An alternative view of Weehawken

Wanting to suggest an image of Weehawken, New Jersey more pleasant than our current thoughts about the savage rape and murder of Jennifer Moore in that small city across the Hudson from Manhattan in July 2006, I turn to William Carlos Williams’s 1917 poem, “January Morning”:

the domes of the Church of
the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken
against a smoky dawn—the heart stirred—
are beautiful as Saint Peter’s
approached after years of anticipation.

That’s lovely. But, as it turns out, we can’t get away from Moore’s murder and the sordid present so easily. Here are the final lines of the same poem (which I didn’t know or remember until I looked up the poem just now; all I remembered were the poem’s opening lines about the church in Weehawken):

Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
that’s the way it is with me somehow.

In 1917, the modernist poet Williams, finding beauty in the gray urban landscape of Weehawken, New Jersey and the more glamorous prospect of New York City, but also imagining a liberation, even if innocent, from bourgeois strictures of behavior, weirdly previsioned 18-year-old Jennifer Moore and 18-year-old Talia Kenan running amuck, wildly intoxicated, in the small hours of a July morning in Manhattan 89 years later, an adventure that led directly to Jennifer’s rape and murder by a black pimp in a Weehawken hotel.

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Laura W. writes:

I mean no disrespect to the good citizens of Weehawken, but the town is spectacularly ugly, the views of Manhattan aside. Any poet who tries to convince otherwise is lying through his teeth. Williams makes a yeomen’s effort, but he hardly persuades, especially with lines such as:

Work hard all your young days
and they’ll find you too, some morning
staring up under
your chiffonier at its warped
bass-wood bottom and your soul—

When I read of that murder, I thought, “Weehawken. Yes, of course.”

LA replies:

As a native northern New Jerseyan (though from the suburbs), I mildly, not passionately, protest. I drove and walked around Weehawken within the last couple of years, looking for the site of the Hamilton-Burr duel. Yes, it’s not pretty. But those gritty, broken-down old New Jersey towns have something to them. They are not devoid of … well, something.

Laura W. writes:

I used to live in New Jersey too and tried the “it’s gritty, but pretty” approach. I was lying to myself and cut it out after a while.

Of course, there is no place on earth that isn’t devoid of … well, something. Little signs of life, such as plastic trash bags aloft on the breeze, can seem miraculous and charming, especially when surrounded by deliberate ugliness. H.L. Mencken said Americans have a lust for the ugly. Travel many parts of this great nation and you have to agree. All that man-made hideousness is not accidental. It’s actively cultivated. Weehawken is hardly alone.

Laura continues:

I meant there’s no place on earth that is devoid of … well, something.

LA replies:

How about “T.S. Eliot in Weehawken”?

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
And I renounce the desire for a beautiful place
Because I cannot hope to see a single spot of beauty
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

LA continues:

In 1987 when I was in India for three weeks, I happened to spend an afternoon in the city of Ahmednagar (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), about 150 miles east of Bombay. I was looking for a store I had been told about where I could buy an Indian style shirt. Now Ahmednagar is not a place any tourist would choose to visit. Walking through the city was a dreary experience, The streets were crowded, dusty, there was not a single sight of beauty anywhere, nothing soft or colorful, nothing to relieve the senses.

Anyway, after I got to the store and a young salesman was helping me find a shirt, I said to him, “Where are the nice places in Ahmednagar”?

He answered: “There are no nice places in Ahmednagar.”

Adela G. writes:

You write:

“But those gritty, broken-down old New Jersey towns have something to them. They are not devoid of … well, something.”

I certainly agree with you there, although I think the something they’re not devoid of is probably the same something that causes people to wax eloquent in a vague passionless way about bowling.

On my only visit to New York, my host drove me into New Jersey one afternoon. I noticed the change in ambiance instantly from New York to New Jersey. It was not a change I would ever characterize as positive or even merely neutral. And it’s not that I was all that enamored of New York, either. Yet it was infinitely preferable to the aimless aggressiveness and defeated abrasiveness I sensed everywhere around me in the laughably nicknamed Garden State. New Jersey almost reminded me of East St. Louis, which is also not devoid of a certain something.

LA replies:

Of course, you’re talking about those old working class towns near New York City, like Weehawken, Newark, Jersey City. That’s only one corner of New Jersey.

Even in Weehawken, if you look, there are nicer streets with handsome and impressive homes. But for the most part, in that area of New Jersey, it’s as if nothing was built to have even a modicum of attractiveness.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

The discussion on Weehawken is intriguing. I’ve been looking at buildings (architecture) and cities ever since the Royal Ontario Museum planned its extension (now built) a few years ago.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry for Weehawken, one thing that struck me was that part of the apparently spectacular New Jersey Palisades is located there. Not one poet but two have written about the city—the other being Carl Sandburg, although admittedly Sandburg just mentions it. Dr. Seuss seemed a fan of sorts. Also a famous duel was fought there, as you mention. So it must have had some charm (something) at one point.

But, I must agree with Laura W. and Adela that there is something, I mean a negative something, about some North American (Canadian and American) small cities. There was perhaps expediency in expanding them in the 20th century. This kind of quick architecture, coupled with philosophies and ideas about architecture, produced some really ugly and desolate areas. I think Le Corbusier had something to do with this.

Currently, instead of desolate and ugly we are getting weird and alien. Since such buildings are expensive to build (although I think that will change soon), we usually see this in important structures like museums and cultural buildings—like Libeskind’s Toronto Royal Ontario Museum extension, and Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Here is also the really ugly and desolate (back to Le Corbusier again) Toronto Opera House completed in 2006. This is an opera house!

Architecture is, I think, a visceral projection of a people that demonstrates something of who it is by what it allows to be built in its towns and cities.

Adela G. writes:

You write: “Of course, you’re talking about those old working class towns near New York City, like Weehawken, Newark, Jersey City. That’s only one corner of New Jersey.”

Am I to infer that the other corners of NJ are an improvement on that one? That’s hardly a recommendation. Seldom have I visited an area so relentlessly dreary that the dreariness itself seemed to be a topographical feature of the region. It was like something out of Upton Sinclair by way of Edgar Allan Poe.

Frankly, I think even less of William Carlos Williams now that I know he wrote about it than I did before.

LA replies:

Wow, compared to you Attila the Hun was a liberal.

Adela replies:

I’m not sure what you mean by that, Mr. Auster.

After all, I did say I thought New York was “infinitely preferable” to New Jersey, which was pretty liberal of me, all things considered.

LA replies:

You are a wicked girl. :-)

Adela replies:

Wicked? No, like Dr. Williams, I merely found Weehawken inspirational.

By the way, you will recall the famous opening of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

I believe this is a revised version and the original continued thusly: “…the melancholy House of Usher, perversely situated on the dismal outskirts of a town which I viewed with a spasm of revulsion, a town doomed to no other distinction save that of being mired in a ubiquitous gloom that no amount of sunlight could dispel, and upon which a noxious ugliness had lain like a malignant miasma ever since its blighted founding; I allude, of course, to Weehawken, New Jersey.

William D. writes:

New Jersey’s reputation is undeserved. Years ago, I realized New Jersey’s great misfortune was to be wedged between New York City and Philadelphia. Trace a line between the two: the rot is concentrated at the poles, but it spreads along the axis. There is more to New Jersey than that, and I’m happy to say I’ve seen it and continue to enjoy it. I’ve been in every county in the state but one. I grew up on Long Island—and find myself drawn to the Pine Barrens. My roots are in Appalachia—and I can find myself driving through Sussex County (as, in fact, I was today) and think to myself, I could happily live here. New Jersey was always the butt of everyone else’s joke—even my friends from New Jersey were willing to go along. But it never made sense to me. New Jersey is not some vast monolith—it is (dare I say it?!) just about the most diverse state in the Northeast. If you can’t find it in New Jersey, give it up, because you’re not going to find it anywhere.

LA replies:

As a native New Jerseyan I second that and add: prejudice is a terrible thing. New Jerseyans are targets of constant anti-New Jersey bias. Once I knew a New Jerseyan who on moving out west told people he was from New York, in order to avoid the stigma of being from New Jersey. Such is the burden New Jerseyans carry.

APH writes:

It’s true, Weehawken does have a few tree-lined streets with nice homes. When I take the bus into the city and am approaching the Lincoln Tunnel helix, I always admire the public library. It has to be one of the cooler looking libraries in America—a massive Victorian structure perched precariously on a cliff!

LA replies:

Very nice! Take that, Adela, you anti-Jerseyite.

Adela G. writes:

You write: “As a native New Jerseyan I second that [William D’s objection to NJ’s reputation as a crummy state] and add: prejudice is a terrible thing. New Jerseyans are targets of constant anti-New Jersey bias.”

Agreed. But I had no prejudice at all either in favor of or against New Jersey prior to my spending a week there one afternoon. I’m afraid I’m geographically challenged, so I didn’t even know where exactly New Jersey was. And like any true mid-Westerner, I pay scant attention to people, places, and things east of the Mississippi, so I didn’t know anything of its reputation beyond its nickname: the Garden State.

It was my first-hand observations of New Jersey that so appalled me with its air of sullen defeat and rundown resentment.

But I wouldn’t have commented at all on this entry had I not been taken aback by your mounting a defense of a place so horrid that it really did strike me as out of Upton Sinclair by way of Edgar Allan Poe.

I can only add that if New Jersey has people like you to defend it, then it must have charms that eluded me (and countless others.) In fact, I feel sure there are more who share my view of N.J. than there are those who dissent from it. It’s extremely odd, therefore, that those few dissenters should all have congregated here.

The few. The proud. The New Jerseyans.

Whoa, just typing that felt strange and I can’t even read it without laughing.

LA replies:

Adela continues her crucifixion of the Garden State.

Adela replies:


Really, Mr. Auster, you surprise me. Apparently you have taken a leaf from that other blog, you know, the one I once rather insouciantly characterized as a “nest of whacked-out liberals.”

What next? I suppose you’ll describe my lack of enthusiasm for the Garden State as a “holocaust.”

LA replies:

A., you’re relentless, you’ve got to stop this, my sides are hurting from laughing.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 26, 2009 09:46 PM | Send

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