Interstate Effects on the Edge of the Wilderness Human

Author: Dean P. Johnson

A small stretch of highway divides an impovershed city on the verge of decay and serves as a road to greater understanding of the human condition.

North is the star so close that it sparks the spirit into believing it is attainable.

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When I drive along I-676, a tract of north/south roadway that connects NJ State Highway Route 42 to Interstate 76, running parallel to the Delaware River between the Walt Whitman and Benjamin Franklin Bridges in Camden, New Jersey, I think, how absurd it is to put a highway right overtop a community, every day I use it.

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If environment means the entire surroundings in which we all live, then a habitat supplanted by a thoroughfare overlay is simultaneously a way out and is no way out: the paradox of poverty. We become habituated to roads.

According to Dr. Reed Noss, Davis-Shine Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Central Florida, and author of the book, Saving Nature�s Legacy, the environment�s inhabitants adapt. In his paper �The Ecological Effects of Roads,� Dr. Noss says, �Although animals that are acclimated to roads and vehicles do not waste energy reserves in flight response, some of them become aggressive toward people.� And while some accept roads as a condition of living, others do not. �Some species of animals simply refuse to cross barriers as wide as a road,� Dr. Noss says in his paper, one of over two hundred he has published. Noss claims that roads fragment populations making the separated smaller populations vulnerable to �problems associated with rarity� including genetic deterioration, random drift, fluctuations in habitat conditions and demographic stochasticity. If environment means the entire surroundings in which we all live, we must include ourselves along with every microcosmic bit of dust.

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That moment, the one just before dawn, not quite darkest, ushers the beaten spirit into belief however, it is as fleeting as first light that seconds into day. That moment, the one just before dawn, the stars dip down so close they barely taste the ground while a series of brilliant lights extend up to meet the stars in plead or prayer. That moment, the one just before dawn, the spirit is a pyramid in nature where pyramids seldom grow like wildfires that sway under thickening ground-clouds. Mankind still builds pyramids not unlike the old, but they occur today in nature rarely seen with properties set in finite Greek of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. The best laid plans of academies are best charted endless by those zealous stars with each single point an apex, its crucible own, not one more important than the next, a flashpoint, Midas� touch, Michelangelo�s reach, being sanctioned, nourished even, on all sides like a pyramid in nature ascending no mere spirit but that of a microcosmic bit of dust upon which will be forged imminent giants of such mammoth proportions that few will ever notice one stone on which the rest was built, but, had it not been there, impossible to disregard.

That moment, the one just before dawn, north is optimistic except the air is not right. Pockets cool the spirit into believing in progress, but these hints have slipped in under the sepulcher of night. Even autumn cannot tint the air. Thickness lingers, dulls the crisp alertness of October morning.

Onyx to pewter the sky amends, too late for the spirit to do anything about it. The stars fade, but this, too, is missed. They are only gone. The lights dim and there emerge great industrious towers whose images sharpen with each moment passed. Dawn holds her sickle high, tingeing the very tops of the towers burnt orange reflecting down bright upon homes, homes, homes, homes, these homes, these are homes, Rockwellian spirit shackled, reflecting off flat rooftops painted white. Across the river glass skyscrapers burn orange and almost warm the spirit into belief, but then she sweeps the sickle down, down, down, slicing the very roots in a single flash, illuminating belief into truth: north is three lanes.

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Known as FAI Corridor 109, I-380, I-80S, I-76, the current I-676 carries about 60,000 vehicles daily through the city of Camden, most of which never find themselves stopping, they are always passing through.

The highway was planned to provide a safer and faster alternative to the urban surface streets below, and from inception to completion, its progress was often impeded.

In 1932, a plan by the Regional Planning Federation (a predecessor of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) proposed a parkway that would extend from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden, southeast to Atlantic City. The plan was comparable to those of Robert Moses, master twentieth century builder who constructed, among other things, limited access four-lane parkways around New York City. The Camden-Atlantic City parkway did not have the political clouts as did the projects of Robert Moses and so the parkway was nothing but a dotted line on a map of Southern New Jersey until after World War II.

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The city of Camden has a population of nearly 80,000. According to the 2000 census, the average household income is $23,421 the poverty rate is 33.2% ranking Camden the poorest municipality in the State of New Jersey and the second poorest in the United States of America.

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I am driving along Interstate 676 North through the fog at dawn when the top layer is tinged with crimson and the bottom layer is thick with the cheating light of a new day enveloped with the serenity of the soft emptiness that lies ahead speeding and hoping to see it in time.

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Driving is like riding a poem: the road twists through recesses of subconscious layers of cityscape whose terrain varies as does rationalization and denial, creeping cautiously around each curve, hesitant to continue, fearing where it will lead, compelled to follow the signs � words � only to find the next curve the need to stop and turn-around overwhelms, and so in redirection � revising � rewriting � the potholes, exposing vulnerable ground, may be filled, guidelines on fresh pavement may be painted, cautionary reflectors may be installed and street signs my be erected � showing the way to we who dare follow pioneering thought and chancing misdirection � misinterpretation � becoming lost in the urban wilderness of ideas and risks our entire foundation of belief.

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This is the road I thought I began, believing I knew the way like the back of my hand, but the hand of my mind outlined turkeys for Thanksgiving and painted without brushes now in my rear view and the hands at ten and two are calloused, worn and yet still steer forward toward something remotely recognizable: a milepost, a landmark, but no road edge is ever twice passed the same � a forest, a field, a neighborhood, a single brown leaf flipped violently by the wake of the generation speeding ahead.

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Like the wheelbarrow upon which so much depends, the street, too, is glazed. The matte concrete and asphalt are varnished and softened, so much awash. Pissarro phantom, street lamps reveal tiny floating gems, falling so soft they hardly seem to touch the ground, but the glistening street proves otherwise. Dreary highway becomes the fresh and vibrant reciprocal of the skyway dreary. Industrial gray becomes regal silver polished browned and yellowed leaves become jeweled ornaments painted green signs overhead become emerald, second only to diamond glitter along the shoulder that, when the rain passes, will turn back into shards of broken glass and bits of peeled chrome from decades and generations of accidents.

In recesses in median soil, grooves worn smooth in passing lanes, holes where concrete crumbled, grates clogged with fragments of social pollution, road edges breaking down, puddles reflect idyllic incongruity exemplifying something terribly wrong, misplaced � a tragic error of man verses nature. Here the water goes but is disallowed. Pity the ground unblessed by not the clouds that linger, but those that pass.

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In the rain I wonder why I am so compelled to drive in the tracks left by the car in front of me. I don�t even have to try and I am following the exact path blazed ahead of me. All those cars ahead of me � hundreds, perhaps even generations � and in my rearview mirror one set of tracks cuts the glaze upon which so much depends, upon which I depend � try as I struggle not to.

***

Brittle crusts of ice on soft mature snow, black splashes frayed on hard white surfaces, leaves drooped low, brown, crisp and frozen, dripping solid tears lament the season�s passing. Things break down: Weeds grow into bushes, bushes into trees, trees into compost, compost into earth, earth into ashes, ashes into dust, dust into atoms, atoms into nostrils, nostrils into lungs, lungs into blood, blood into veins, veins into hands, hands into soil, soil into weeds, weeds grow into bushes. Along the side of the highway, heavy snow does not veil as it did when early winter, the magician that she is, masked shoulders, created illusions of smaller roads graded not raised, slowed the passing here, but now cans can and paper or plastic do show the promise of Elliotic spring.

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In the late 1940s the New Jersey State Highway Department wanted to link the Benjamin Franklin Bridge with the Southern New Jersey area and downtown Camden. The Federal Bureau of Public Roads chose a route along the current I-676 by the 1950s. Financial problems kept the project from development.

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Nature leaves her imprint upon the brittle ground, tiered and laced by the frosted dew of stars, silent, alone. Her Plathian paw print left fossilizes and is covered by debris like Pompeii. When the tutelary stratums erode, the swift sharpened claws of Nature divert with the left and eclipse with the right like the master magician she is, protecting her feeble-legged foal from the guilt, hopelessness, derailing, over-consuming lethargy that is the right-of-way within.

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This is the road I thought I began, believing motion meant progress, advancing gradually, convinced that each promotion was evidence of developing awareness but now in my rear view are the painted faces of those I thought would be with me along the way, those who said congratulations and you are going places, but cars speed incessantly on this strip of highway like the circulating blood: motion without progress. I am only traveling without a map, so how can I be expected to know my time of arrival?

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Under the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, a tract of highway connecting the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and Gloucester City, New Jersey through Camden was eligible for ninety percent federal funding.

The Interstate was originally planned as a �continuous viaduct structure.� However, it was redesigned to be �an embankment twenty feet above existing street grid.� The reason for the redesign was to make the highway compatible with the residential areas through which it passed.

The mid 1950�s say the start of right-of-way acquisition through downtown Camden. The route closest to existing railroad rights-of-way was the final choice for the Interstate as to �minimize community disruption.�

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Seeds cast upon supplanted ground grow only through fractures in disposition where latent seeds will grow like desires of man�s own right-of-way.

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On the curve banked left, where right-of-way gives way to eminent domain, second floor windows of row homes edge the highway and are level with the roadway. In one of those windows someone is watching. It is a face, I think, or maybe it was something else. Regardless, I make it a face with eyes set deep and hidden. There is a dark red-brown stain on the concrete below that marks the spot where a once little boy died of complications of youth and mistaken identity and innocence by wearing the same flax jacket made popular by pop-romanticism of pop-pop-cap �em-street-shuffle hustle and song as the other once little boys who sell ancillary dreams in yellow-and-blue-make-green zip-lock top plastic baggies. In the window the face with eyes set deep is hidden, invisible, but I know it is still there because when I close my eyes I can still see it.

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The first section of I-676 was opened in 1957 when the Walt Whitman Bridge was complete. It ran from the newly constructed bridge to Exit 3, Morgan Boulevard.

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Driving north, overlooking dread, I take accidental risk for a second glance at something perhaps beautiful. It is something in the shape of a tiny pyramid, a pyramid in nature, out of context or into its own alone, changing its cultural, metaphysical and mathematical qualities, like the one on the dollar bill, with the Fitzgeraldian eye. I promise myself that I will remember where the tiny pyramid is and pull over to the side of the road, but I know by tomorrow when I pass this place, I will have forgotten, and so I convince myself that it was only an illusion, an aluminum can, a discarded waxy coffee cup tossed from commuter car to free up a hand to scrounge up change for the bridge toll, pieces of trash that will be picked up by inmates dressed in bright caution orange, weekend criminals sentenced to community service, sentenced to community service, sentenced to community service, sentenced to community service: edge effects.

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The next section was opened in 1972. This section ran from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge south to Exit 5, County Highway 537 and Federal Street.

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This is the road I thought I began, but here is where I am. Who would have thought that all these maps would so quickly become obsolete, moving without progressing like a highway is to the beach: try as they might with artificial dunes and sunken steel belted radial reefs, even after all these years, the ocean still sculpts the shapes of continents.

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The final section of I-676 was opened to traffic in 1980. The new section connected the previous sections that ended at Exits 3 and 5.

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Beyond the western horizon of microcosmic stability, destiny manifested, just past that forever meandering line of industrious squander and environmental eco-socio oversight, the storm of despair looms with lofting cloud bursts of anxiety and rolling thunderheads of worry, drifting over mornings immeasurable sky. Looking east the sun holds its final beam tingeing the clouds pumpkin, turning leaf and wilting violet. The imminent storm giant takes from the sun only what it need, but the sun, like the storm, cannot be trusted. It has lied before. But, though unseen, still endless, everlasting and omnipresent is the sky.

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I am driving behind a dump truck. On its back gate it says �Do Not Push.� I wonder if I am pushing, and if I am not pushing, should I? Why doesn�t this dump truck want me to push? I�ve been told that self-improvement begins with pushing, or I read it somewhere, certainly not on the back gate of a dump truck, however. I think about the pushers below, on the streets above this street when something hits my windshield. My stomach cramps and my mouth tastes metallic. It is hit again and I realize it is a stone, because, just then another bounces off the hood of my car and up over top missing my windshield. I slow down to let this moving hazard get far enough ahead of me so I am out of its range. Before I am too far back I see another stone almost big enough to be a rock bounce out of the top of the dump truck. When it hits the concrete highway, there is a spark and I say aloud or think even louder, that�s it: It was there all along, I had seen it but did not recognize it � that spark is the essence of that edge effect, that sky, that pyramid in nature, that hope of something better, of the possibility that maybe, just maybe, something will happen on this particular day that will change the direction of the journey, and after the flash of the spark, the highway and stone are nothing but a highway and a stone.