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Lore of the Turnpike

From The Sopranos to artist Tony Smith, design scholar Susan Yelavich maps the Turnpike as a culture-shifting behemoth in Issue 1.


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Photograph by Dana Yurcisin from his photo essay "Ways Beyond Roads."
Film still of The Sopranos opening credits (1997-2007).

How does a highway become a pop culture icon? Design scholar and critic Susan Yelavich helps us make sense of the New Jersey Turnpike’s fame in her Issue 1 essay “Lore of the Turnpike.” From studying design’s role in building the future to its role in the stories we tell, Yelavich understands the power of interstate design to impact culture. As a Jerseyan, she also understands the Turnpike’s reputation. Her essay, reprinted here, invites us beyond nostalgia, judgment, and one-liners to consider how this iconic roadway reflects the complexities of an entire nation.

 

You have to drive through us at some point.

—Jason Jones, “Garden Statement,” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart


True, but if you’re on the New Jersey Turnpike, you have to stop at tolls. You’ll gas up at a rest area and find yourself choosing between bad and worse options in a food court. And unless you’re comatose, you’ll look out the window of whatever you’re riding in.


Only a highway engineer (or a comedian) could think of the Turnpike just as a way to get from point A to B, or as 117.2 miles of asphalt untainted by anything around it. The comedian’s joke works because of what we’re driving past. The engineer is only concerned with what we’re driving on. (Apparently, the people who work at the Turnpike Authority see it as completely separate from its surroundings.)

The culture of the road was destined to be overtaken by the culture of the roadside.

As myopic as it seems, the engineer’s isolationism grows out of a larger cultural zeitgeist: utopian modernism, an aesthetic liberated from stories. Painting was color on canvas; sculpture was bent metal. This was an article of faith among artists like the sculptor Tony Smith (1912-1980). Flashback to the early 1950s when Smith took his first ride on the still unfinished Turnpike:


It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive … did something for me that art had never done. — "Talking with Tony Smith," Artforum, Dec. 1966


The euphoric Smith believes the Turnpike has no cultural precedent, no other points of reference. Yet, he can’t help calling out the ‘stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights.’


Film still of The Sopranos opening credits (1997-2007).

The culture of the road was destined to be overtaken by the culture of the roadside. Not roadside attractions, but banal agglomerations of exit ramps, frontage roads, rest stops, refineries, swamps, and shipping containers. Turnpike-specific and Turnpike-adjacent, they populate the lore of movies, television shows, poems, songs, and, yes, jokes, about New Jersey’s infamous artery. Some are set even a mile or more away from the Turnpike proper. But since they share the same psycho-geography, I count them too.


Ask around and you’ll be told that the Turnpike was the location of the scene from the Godfather (1972) where Clemenza says “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” (It was in Liberty State Park.) For my part, I was sure that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s fight in Broadway Danny Rose (1984) was shot off the Turnpike. (That was Morris Pesin Drive in Jersey City.) In both cases, and surely countless more, the common denominator is the Meadowlands. In fact, the Turnpike does cut through its swamps, ferrying the imagination to the underworld’s buried bodies.


The Turnpike’s criminal bona fides would be cemented in 1999 by The Sopranos. It opens with New Jersey capo Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) driving out of the Lincoln Tunnel, getting on the Turnpike, paying his toll, and heading back to his fractious family, his therapist, and his fiefdom of strip joints, butcher shops, restaurants, and, no surprise, waste haulage. After watching those credits for eight searing seasons, I doubt the Turnpike, any more than the mob, can ever go legit. I will always see it through Tony’s windshield.

Of course, a crucial piece of New Jersey’s identity is that it’s not New York.

Crime becomes punishment in Being John Malkovich. Released the same year as the Soprano’s debut, the film plays with trope of the Turnpike-as-dumping ground—not for gangsters, but for office workers who buy tickets to spend 15 minutes inside of real-life actor John Malkovich. Tellingly, each journey begins in a tunnel and ends with ticket holders spit out in front of the Turnpike’s toxic gas works, wannabes banished to purgatory.


Of course, a crucial piece of New Jersey’s identity is that it’s not New York. For Bruce Springsteen, the opera’s on the Turnpike and the ballet’s a fight in an alley. Although, he’s hardly the only bard to throw a gauntlet down to Gotham. That most of us know the Boss but not James Baker Hall (1935-2009) makes “The Poet Finds an Ephemeral Home in a Truck Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, ca.1970” that much more poignant.


Just look out there in the lot, dozens

of trailer trucks, each of them—

covered with road dirt; monumental

cartes blanches is what they are!

I see myself out there zapped up

like a billboard painter writing poems

on the dirty sides of the those trailers

Just think of all the people who’ll read that!

Abstract expressionism in the Chase Manhattan,

and now poetry, poetry! On M&M trucks—


Film still of Being John Malkovich (1999).

Words on a page can’t compete with Abstract Expressionist canvases in Manhattan. Except in this revenge fantasy, they do: the Turnpike’s trucks are going to publish the poet on an epic scale, and far more democratically. Better yet, the mobility underwritten by the Turnpike would secure his status as the people’s poet, read by folks all across America. If only.


America. Looking for it on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1968. You’ll find it in Simon and Garfunkel’s sweetly mournful song about two teenagers on a Greyhound bus looking for the dubious promise of an America, whose ideals were being eroded by racism, poverty and war. Even now, it makes me want to weep. Yet, they ‘all come to look for America.’ They still do. In this version of its story, the Turnpike is an equal-opportunity conveyor belt for dreamers, most of them on their way to somewhere else.


But what about those who stayed—and who come to stay? The Turnpike goes through stretches of New Jersey that are home to multiple generations who remained close to their port of entry—my grandparents among them. Their dreams may have been circumscribed by the demands of just getting on with things, but they were no less ambitious in their search for America. It’s just that they bequeathed the luxury of ruminating on those ambitions to their children. Such is the pragmatism and poetry that continues to shape the New Jersey Turnpike, where for the price of a toll we can ‘all go to look at America.’

 

Susan Yelavich was born in New Jersey, one year before the Turnpike opened. She is now Professor Emerita of Design Studies at Parsons School of Design. Her most recent book is Thinking Design through Literature. Her other writings are at SusanYelavich.com.


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Issue One