Take the Holland Tunnel out of New York City and go ten blocks deeper than the metropolitan and cushy neighborhoods of Hoboken or Jersey City, where trying to buy a place to live is only a few steps behind Manhattan in terms of price and you’ll end up in an industrial bad land. Do the same with the Lincoln tunnel and you wont even have to go as far. Fly into Newark airport airport and right before you land your eyes are given a visceral treat of probably a place you definitely wont be visiting while in the area. Take the Pulaski Skyway out to the suburbs on your way out from the city and turn your head to either side and take a look….and a whiff. This area of Newark, Kearny, Bayonne, Secaucus, Elizabeth, Harrison and the surrounding towns are probably what give New Jersey its oh so fine reputation of being the country’s dump. I’m sure you have all either seen it, smelled it, or heard about it, and while I’m not here to try and change your mind, I would like to point out that despite what notion you may have about it, there really is a beautiful side to it.
One caveat, that beautiful side may be buried under some toxic soil, or down a dark dead end street, or a couple of inches below that funky stinky mist that is floating by, but its there. I bet you have never noticed it.
While typically you may lock your doors, panic, grip your mace, fire up your navigation system really fast, and have bad dreams for a few days, I have found quite the opposite to be true. I purposely get lost, open the windows, get out, look up, and take the turn down that street that you would otherwise avoid like the gate of hell. Let me just say that once you get past the voice in your head telling you not to, often times what lies down that path is truly cool and unique with more character than you could ever imagine.
Call me crazy, but for years now I find myself heading down into those areas quite frequently just to get away. Maybe it stems from my childhood when my Grandfather and I would walk the railroad tracks in Roselle and I would be in awe as a train passed us by, or when he would take me to work with him at Bayway refinery where he was the fire chief and we would drive through these never ending mazes of pipe and tanks. Perhaps it also is from my whole life I would see the views of these places sitting in the back seat or the car as we headed in and out of Manhattan. Maybe from the years when I would go down to Ave P in Newark and Port Jersey in Bayonne to the illegal street races. Whatever it comes from, I decided one day years ago to take the dark ominous exit off Rt. 1&9 and venture down into the depths of what for so many year I had driven right past and never got a chance to see what was down there.
Now I must say that going back to the pre- 9/11 days, when everyone and everything wasn’t fenced in and locked up tight, you could really venture into places and get up close if you so desired. Ever since then, I have noticed fences, padlocks, cameras, and warning signs multiplying like crazy but it still doesn’t mask the allure and history of these landscapes. There is something about the whole vibe of this area from an aesthetic and architectural standpoint that just makes it so interesting. Its the scale, the feel, the colors, the textures, and the mix of manmade industry and nature trying to coincide that produces a landscape that cannot be duplicated in any other way.
Visit these places during any weekday when the sun is up, and it is a bustling traffic orchestra of trucks, boats, trains, and heavy equipment. Visit it on a weekend or at night and it takes on an entire new persona as things quiet down somewhat and the scenery is left off where it stopped on the last workday, waiting for Monday to come again and pick back up right where it left off.
Some of the more notable details of these areas I really admire is the architecture. The new industrial structures sometimes lend to simple and utilitarian forms,
but it’s the older structures that really are a sight. The industrial revolution era structures that have stood the test of not only time, but weather, nature, chemical, use, and abuse that are still standing to some degree or another to this day. Although dilapidated, crumbling, vandalized, and left for dead, many of these structures still show their original character if you look close enough almost as if they are still telling a story. Now I admit that I do not know a lot of the history of these places, I am just a casual observer drawn to the shapes and setting, but I often cannot help but go there and stand and imagine what it must have been like when it was running full steam. Freshly built, newly painted, machinery and workers making, welding, riveting, pouring, and doing whatever they did back then. Cranes lifting, tanks gurgling, trains coming in and out, all of it must have been amazing to see from someone who was not exposed to it on a daily basis. I’m sure many of the workers took their surrounding for granted on the level that I am describing, perhaps to them it was just a job, but what exists now in the wake of all that is spectacular.
Most of the old buildings are made from brick, and good brick, hand laid brick, and they are giant in scale. To look at it and just think, not even count, but think that teams of men laid each brick by hand, one by one. Not even that, but they did it with style, they put some soul into it, be it an arch over the windows, columns around a doorway, a stagger around a corner. Back then it seemed that doing things with a little more heart and panache was acceptable as opposed to today where cost and time has taken precedence over making something last and look good just in order to get it up and running as fast and as cheaply as possible. It is a shame to see such magnificent buildings left to decay and be forgotten only to become victims of vandalism, dumped garbage, squatters, and scrappers.
On more than a few occasions, while venturing in these places, I have run into some people that either are working, passing through, stripping it, living in it, or defacing it.
Most of the time our paths cross amicably, and maybe have some short conversation, but I always wonder if they see the place in the same light that I do.
Stand in an empty hallway wide enough for a truck to pass through, and imagine what once filled the halls.
Open a sliding warehouse door that is steel clad and think how you could never buy a door like that today at Home Depot.
See the tiles still on the walls, even after all these years of weather and neglect and it makes you wonder, how these tiles are still sticking, yet the ones in my bathroom at home that were put up 5 years ago are falling off the wall.
Walk up to a concrete support column and smack it with your hand, its dead solid, not some hollow, stamped tin, sheetrock covered eyesore.
Look up at the light fixtures, steel dishes with thick cages over them , housing giant incandescent bulbs, heck even the light switches to them on are solid and cool.
The floors if not thick concrete are wide wood planks, that although have seen decades of dirty oily use, still fit tight and have no gaps or warpage….see if your Pergo laminate floor holds up like that. The windows, big sprawling, detailed frame windows, most of which are smashed unfortunately, but you can see they allow light to pour in and illuminate what was once a functioning space.
Everything about these areas is grand and heavy in scale, and have endured so many years of service that it has impregnated a story into every last corner of it. It’s almost surreal to stand alone in the middle of one of these buildings, with half of a wall blown out, windows broken, listening to the wind blow a sheet of steel up against the wall, hearing drops of water fall into a puddle form the leaking roof. To stand in an empty lot where there once stood a factory that you passed by for so long and now all that remains is a few 50 gallon drums, and the old evidence of a cobblestone road and a rail from a train track that disappear gradually underneath the soil and rubble. To climb up and sit on a rusted truck that is being consumed with brush, tires flat, windshield kicked out, and a musty smell in the cab. To stand on the edge of an old dock, with a half sunk tugboat poking out of the mud, and the steel sea wall rusted away to nothing under your feet, as a barge floats by out on the river 100 yards away. To come across an old train switching station that is no longer used and see the old machinery and switches left behind from another time, all the while hearing the howls from the tires 75 feet above from the N.J Turnpike.
I could go on and on. There is a beautiful calmness when you stand in a place like this and you hear the faint sounds of nature combing over it, and you look around and your eyes see nothing but the evidence of a manmade industrial habitat that has now been passed by and left without a second thought. Its a dichotomy because what you are seeing shows so much signs of use and action, yet what you hear and smell is nothing, just quiet and a fresh breeze.
Well, now I’m starting to get all philosophical and deep, and thats not what I am aiming for here. The purpose of this post is to focus on photography and to hopefully shed some light to any readers who may have never once thought to take notice of the world that lies down in the marshes, across the river, in that neighborhood you never drive through, off that exit you never took, down that street with all those trucks, behind that factory you always see the smoke pouring from. You may never have such a desire to see it for yourself, but I would like to go on record and say I have, and I think it is what makes N.J unique. These places have a soul, and all you have to do is look for it.
Now without further words, I will let the images tell the rest of the story.