Book Reviews


 

The Meadowlands -- Wilderness Adventures 
at the Edge of a City

Review by Rich Sheppard

 

If you've never set foot in New Jersey's Hackensack Meadowlands - New York City's Okie trailer-like front yard - journalist Robert Sullivan's "The Meadowlands" is a suitable and whimsical introduction to that quirky splotch of urbanity-surrounded wilderness. For most readers, this boggy unfamiliar realm is how the author describes it: a nearly uninhabitable patch of land, perhaps only glimpsed through a plane window as you land at Newark Airport from the north, or from your car window as you soar over the grassy flat lands on the elevated N.J. Turnpike.

"...absorbing tales of failed water and development projects, ferocious mosquitoes, and an occasionally off-balance bunch of characters who work in, study, and precariously live within this abused but beautiful sanctuary."

Weaving legend and fact in sprightly and complimentary fashion, Sullivan effortlessly maintains his readers' focus on metropolitan New York's until-now anonymous and peacefully empty swampy morass. Meadowlands natives (including this reviewer) will appreciate the author's odd curiosity for his subject and his never-flagging enthusiasm for this sometimes unpleasant wasteland. His research into the history of these meadows - followed up with cheerfully ambitious field trips - produces absorbing tales of failed water and development projects, ferocious mosquitoes, and an occasionally off-balance bunch of characters who work in, study, and precariously live within this abused but beautiful sanctuary. There is a humorous encounter with a man of uncertain sanity swimming in the unknowable awfulness of Meadowlands water. (I can claim a similar questionable feat during a younger day!)

This reviewer especially enjoyed those episodes which brought the author to areas of great familiarity: a closed slaughterhouse, Snake Hill, and various Secaucus haunts and waterways. Sullivan's search for the rubble of Manhattan's Penn Station is a worthy quest indeed; his joy at his discoveries will doubtless inspire more than a few natives (including this one) to follow in his footsteps. On balance, this is a recommended book for anyone remotely curious about the urban vs. environmental debate (although Sullivan treads a bit lightly he! re), or the interaction of massed population with an unpopulated natural habitat. For those who like mystery, among others there is the tragic tale of a detective's reluctant account of a murdered young woman. Her body was found in a remote Meadowlands location beneath the Pulaski Skyway - the mighty arching black steel bridgeway that spans the southern Meadowlands and two rivers in linking New York City and Newark.

Improvements to the work might have included additional history and accounts of two of the most successful projects in the Meadowlands: the Giants Stadium sports complex completed in the early '80s, and the enormous Bulk Postal Facility built in the early 1970s. These undertakings demonstrated that big dreams (and big dollars) could overbuild the Meadowlands. In addition, the lone hand-drawn map at the front of the book scarcely provides the perspective, scale, or detail that could only enhance (particularly for the native) the adventures Mr. Sullivan describes so well. Today, further development in the form of a massive rail transfer station and office complex are set for groundbreaking in the Meadowlands; it remains despite its sogginess and uncertain environmental quality a land of promise and change. Looking ahead, Sullivan has set a high standard for anyone who will come along in, say, fifty or seventy-five years, to attempt a similar feat of imaginative writing about the lonely and perhaps vanishing "Meadowlands."