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New Jersey, part III

May 23, 2010

Clean and Healthy

On Thursday the sixth, the day after I visited Perth Amboy and the remains of the Raritan Bay Union, I attempted to visit two sites in succession but didn’t quite make it. I’d spent the night in East Brunswick and rode about six miles that morning past Helmetta and its large nineteenth-century snuff and tobacco factory to my first stop: the town of Outcalt, once the site of Physical Culture City.

Bernarr Macfadden

Over a hundred years ago, in 1899, a short, muscular health nut named Bernarr Macfadden began publishing Physical Culture magazine, which sought to improve society by improving its fitness, hygiene, and diet. Macfadden, never one to follow the mainstream, rallied against the medical establishment and its alcohol-heavy medicines; tobacco and drinking; vaccinations; overeating; prudery; and the physical constraints imposed by corsets. But the magazine was just the beginning of Macfadden’s crusade. From here, he branched out into penny restaurants that sold inexpensive, healthy foods. He gave lectures, opened a sanatorium in Highland, New York (not far from Poughkeepsie), and then set his sights on creating his own community based on his principles of clean living, a place where everyone would be healthy and fit.

In 1905, Macfadden found and bought 1,900 acres among the pines in Outcalt, New Jersey, right next door to Spotswood. With an eye to a grand future, he named his woodsy, undeveloped plot of ground Physical Culture City. Here, there would be no doctors or bars or smoking allowed; medicines, high-heeled shoes, and meat couldn’t be sold. Most of the buildings he dreamed of (stores, businesses, and camps and schools) never got built, but there would eventually be a restaurant, a gym, a health house, and a printing presses for Physical Culture powered by a nearby water mill. For himself and his family, he built a house made of glass. (There was also a man-made lake on the property named for Marguerite, Macfadden’s wife; it has since disappeared.) Of the 30,000 residents he envisioned, no more than about 200 ever settled there, many of them eccentrics in their own way who had found a place where they might be accepted. A lot of people went naked. Outsiders showed up to gawk.

Corner of 12th and A. Not sure how old it is, but I liked the look of it.

The town was laid out in a grid of numbered streets and lettered avenues, which is about all that I saw of Macfadden’s enterprise when I rode through the area that morning. In 1906, Macfadden was brought to trial for sending lewd materials to a minor through the mail and found guilty. (Apparently, a cautionary tale printed in Physical Culture had overstepped an early twentieth-century moral code by mentioning too many of the bad activities that could do you in if you participated in them.) He fought against the charge for several years, to the neglect of his new town. By 1908, he had sold his stock in Physical Culture City and returned Physical Culture the magazine to New York City. And without him, Physical Culture City couldn’t survive.

10th Street

None of the buildings survived either. I came in on Daniel Road, past the VFW building and onto Tenth Street, which was shockingly wide, as if it had been planned to be a grand boulevard and not a residential street. As I rode around that morning, I found a mixture of different homes on the property, some small and modest, others large and recently constructed. Some backed up to a wooded area of tall pines, while others had removed their trees for a more manicured suburban look. Physical Culture City had been wiped clean, and I wondered if the people that lived there had any idea of the history of the area, or if the memory, too, had been eradicated. There was certainly no historical marker or mention of Macfadden. As with other places I’d visited, I found the lack of history or legacy to be telling. Not everyone who tries to make the world a better place (or their idea of a better place) necessarily succeeds, or is even remembered for it.

Just after riding around there, I had an unsettling moment when I arrived beyond the grid into a housing development of nearly identical large brick homes with a few variations on the two-story-arched-entryway idea, with identical colors and detailing and identical lawns. I grew up in suburban California among tract housing, and then later in a condo complex in Idaho, so developments aren’t foreign to me. But those dwellings were more modest, and I found something disturbing about such uniform grandiosity repeated ad infinitum along the streets and cul-de-sacs of this New Jersey neighborhood. It was numbing just to be inside of it. What suppressed faculties of discernment and individual taste would it require in order to live there, I wondered.

The Phalanx

The Monmouth County Historical Association

From Spotswood, I rode southeast into Monmouth County and Revolutionary War country, stopping for lunch at a place called the Battleground Deli, where I discovered that a cheesesteak and chocolate milk on a sunny New Jersey afternoon can be a certain form of bliss. (I also passed through a place called Englishtown and still wonder how it managed to keep that name once the English lost the war.) From there toward Freehold I entered the most pastoral landscape of my time in New Jersey, where trees or sidewalks or strip malls made way for waving grasses and Revolutionary-retro wooden fences. (I also discovered that the battle fought in the area was the Battle of Monmouth, in 1778.) I came into Monmouth County to see what I could find of the former North American Phalanx, another Fourierist colony, one of the most successful of all the American phalanxes. It lasted about 12 years, from 1844 to 1856 outside the town of Colts Neck Township and not far from Red Bank. (The Raritan Bay Union was an offshoot of the North American Phalanx; its founders disagreed with some of the NAP’s practices and wanted to start their own colony.)  I began my hunt at the handsome brick Monmouth County Historical Association, where, after a brief tour of the museum’s colonial furniture and stoneware and silverware, I visited their small library and rifled through their box of NAP artifacts. When I asked for it, the librarian rolled her eyes a little. I assume it’s an often-asked-for box.

Inside the box were old New York Tribune articles, an old bound book of editions of the NAP’s publication, the Harbinger, photos of the large wooden house that had been built on the property for the residents, old maps, an original application for membership into the phalanx, and various reprints of old letters. Most important, I found out exactly where the property had been and how to get there from the library.

On the way to the former phalanx

The only problem was that I’d spent most of the day in Spotswood or on the bike or in the library, and I still didn’t know where I’d be sleeping that night. I still needed to see the former phalanx property and have some time there, but I couldn’t get caught in the dark without a place to stay. I headed toward Phalanx Road, the name it’s had since it led to the phalanx over a century and a half ago, and along the way passed the Colts Neck police station. I stopped to ask about places to set up a tent, and the policemen I talked to (all very nice) didn’t have anywhere to recommend locally, but steered me toward a couple state parks several miles out. If I went up to the phalanx property, I’d never get to one of the parks before dark, but if I went to one of the parks right away, I’d either miss the phalanx property or have to do an incredible amount of doubling back the next day. I couldn’t come this far and not see the property, so I pushed on east along Phalanx Road, past posh homes, beautiful farms, and apple trees lining the road, and found the western and eastern borders of the colony as well as the historical marker I knew was around there somewhere. I turned off of Phalanx Road, and at the top of a low hill saw ahead of me a man calling for his dog in front of his house.

My view from the kayak

When you set out on a trip such as this one, you hope for at least a little bit of magic along the way and that when you need it, someone will appear to lend you a hand. I stopped to ask this man if he knew where I might be able to pitch my tent for the night, and it took him a moment to suss me out, but eventually he said I could use the ground next to an old barn on his property, right across the street from the old phalanx lot. Not only was he a nice man who was letting me stay in his yard, but both he and his wife had done some bike touring before and understood what I was doing. They turned out to be amazingly kind people. We chatted for a while in their backyard, which abutted a long, narrow lake, and they offered me a shower and to have breakfast with them in the morning. This was the first moment of magic on my trip, where things worked themselves out when they very easily could’ve gone so wrong. I awoke the next day to the sounds of honking geese and wild turkeys—possibly the same sounds the residents of the phalanx had heard on their mornings. I joined the family for breakfast, and afterward they told me that if I wanted, I could try out the kayak they kept down by the lake. And I wanted, which is how on the seventh day of my trip I somehow found myself not on a bike but paddling out and spending a gorgeous May morning separated from the world by a little bit of water.

The phalanstery circa 1890

Afterward, I finally got to look at the old phalanx property, a rectangle of sorts whose longer side runs about a quarter mile along the main road, but trees and thick foliage shroud the property from passersby. The land slopes up gradually and clears out to become more of an open field with occasional trees, which is where the original house of the phalanx once stood—a large wooden two- and three-story affair that housed all of the members. I’ll write more about the North American Phalanx when I can devote more energies to it, but like the Raritan Bay Union, it was founded to enact the theories of cooperative living and congenial work put forth by the Frenchman Charles Fourier, who himself never came to America and had been dead for several years by the time most American phalanxes were being founded. This one was heavily supported by Horace Greeley of The New York Tribune, and it had about 150 members at its height. While most Fourierist colonies barely made it through their first couple of years, this one lasted more than a decade until a fire destroyed several of its nonresidential buildings. It was too great a financial loss from which to recover. The entire original house stood on the property for many years, and at least a portion of it lasted until 1972, when it eventually burned down. All that’s left now of the original community is a house that was moved from the phalanx property and placed a short ways up the road, where it still stands—a simple farmhouse-style home with a steeply sloped roof and forest green shutters. Several new, modern homes with manicured lawns and stately driveways have been built on the phalanx property, and there’s nothing besides the historical maker to give a person any idea of the attempts to live in accordance with a nutty, brilliant Frenchman that had transpired there.


The community post office and the closed-down deli

But the day was only beginning, and I had another site to see that I’d learned about from the Buchan book. A 20 mile ride, mostly along County Roads 537 and 571, brought me to Roosevelt, tucked away in the woods near the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area (really, that’s the name). In her narrative of Roosevelt, Buchan had mentioned a deli on the main street, Rochdale, and how it was the only place in town to find food. I spent the last ten miles of the ride obsessing about how hungry I was and how I couldn’t wait to get to this deli. But when I pulled up, there were no cars in the parking lot and an “Out of Business” sign posted on the door. I had some food on me, so all was not lost, but I grumpily sat against the wall of the deli (which is right next to the post office and is where all the residents have to go, as Roosevelt has no home delivery), ate my lunch, and reread the Buchan chapter about Roosevelt.

The flat-roofed Bauhaus style of the homes of Jersey Homesteads

Roosevelt began its life as Jersey Homesteads, the brainchild of a man named Benjamin Brown, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who had the idea to develop a “mixed agricultural industrial cooperative community for Jews” (in Buchan’s words) and who had the chance to do so under Roosevelt’s New Deal and its Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Jewish agricultural colonies in New Jersey were not a new thing, but Brown envisioned more than that: he also wanted to provide factory employment for skilled out-of-work Jewish garment workers and a store where the goods produced on the farm and in the factories could be sold. The political and financial machinations needed to get Jersey Homesteads off the ground took a number of years, and things never went smoothly. People running the project were hired and fired; the first houses built on the land collapsed; the factory was built and orders taken for the garments it intended to make, but not enough houses were built to house the workers needed to fill the orders; the farmers and factory workers had disagreements; there were long delays all around; there was mud. The price tag of the whole venture, as they say, skyrocketed. By August of 1936, the factory opened and by January of 1937 almost all of the 200 planned homes had been built and the residents moved in. After the initial house debacle, a new principal architect, Alfred Kastner, had been appointed, and as his assistant he brought on a young Louis Kahn, who would later design the Yale University Art Gallery and the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, among others. They designed in the modernist Bauhaus style, developed in Germany in the 1920s. In Jersey Homesteads, it would mean low, flat-roofed homes with long windows.

The factory then, the trees removed

Eventually, the farm would become more self-sustaining than the factory, which constantly needed outside capital to stay afloat, and that too would have to end. The factory closed in April of 1939. By 1940, Jersey Homesteads was considered through, but in the interim something had happened: a community had formed, a place where people knew each other and cared about each other; a place that had begun to develop its own culture. It had its own schools, a shop, a teahouse, and a community center, where the artist Ben Shahn had come to paint a mural depicting the history of Jersey Homesteads beginning with the Russian pogroms. Some of the families left, but many stayed, finding work outside of town and waiting to see if the factory might reopen (which it did, but as a millinery, which required different skills than they had as garment workers). Shahn himself stuck around, and Jersey Homesteads slowly became a town that attracted artists.

In 1945, Jersey Homesteads changed its name to Roosevelt in honor of the recently deceased Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal allowed it to be born, however shakily it may have happened.

The original community center had since become the elementary school, and as I was right across the main road from it, my first stop had to be to see Ben Shahn’s murals. It was 3 p.m. on a Friday when I rode Gustav up to the school. There was an informal-looking baseball game in progress in the field with some kids in yarmulkes playing and some parents on the grass watching. I hadn’t expected school to be out yet, but the main door was already locked.  I rang a bell, but no one came out, but I could see reflected in the window a woman walking up the grass toward me.

A detail of Ben Shahn's mural showing the layout of Jersey Homesteads' streets

“Were you looking for water or a bathroom?” she asked helpfully. She’d seen me earlier sitting by the deli and figured I was desperate for one of the two. I told her that I’d actually come to see the murals, and she cheerily said she could show them to me. She unlocked the door and brought me into the lobby area where Ben Shahn had painted his version of recent Jewish labor history, beginning with the Russian pogroms and ending with Roosevelt itself. In between are Ellis Island, a march of immigrants headed by Albert Einstein (an early proponent of Jersey Homesteads), garment factories, and labor unions. Along another wall were beautiful hand-hammered aluminum doors by someone named Otto Wester  with town scenes pounded out of the metal. The woman apologized that she couldn’t tell me more about them. If I’d shown up an hour sooner, I could’ve had a sixth grader give me a tour, and they knew much more than she did. As we were leaving the school building, she asked if I’d seen “the head,” by which she meant the large bust of FDR just south of the school that had been dedicated in 1961 at a ceremony that Eleanor Roosevelt herself had attended.

My favorite home in Roosevelt: unmodified, renovated Bauhaus

From there, I rode around on Roosevelt’s curving roads to see what was left of the original Bauhaus architecture. My first feeling was one of slight disappoint that the buildings weren’t more blatantly Bauhaus, as if they needed to be looming and forceful while yet still small and domestic. If by Bauhaus they meant flat-roofed and boxy, I thought, well, then they had completely succeeded. All of the original houses had been one story, but over the years many of them had been modified: second stories had been added, peaked roofs put atop the flat ones; different frontings had been affixed to the houses. I saw one of fake stone and another of real stone. Some homes were still Bauhaus-esque, and others had shed the look completely. One I saw had accentuated the style with paint and decor. The contrast of the unmodified and the modified allowed me to appreciate the original homes more than I might have otherwise. I normally don’t like flat roofs, which seem both impractical and overly blunt. But here in Roosevelt, I liked the boxiness. In such a small package, the design felt tidy and spare and efficient; it let the trees have more room. Someone later told me their nickname for the houses in Roosevelt was “midget houses,” and perhaps they’d be cramped and small on the inside, but I couldn’t tell that from the outside.

Also of note is Roosevelt’s layout, based on the Garden City plan of Ebenezer Howard, with its curving streets and its integration with the woods and streams around it. Each house stands on an acre of land, and there are numerous footpaths through the trees to connect the different streets and cul-de-sacs. According to Dr. Rodham Tullos, as quoted by Buchan, Roosevelt is the “first example of lower income housing built on a wetland that is ecologically sound.” I didn’t have a chance to dismount and walk along any of the paths, but there is definitely a feeling of woodsiness and an escape from the grid, such as I saw in Physical Culture City the day before.

The factory now; the trees are back

While in Roosevelt, I also wanted to see the original factory, which was out on Oscar Lane, past two other more modern factories. Buchan mentioned there were artist spaces and a gallery out there right now, but in the long, low multi-windowed building (in which many of the windows have unfortunately now been painted over) I found only a company that made packaging equipment. I wound up chatting with the office manager, who took me into a storeroom that had a pushpin board with some of the building’s history on it. I learned that after the garment factory closed, it became the millinery factory for 7 years and then a button factory for 14 years. The office manager said that sometimes you could still find buttons under boards or in crevices. After the buttons, the next business to move in constructed cabinets, and then in 1974 to 1976 (this is my favorite one), there was a company that made geodesic domes.

The former synagogue

The office manager told me that the town’s legacy as an arts town lives on. About 20 percent of the town’s thousand or so residents make their living as artists, and the Roosevelt Arts Project brings many of those artists from different media together to share ideas and collaborate.  She also told me that Roosevelt had one of the highest tax structures in the state and that the water bill is $155 dollars a month, whether you turn on your water or not. But if you live in Roosevelt for 20 years, you can be buried up in the cemetery for free. Still, there’s no place to buy food or get a meal. You have to go to Hightstown for that. But with its woodsy locale, unique history, and uncommon architecture, I could definitely see the appeal of living in Roosevelt. And maybe someone will reopen that damn deli so the next bike tourist doesn’t have to eat all of his peanut butter out of desperation.


I rode from Roosevelt to spend the night in Hightstown, where I finished up my first week of riding by getting ice cream at a roadside stand called Cree-Mee Freeze with my new friend Lindsay. On Saturday, I rode 54 miles to Collingswood, just outside of Camden, for my last night in New Jersey. I’m sure this will become a common refrain in the next months, but it was a grueling ride for no other reason than the wind—my most difficult riding day to date. Moi et le vent, toute la journée. It was sometimes a struggle to just get downhill, and for several miles at a stretch I had to click into a low gear, drop down as low as I could, stare at the pavement, sing to myself for distraction, and peddle. I’d be lying if I said some of those songs weren’t from A Chorus Line. I guess it and Jersey just go together.

Walt Whitman's wee home

Speaking of things that are gay and brilliant, my very last stop in New Jersey (this time) was the Walt Whitman House in Camden, on the other side of the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Of course, I wrote a paper about Whitman in college, and his name pops up every so often in these utopian journeys, what with his admiration for the common worker and his Transcendental roots. He’s a figure I’d like to know more about, and at his home I saw his boots and his deathbed, and I wish I had more at this moment to say about my visit, but I need to trudge forward into Philadelphia lest I never leave New Jersey.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 13, 2010 9:30 am

    this entry makes me wish i was doing at least a leg with you. although reading it, i almost feel as though i am. now, can we get back to Bernarr McFadden’s crusade against prudery?

    “Macfadden, never one to follow the mainstream, rallied against the medical establishment and its alcohol-heavy medicines; tobacco and drinking; vaccinations; overeating; prudery; and the physical constraints imposed by corsets.”

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