New Jersey Is Not Such an Armpit

We wrap up Philly Fighting Words Week with a heartfelt plea to stop harshing the Garden State.

Photo: IShootPhotos/Getty Images

Photo: IShootPhotos/Getty Images

Like many native Philadelphians, I grew up thinking of New Jersey as part of Philly.

There were trips to Great Adventure’s safari, where an ostrich almost pecked me to death. There were Boardwalk rides in Ocean City. There was shopping at the Cherry Hill Mall, back when we didn’t have malls of our own. There were hikes in the Pine Barrens, ghost stories of the Jersey Devil, and numerous visits to relatives in Elizabeth (a town I liked for its name).

I had no animus toward New Jersey as a kid and found it strange to learn — via TV, movies, stand-up comedy — that everyone else did; that it was a national sport. People would make faces with just a mention of it — as if they’d eaten a lemon by mistake. I moved away and heard it in New York, Florida, Ohio, Texas, even in Europe. I came back and learned from friends that Old City had been “taken over” by loud people looking to get laid — people from New Jersey (because we certainly don’t have people like that in Philly).

How had I grown up in proximity to such a terrible state and made it out alive?

When my angler boyfriend moved here from Chicago and bought a boat, he brought no preconceived Jersey notions with him — only a fisherman’s eye.

In our nine years together, we spent virtually every weekend exploring South and Central New Jersey, our lodgings ranging from historical inns and roadside motels to state-park yurts and spindle-legged shacks in marshes. We walked miles through woods and over hot sand to find deserted spits of land lapped by warm water. We took the boat out into flat water only to make a sudden turn into a bright green blanket of lily pads.

I snapped endless photos of jellyfish and sea creatures, osprey colonies off of coastal dunes, waterfalls and rapids. People would marvel: “Where did you take that?”

Their disbelief prompted me to start a Flickr gallery called “Stop Harshing New Jersey,” where I posted not just the secret gardens my boyfriend and I discovered, but many more-accessible places ignored by Jersey cynics. Places like the Delaware Water Gap — miles of breathtaking trails and valleys and river falls. And the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, a birder’s paradise with a wildlife drive. (I like drives, as I am lazy.)

I fell in love with rural Delaware Bay’s fishing and oystering towns, like Greenwich on the banks of the Cohansey River. Brick farmhouses, country roads, wetlands, and Colonial and Victorian architecture on a historically registered main street — all in one little town. And there was so much more.

New Jersey helped me shed the city and reconnect with nature and with quiet. It’s not just the turnpike out there.

We’ve got plenty more Philly heresies where that came from in our “Fighting Words” package. See the lineup here, then go buy the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today.