Jesse Fried • Jun 15, 2017

Few areas of North and Central Jersey are immune to sprawl.

The McMansion phenomenon is perplexing. Situated so awkwardly in the middle of large expanses of empty pasture, so huge yet so visibly cheap, decorated with such gaudy trappings of luxury, one cannot help but wonder: to whom do these houses appeal? Whose version of success, of "making it," of the American dream is housed within these boxes of drywall?

For one thing, it looks lonely. The commuter suburbs seem like a paradise of cultural richness and close-knit community compared to these rural outposts. Likewise, it's hard to imagine them being very connected to the rural traditions they are superseding. I don't know any one who lives in this type of development, so I can only guess.

The only way I can think to understand the choice to live here is as the suburban compromise taken to the next level. By moving to the very fringes of the metropolis, you really can get away from all the people, enjoy genuinely rural surroundings, and are able to live this life in a "nicer" house than you could probably afford closer to the city.

If McMansion living appears like an especially empty version the American lifestyle, we would do well to remember Emerson's rallying cry for us to "enjoy an original relation to the Universe." One can imagine the thrill of looking out your brand new picture window at a rural vista to which you have no connection at all - no burden of historical or economic ties, no knowledge of the names given to hills or rivers - and filling in the details exclusively from your imagination, or your unique creative spirit, as Emerson might say. We might also do well to remember that our civilization has not occupied this land for very long. The farmers who named the landforms and cleared the fields a few hundred years ago did their own sort of creative reimagining, in the vacuum left by the conquest of the Lenape who came before them.

See also: Land Use History of the NJ Highlands.