Field Trip to the Meadowlands
Overland Swamp Tour in New Jersey

301 Students clean the snow off the new interpretive marker at Snake Hill, on the Hackensack River. CLUI photo THE CLUI LED A FIELD trip of students from Philadelphia’s Temple University into the Meadowlands of New Jersey one cold day last January. The trip was part of a workshop, called The Philadelphia Experiment, organized by Chris Taylor, who along with Bill Gilbert of the University of New Mexico, developed the field program Land Arts of the American West. It truly was, in a sense, an experiment, to apply some of the practices of site specific work developed in the west, to urban eastern landscapes.

The Meadowlands is a progenerative place of landscape art, the closest open landscape to Manhattan. As such, it was a place where notions of site/nonsite and “art tourism” of the sort established by 1960s and 1970s artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Nancy Holt, has its origins.

For the CLUI, this was also an opportunity to experiment with guiding groups through this untamed space. The Meadowlands is one of the most difficult places to travel in. It exists as layers of transience, through and over, with just a few established ways to stop and get involved. Transportation is funneled to specific places, but the interstitial is bypassed. That’s what makes it so overlooked, and so compelling.

The trip began with the drive up from Philadelphia, despite the ominous looming of a heavy snowstorm forecast. The group, in two white vans, flew through the Meadowlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, getting a overview of where we would spend our day. At Exit 16W, at the north end of the Meadowlands, we disenturnpiked, and like a ball in a pinball machine, came out of the slot to begin our trip bouncing from pin to pin, site to site, slowly dropping down to the bottom, the southern end, game over.

At the exit, we looped around Giants Stadium and Continental Arena, massive edifices of spectacle—and the latest addition to this cluster, in a frozen sea of parking space, a still unfinished recreational mall with the nation’s first indoor ski slope, an epic erection rising out of the paved swamp, called Xanadu.

Then Highway 3 to Hillside Cemetery, an open space at the top of the escarpment that runs along the west side of the Meadowlands, for an orientation briefing and overlook. The view from the cemetery reaches across the foreground flats all the way to the skyscraper tips of Manhattan. The view from Robert Smithson’s grave surpasses the view from Joey Ramone’s.

From this point, we plunged down through office parks with businesses which make acrylic motivational trophies, and through dumping grounds for demolished debris, and head to a visitor center for another version of the Meadowlands. The visitor center is at the headquarters of the Meadowlands Commission, the agency that manages the redevelopment of the area. Here the Environment Center provides line-of-sight tubes, canted plaques, and walking trails on the edge of a restored marsh, next to landfill that is struggling to become a golf course. On the way out we stop in at the gift shop for stuffed bears and scientific toys.

From there we bounced around a variety of landings, landfills, and landmarks, including Laurel Hill, the Pulaski Skyway, the lonely and monumental Secaucus Transit Terminal, the Honeywell hazardous waste site, the Hudson Generating Station coal-fired power plant, and busy battered truck logistics yards. We eat lunch at a truck stop diner called The Truck Stop Diner.

On departure, we fly over Newark Bay on the Bayonne Bridge, which offers a view of the sinking wrecks at Mariner’s Harbor, then we transect and circle Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest in the land, which becomes increasingly, then entirely, obscured in the coming snowstorm. Curtains closed, we drop back down the New Jersey Turnpike, through the fuzzy red glow of taillights and slush, to Philadelphia.

The trip was part of the workshop Performing Land Arts: The Philadelphia Experiment, which itself was part of Field Reports: Documents and Strategies from Land Arts of the American West, a concurrent exhibit at Temple Gallery, in Philadelphia, January - February 2009, organized by Chris Taylor.