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Getting Dense with Gabrielle Esperdy

Author and architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy gives us her first-person account why New Jersey is one very complicated place to love.

Image courtesy of Gabrielle Esperdy.

Multi-hypenate Gabrielle Esperdy has an uncanny perspective on the Garden State, whether she’s diving into the meaning behind Springsteen’s lyrics or at the helm as the interim Dean of NJ’s largest architecture and design program. At the slightest mention of a car trip down the Turnpike, she’s queuing up an itinerary full of rest stops and landmarks that will have you slowing down to a legal speed limit. She may have grown up in Philadelphia and moved to in Manhattan, but it’s the “city” in between that excites her most. Her Issue One piece entitled The City of New Jersey is a daring argument to reconsider New Jersey as the new urban landscape of the future, and if our latest merch drop is any indication, we are here for it.

In our next edition of “Getting Dense,” our new video spotlight series, Dense asks Esperdy a series of rapid-fire questions to help you get to know her a little better. Come along as Esperdy shows off her Jersey acumen, from how to cross the deadly streets of NJ, to why she came back to Bruce Springsteen.

The video highlights just a few of our questions, but you absolutely must read the full interview below.


DENSE: Please introduce yourself!

GABRIELLE ESPERDY: Hi, I'm Gabrielle Esperdy. I am a Professor of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the Interim Dean of the Hillier College of Architecture and Design.

DENSE: Where are you right now?

GE: Right now, I am sitting in my living room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, directly facing the Hudson River and New Jersey. If I crane my neck a little bit, I can see the Palisades. New Jersey is a constant reference.

DENSE: What are you reading these days?

GE: I’m reading two books in addition to trying to get through a stack of New Yorkers. Right now, I am reading Eddie Glaude's book about James Baldwin in America, and its urgent lessons for today called, “Begin Again.” And I'm also reading a really charming collection of stories by Tom Hanks, all of which feature a typewriter.

DENSE: What threads are you fashioning right now?

GE: I am wearing a tight white t-shirt, a tank top ‘cause it's going be cold on the train and I'm about to leave here and get on the train to go back to Asbury Park. I'm wearing an old white shirt that one needs in the air conditioning. I'm wearing a brand new pair of Jack Purcells that I recently bought at the Converse store. And a pair of groovy Mason Sony shorts, that used to be Mason Sony pants. But they hit my leg in a bad way, so I turned them into shorts, and now they look super fly.

DENSE: How do you see New Jersey as a lens for understanding the broader world?

GE: It's the state where virtually everything that has happened in the United States, and one could argue globally with respect to industrialization, deindustrialization, segregation, getting beyond segregation. All of these have happened in New Jersey at one time or another. It’s also a kind of testing case. New Jersey is a place that has been constantly imagined and reimagined, as utopia and as dystopia. And for that reason as an architectural and urban historian, New Jersey is really essential to the way that I understand the world.

DENSE: What have you been listening to? Any songs stuck in your head?

GE: We just got back from a road trip! New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana to Illinois and back. We listened to an Apple playlist for Pride that was seven hours of gay dance music. It was awesome. But the song that's stuck in my head is “I Got You, Babe.” Both the Sonny and Cher version, and the later – and preferred – UB40 version. It's a long story why that stuck in my head, but that is what is stuck in my head at present.

DENSE: What side are you on the eternal pork product debate?

GE: Ah, the conundrum of Taylor Ham versus pork roll. I grew in Philadelphia, so it’s scrapple for me!

DENSE: Where do you stand on Jersey bagels?

GE: I do not eat bagels in New Jersey or anywhere outside of the five boroughs. Not even in Montreal, where they have those weird Montreal bagels. The best bagel store in the world is a block away from me on 107th and Broadway. Absolute Bagels, hands down. It's all about the water.

DENSE: Okay! Does that rule out any favorite diners?

GE: Man, I don't eat at diners anymore! But I love and appreciate them.

DENSE: Any NJ crushes you’re willing to confess?

GE: I'm not embarrassed to say this, proud in fact, that it’s going to be Bruce Springsteen. I grew up in Philadelphia. I moved to New York. Bruce was the soundtrack of my adolescence. I moved away from him at a certain point after “Born In The USA” came out because I wasn't sure that what I perceived as his overly masculine working class ethos was really something that I could connect with. But I returned to him later as a kind balladeer of American stories that I now realize has been a kind of guiding light for me.

​​DENSE: What about any Jersey vices?

GE: That would have to be Rutt’s Hut in Clifton. Those seared "Texas wieners"? They're awesome. If only I could go there once a week.

DENSE: We have a funny feeling what you’ll say, but do you have a favorite Jersey boardwalk?

GE: Hands down, Asbury Park! It's a mile long, there’s amazing architecture along it, and amazing evidence of urban transformation. It's got a wonderful mix of old and new, a wonderful mix of people and best part is that it’s a couple of blocks from my house.

DENSE: Any go-to boardwalk foods?

GE: Soft serve. But actually more specifically, Mogo Tacos. Shout out Mogo Tacos in Asbury Park! Favorite boardwalk food, now and forever.

DENSE: Your greatest inspiration?

GE: Every teacher I've ever had in some way is an inspiration to me. I am forever learning from James Baldwin and Tony Morrison. And Bruce Springsteen. Barack Obama, both in terms of real and unfulfilled promises. Michelle Obama, my forever First Lady. Those are some of the people who inspire me each and every day.

DENSE: What favorite pastimes would we find you up to?

GE: I have many favorites. Cooking is one of them. Running. I love to run, not like in a competitive way, but just to get out there and experience a city, to experience nature, to experience a boardwalk. Although it's flat down the shore. But I love running in the Palisades across the George Washington Bridge.

DENSE: Care to share a best-kept secret about NJ?

GE: The profound diversity of its landscapes. It's got the craziest densest urban places. It has places of pristine, natural beauty. Going to the pinelands is revelatory for anyone.

DENSE: What tips do Jersey newbies need to know?

GE: How to survive in New Jersey is a tough thing because I say that as a person of privilege, so it's not hard for me to survive in New Jersey. I think the street smarts that one acquires here is a trick to survival. That, and understanding that you're a part of the most important metropolitan areas in the effing world. New York wouldn't be New York without New Jersey.

One might also say, how do you survive as a pedestrian in New Jersey is by constantly using your hands. Never cross the street without your hands in front of you, because that SUV is not gonna stop for you.

DENSE: Does Central Jersey exist?

GE: Yes! I believe that it is the area that is immediately adjacent to the old dividing line between East and West Jersey, and I love the fact that is as confusing an answer as one can possibly give. It's like searching for a unicorn, I think. It does exist. Or maybe it's more like pornography: you know it when you see it.

DENSE: What shocks you about NJ?

GE: That not everyone has teased hair. That's a shocking fact. Not everyone dyes their hair. And that everything you've ever seen on television about New Jersey is both true and absolutely false.

DENSE: What would shock us about you?

GE: I'm an excellent maker of pasta, which I got from my Italian grandmother who didn't have a New Jersey connection, except that when she was a kid, she picked cranberries in the Pinelands. I suppose somehow it also entered my blood through my grandfather, who was baptized in the Basilica in Newark. Talk about New Jersey connections!

DENSE: What do people get wrong about NJ?

GE: Just about everything. Sadly, insanely, New Jersey suffers from an outsized inferiority complex. The most underappreciated thing about New Jersey is New Jersey. I say, own your greatness! So important.

DENSE: What places in the world remind you of NJ?

GE: Every place in the world. New Jersey is ubiquitous in its sociocultural and geographical morphology. Many years ago I was in Tel Aviv. I was going on a tour through the White City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tour guide was giving us an overview of Israel and of Tel Aviv, and he said, “Just for reference, Israel is about the size of New Jersey,” and I thought, “Wow, I love the fact that is such a ubiquitous reference.” Now, admittedly, we were an English-speaking crowd, but it was a global audience. That tells you how significant New Jersey is to global culture.

DENSE: For someone who’s back and forth between Manhattan and the Jersey shore, you must have some good landmarks along the way. Tell us about them.

GE: Without a doubt. The view of Snake Hill as you snake around it. Absolute landmark! Then the long vista, where you see the majesty of the Pulaski Skyway. The key moment for me is when you’re on this amazing elevated highway going over the Hackensack Meadows and the Newark Meadows. Absolutely splendid.

DENSE: Ok, take us out on this last question. What fantasy car are you driving down the Turnpike, and what’s blaring from the speakers?

GE: The car I would most like to drive on the Turnpike is the car I'm driving on the Turnpike. It's a 2019 Mini Cooper S, hardtop, manual transmission, burnt orange. Fabulous car for driving on the Turnpike. There's only one song to listen to on the Turnpike, which is Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Because the line, “counting cars in on the New Jersey Turnpike,” brings a tear to my eye, and I mean that quite seriously.


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