#142 The Wizard Returns, Then and Now
Just a few months shy of 50 years ago I began a project that came to be called “The Wizard In Garbageland.” It was a photoessay about the New Jersey meadows shot mostly during the spring term of 1965 while I was studying ‘photojournalism’ ( a class that had nothing to do with the real shoulder monkey) with the late Joseph Briechtenbach at the New School For Social Research in NYC.
Minus018-85OldBulldog06©WEB–Enduring Mack truck.
I’d wandered around the meadows region with my friend Z. Arktos and our cameras both before and after the New School spring term and it has been our intent ever since to return to work on this again . A half century of life has intervened. Our life ties are now elsewhere. I had no idea at the time that as an august a true photojournalist as Bruce Davidson was working on the same subject at the same time…a minor parenthesis in his vitea.
2112SawtoothRoof©WEB–A feature of old style industrial architecture to maximize natural north light and optimize heating and cooling by sun and wind.
The entire region of northern New Jersey east of the Watchung ridge was regarded by sophisticated society as a vast cesspool…a charge not without foundation. The mineral, chemical and biological trashing of the region had proceeded, heedless, for a century. The environmental movement of the time probably just wrote the area off as a lost cause. Near the end of the century Robert Sullivan’s wonderful 1998 account of his explorations, “The Meadowlands,” (ISBN 0-684-83285-2) shows some signs that people were waking up to the importance of the region and we began to hear tales of artists lofts in former slaughterhouses and luxury housing with sunset views of the Manhattan skyline rising from the asbestos laden ashes of the Todd Shipyard in Hoboken.
In 1965 I was working with a Leica IIIf with 50mm Summitar lens for B&W (obsolete even) and the groundbreaking Nikon F with it’s awful 43-86mm zoom lens for various color slide films. Almost none of the color slides survived poor storage conditions seemed to actively encourage emulsion eating fungus growth. The B&W negatives, processed in various kitchens and bathrooms, fared only somewhat better. They have required extensive digital reconstruction after scanning.
Looking back at that old student work I’m heartstricken that I, at the time, so badly missed the point. I photographed the pollution, the garbage, the industries, the economic foundations of the metropolitan area, curiosities and such pockets of natural beauty as I could find, but Utterly Clueless, I did almost nothing interactively with the people I encountered there. There were a few exceptions. I realized the omission just a week or so before the term project was due…too late to shift emphasis. Now, much of that society is utterly gone.
During my most recent trip to New Jersey there was no option to go looking for interaction with people. The trip was already drastically over budget for time, money and metabolic energy; I had but hours and half a tank of gas before the need to beeline for home.
Still the comparisons were interesting. I spent my budget in the town of Harrison, interesting because it was an area I’d under-explored half a century ago that then contained some of the most dense concentration of fundamental industry on which the economy of the greater New York metropolitan area so heavily depended. What will it do now ? Also of interest, then and now, were the bridges connecting the City of Newark by rail lines to New York City. What had become of them…how had they fared ?
In the different world of 1965 we were ignored while wandering around such places with our cameras, but on this trip, using a “prosumer” digital SLR and some serious looking lenses, I was thoroughly vetted by a security agent after ignorantly pointing my lens a Federal office building. After a few initial questions convinced him I was no terrorist this contractors agent was outright friendly and told me lots about the history of the bridge. I was astounded to discover that it’s still considered so vital to the area transport infrastructure that it’s currently undergoing a major overhaul to remain in service another 50 or more years.
Not all the area is held so esteemed. Vast areas are in progress of condominization.
At least in the hours I could explore, all traces of working waterfronts seemed utterly gone.
Minus020-04CommercialVesselOnHackensack©WEB–~1970. “Black Cloud” of ‘St. Pete’, FLA ? What was her cargo ?
In past years of riding commuter trains from the suburbs further inland across the meadows to Ferry crossings to Manhattan made me familiar with some of the basic industries. The ferry boats are long gone; you take “the Tubes.”
2147FuelStorageOffMcCarterHwy©WEB In this place my grandfather and great uncle
loaded lumber on a one horse buckboard and hauled it to
a building site in Nutley, NJ
44BasculeBridgeOpen©WEB — Open, abandoned, maybe never to be used again.
It’s clear that many of these industries were environmental bad actors. A great deal of labor strife accompanied their prosperity. The often nameless and incomprehensible forces of the economy move on. Clearly the financial world feels that society needs the condo housing which is taking over the area. All the people will still need jobs…what will they do in the future when all the basic industries have moved off shore and there’s a great Red Bull of a sports stadium where the jobs used to be. ? Sell hot dogs ??
‘Nuff for Now: another job calls me away. Next Post: There’s a really extensive piece in the pipeline about industry in the New Jersey Pine Barrens from colonial and revolutionary times forward. It may be weeks before it’s finished.