Jersey jabs have also bubbled up to mass media. Bloomberg prefaces an ostensibly pro-Jersey report with the heading: “No More Jersey Jokes.” The Daily Show spent a full five minutes making fun of New Jersey. Online you’ll find a Jersey-focused blog titled “Armpit of America: A blog about … the state we love to hate!” The jokes go far deeper than making wisecracks about Snooki. (Which we all know haven’t been funny since 2010, anyway.)
All of which has led many to wonder: Why the Jersey hate? How can a place, home to so many of our colleagues and coworkers, be the butt of our jokes, especially when that place is closer to New York University than is much of New York? How can your neighbor become your enemy?
Jersey Jabs Back
Rather than accept the mockery of their home state, many New Jerseyans have gone on the defensive. A campaign entitled “Jersey Doesn’t Stink!” purchased a billboard and started a social media campaign, asking their neighbors “Are you sick of defending your home state against wisecracks?”
Joe Vallese, a teacher in NYU’s Expository Writing Program who hails from Palisades Park, New Jersey, retaliated against the ridicule by releasing What’s Your Exit: A Literary Detour Through New Jersey, an anthology featuring essays, poems and short stories.
“We basically decided to do it because we were sick of Jersey getting slagged on,” Vallese said of his and co-editor Alicia Beale’s motivations for assembling the collection.
The two met in NYU’s MFA program, and “Had a workshop together in which we had to go around and say where we were from. I said I was from New Jersey and the teacher said ‘Oh, don’t worry, I understand; I’m from Long Island.’ And I got really defensive and said ‘Hey, I like being from Jersey,’ and I got really mad for some reason. Alicia … smiled and said ‘I’m from Jersey too, and I love it.’ We remembered each other from there.”
After graduating, Vallese and Beale finished the collection, which features works from fellow Garden State writers like Tom Perotta and Joyce Carol Oates. Fittingly, the book was published by Word Riot Press, based out of Freehold, New Jersey.
Some Ignore The Jeers
“I hear those things, but they just strike me as stupid,” said Lorraine Doran, another teacher in the Expository Writing Program hailing from the other side of the Hudson. “I think that that comes from people who actually don’t know anything about New Jersey … Where I grew up is beautiful, and those people have only seen the Turnpike or Newark Airport.”
CAS senior and Jersey City native Aaron Haier also forgoes an outward pride. “I feel that pride is perpetuating this idea of Jersey being like, Guidos roll up your sleeves and punch people at the club,” Haier said. “Jersey pride is in response to the trashing of Jersey, so I don’t want you to trash me and then I take pride in that. “
What complicates the relationship between Jersey and its wisecracking neighbors is their extreme proximity. The towns of northern New Jersey are, in many ways suburbs of New York City. Living in the shadow of the city often muddies the distinction between being from one state or the other.
“New Jersey is always my home,” says Doran. But she added, “We’d come [to New York] to go to clubs or concerts, and New York was always just sort of like a connected place to where you’re from. It’s part of home in a lot of ways.”
“I grew up looking at the New York skyline from my backyard,” said Vallese. “I was in New York every single weekend.”
And yet, this interstate mix is, for many, only a one-way street. A larger center of industry and culture, New York attracts more inbound New Jerseyans than the other way around. (When was the last time your friends took the PATH train to New Jersey for a night out?) The Garden State doesn’t have its own equivalent of Bridge and Tunnelers. Except, perhaps, Snooki: The poster girl for Jersey Shore hails originally from New York.
A Matter of Authenticity
Ask a New Yorker what they have against New Jersey, and they’ll tend to bring up the New York pride — the sort of stereotypical attitude you can imagine embodied by a busy guy walking down the street, coffee in hand, casually angry at the throngs of tourists he’s forced to dodge on his walk work.
“There’s just a strong sense of commitment and authenticity you feel coming from New York,” said Steinhardt senior and New York-native Josephine Ledda. Even with inter-borough contention between the eight-million New Yorkers, she said “Everyone needs to be distinct … except when they unite against Jersey.”
Maybe the condescension directed towards those from the Garden State comes not from their physical presence in the city, not from the inevitable traffic jams they cause every evening and weekend, or their presence in our bars and clubs and streets — but maybe their claims of physical space do not bother us so much as their identity claims. Haier, who on 9/11 could see the smoke from Towers on his block in Jersey City, says that New Yorkers “Take such ownership of the city, they don’t want other people to own it too.” This is our city and we’ll be damned if some guy from Hoboken who pronounces Houston like a city in Texas wants to come and take it from us.
Of course, that mentality hinges on the idea that there is such thing as an authentic New Yorker these days.
“To be honest, there aren’t New Yorkers here anymore,” said Doran. “Usually they’re from someplace like Ohio or something, so I kind of take it as a joke. Most people here are not from here and so they’re claiming kinship to New York that they don’t have. Whereas I grew up here.”
Over the summer, Fran Lebowitz spoke out at a FASP meeting about how New York, and particularly our university, has lost its New York character and become eminently suburban: “It really should be stopped from being called NYU, because it really has nothing to do with New York. It is Suburban. To. The Core.”
For Doran, New Yorkers’ mockery of New Jersey points only to the insecurities of those who moved to a city whose identity they wish to yet can’t really claim as their own. “People who say things like [Jersey jokes], that’s their own inferiority complex. They like to come here and think they’re New Yorkers, that that makes them something. But really you’re still from Ohio or Indiana, that’s who you are.”
Haier has also noticed this transplant-authenticity in the media as well. “I’m a huge How I Met Your Mother Fan, and in one episode these two guys try to make a play on these girls,” but when the girls “reveal themselves as pretending to be New Yorkers but actually they’re from New Jersey, [the guys] are like ‘We’re done with you.’ But in the show the people who are making those judgements are from Cleveland!”
Could it be then, that despite the pejorative Garden State stereotypes and New York’s reputation as a real cultural center, that New Jersey is somehow more authentic than New York? Have all the real New Yorkers moved to New Jersey?
“New York has really stayed expensive and it’s forced out the real people. Real New Yorkers and the middle class can’t afford to live here anymore,” said Doran. “It’s a huge loss. A character loss … It looks like a big mall to me now.”
Perhaps with their housing that artists can afford to live in (And yes, if you’ve been living under the rock that is the Williamsburg Bridge, there is an arts scene outside of Brooklyn), with their strong ethnic, immigrant communities, with the attitude Vallese characterizes by saying “Jersey folk don’t feel the need to prove themselves … we don’t really care” — a very New York attitude if there ever was one — New Jersey has become, in the face of the city’s gentrification, the new New York. Maybe when we criticize the Garden State, we’re in a sense criticizing ourselves. Yearning for something we once were and still wish to be, something that New Jerseyans, in a very real sense, still are.
An End To Garden State Hate?
Fran Lebowitz may target NYU as the suburban cancer that’s eating New York, but gentrification is widespread and shows no signs of slowing. Could this mean that the next authentic New York neighborhood is … Newark?!
Well, don’t expect Jersey Jokes to stop any time soon. The “At least I’m not from New Jersey” Facebook page still outnumbers the “New Jersey Doesn’t Stink!” page by 60,000 Likes. “I don’t think people care enough to change it,” said Vallese.
For Doran, maybe a little bias is a good thing. “I don’t want to bring more people to the Jersey Shore. The malls and the shore are always crowded with people from New York and Philly,” she said. “So if you don’t like it, stay where you are.”
Perhaps our borders, both mental and physical, are more tenuous than we think. Fran Lebowitz, the apparent ur-critic of New York’s suburbanization, was born and raised in Moorestown, New Jersey. One of the first 9/11 memorials was erected in Bayonne, New Jersey.
And Lady Liberty, the iconic site which you’ll find on souvenir mugs and postcards at vendors throughout the city, that first sight which captured the promise of New York and American for so many immigrants? Split right down the middle, New York and New Jersey.