Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Sopranos

I want to acknowledge the support and encouragement of my friend and colleague Paul Levinson. If not for him, I'd still be thinking about setting up a blog, and thinking about it, and thinking about it, and probably never get around to it. So, thank you Paul.

Paul and I both contributed chapters to an anthology entitled This Thing Of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos which was edited by David Lavery, and published by Wallflower Press and Columbia University Press in 2002.

I called my chapter "No(rth Jersey) Sense of Place: The Cultural Geography (and Media Ecology) of The Sopranos" and while it was published in 2002, I think it's worth posting here given that The Sopranos are about to return to HBO for their final season, and are still stirring up controversy where I live in Northern New Jersey. And this will also illustrate the difference between writing an essay and writing a blog entry.

Lance Strate
No(rth Jersey) Sense of Place: The Cultural Geography (and Media Ecology) of The Sopranos

I live in Sopranoland. I didn't fully realize this fact until I was driving south on New Jersey's Route 17 one day, and I passed Satin Dolls, a gentlemen's club located in Lodi. Below the "Satin Dolls" sign the management had added another display that said, "AKA Bada Bing!" As viewers of The Sopranos television series know, the Bada Bing! is the strip joint owned by Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano's consigliere. In many of the episodes, we see Tony and his crew hanging out at this club, and these scenes are filmed at the real-life Satin Dolls establishment. No doubt, the management of Satin Dolls intended to capitalize on its association with the HBO hit by taking " Bada Bing!" as its alias. But this blurring of the line between fictional setting and actual location also reflects a shift in New Jersey's cultural geography (Burgess & Gold; Duncan & Ley; Fry), a redrawing of our shared mental map of the North Jersey region.
Ramsey Outdoor is a sporting goods store that was featured in a story arc during The Sopranos' second season. Unlike the Bada Bing!, Ramsey Outdoor is not an assumed name. It is a real store, also on Route 17, but on the North-bound side, in Paramus. On television, Ramsey Outdoor was owned by the fictional character Davey Scatino (Robert Patrick), a childhood friend of Tony's. Davey's gambling addiction leaves him heavily in debt to Tony, who bleeds Davey's business dry, “busting it out,” sending it into bankruptcy. In reality, the store was doing fine. At least, it was until the end of this story arc, when customers stopped coming because they thought it had really gone out of business; the management had to run advertisements insisting that they were still open. I related this story, noting that I myself have shopped at Ramsey Outdoor both before and after the second season, in a conversation I had with some out-of-town colleagues during the 2001 meeting of the Media Ecology Association. Kidding around, I also said that I don't shop there anymore, and when asked why, I deadpanned, "because its owned by the mob!" I thought this line would get a laugh. They thought I was serious.
And then there was the time that they were filming a scene at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey's largest mall. It was for the second season episode "Toodle-Fucking-oo," where Tony has a talk with Richie Aprile, recently released after a ten-year prison sentence (in the background they pass the Brooks Brothers store I've bought suits in). While the scene was filmed on the lower level, crowds had gathered on the upper level to look down at the filming . Everyone was excited—after all this was The Sopranos! This was New Jersey's own, the home team! And they had even chosen a few Eddie Bauer employees to appear in the background as extras. They would be on TV. But we all were in the mall that would be on TV. Either way, television was our environment, and we were living, and shopping, in Sopranoland.
The funny thing about this process of cultural landscaping is that no flags are planted, no borders established or defended or violated, no governments set up or overthrown. All it took, in this instance, were cameras and cable. And no one had any idea of what was going on when Sopranos producer David Chase started filming the first season. I drove by them a few times in Montclair and I noticed the bright lights, but there didn't seem to be all that much of a crew, certainly not like one of those big productions you see over in New York City. I even asked my friend Thom Gencarelli, who teaches broadcasting at nearby Montclair State University, whether it might be some of his students. But he had no idea who it was. Of course, by the second season just about everyone knew who they were. And by the third season, they were no longer shooting in Montclair, due to the protests over their portrayal of Italian-Americans. Not everyone here is happy to find themselves living in Sopranoland.
Those who do favor North Jersey's new cultural geography are most likely experiencing the many pleasures of recognition. For one, there is the simple pleasure of seeing your local environment depicted on TV. For example, I'm watching the second season episode "Commendatori" and there's a scene where Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, a member of Tony's crew who has turned informant, meets with FBI agent Skip Lipari, and they accidentally bump into Jimmy, an Elvis impersonator with mob connections. Suddenly, I realize that they are inside Party Box, a store I've gone to many times for birthday decorations, balloons, and New Year's paraphernalia. "That's my Party Box," I say to myself, as I reflect on the convenience of the setting for the production crew—it's only a store or two down the road from Satin Dolls.
Then there's the third season episode "Another Toothpick" during which Tony gets even with a traffic officer who gave him a ticket. Tony's crony, Assemblyman Zellman, has the officer taken off of traffic duty, which also means that he is no longer eligible for overtime, and has to moonlight as a salesman to make ends meet. When Tony accidentally runs into the officer in his new role, he experiences a touch of guilt and offers an enormous tip, which the officer refuses. But what stands out is the background: "Fountains of Wayne!" my wife shouts, as we're watching the episode. "That's where I bought our snowman!" (She was referring to one of those electric snowmen that light up lawns during the winter.) My wife is a native New Jerseyan (I've only lived here for the past decade) and has many more of these moments of recognition than I do. For example, she easily identified the cemetery used by the Sopranos and Apriles in several episodes as the Jersey City Cemetery (my wife's family is from Jersey City, but her parents moved to the suburbs of Bergen County after she was born).
The Jersey milieu has been very much a part of the series creator's vision. David Chase grew up in Clifton and North Caldwell (the latter being the site of the private residence that serves as the Soprano family's home in the series). And Chase's locations manager, Mark Kamine, has lived in Jersey City, Wayne, and Montclair. In an interview with Peter Bogdonovich that is included on The Sopranos: The Complete First Season DVD set, Chase explains that when the series was originally in development for the Fox network, his insistence on shooting in New Jersey did not go over well with the executives. HBO, in contrast, very much wanted that authenticity, and at least three quarters of the exteriors are filmed on location in Jersey. The remainder come from New York City, Long Island, and Connecticut, and much of the interior shooting takes place in the New York City Borough of Queens, at Silvercup Studios. Chase looked for east coast actors in the casting for The Sopranos, and certainly struck paydirt with James Gandolfini, born in Westwood and educated at Rutgers University. Also inspired was the selection of Steven Van Zandt, alias Little Steven, appearing in his first dramatic role. As a musician, Van Zandt played a major role in the development of New Jersey's Asbury Park sound as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, working with South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and with his own band. Both the crew and the cast have been mostly drawn from the New York-New Jersey region, a decision driven in part by aesthetics, but also by the practicalities of producing the program in this region. The east coast working environment has influenced cast selection, and the North Jersey settings have influenced the very process of acting, according to Chase (as quoted by Matt Zoller Seitz of Newark's Star-Ledger):

There's no question that shooting on location lends believability to everything we do. It helps the actors, too. It might sound funny, but the mere fact that you, the actor, are actually in the place you say you're in means a lot when you're shooting a movie or a TV show. As an actor or a writer or a director, you can learn a lot just from being in an area, having a chance to live and work there and get to know the people.

While there is a certain pleasure to be found in knowing that people are filming in your hometown or region (even more if you can actually observe them), the greater gratification comes from viewing the finished product, knowing that millions of other people are watching it along with you. Consider, for example, the following introductory message written by Sue Sadik, also known as SopranoSue, a contributor to the website (

Welcome to SopranoSue's Sightings. I'm just a fan, but I happen to be lucky enough to work in Soprano territory. In fact, the majority of my day is spent driving all around New Jersey. This is great, I get paid and I also get to see a lot of the filming and hear great little tidbits about the filming and the locations. I saw a lot of the filming from the first season, but I didn't pay too much attention because, I see working film crews all the time. Some major pictures were filmed at some of my accounts. When I got hooked on Sopranos, mainly because of the opening credits, (hey I know where that is, I was there today, etc.) I suddenly became more interested.

The opening from The Sopranos, with its dozens of shots of different North Jersey locales, is most definitely a hook for the local audience. Everyone recognizes some of the images, at the very least the shots of the New Jersey Turnpike and Newark Airport. The quick succession of scenes warns us to pay close attention, to be on guard for the next spot to be shown, for it may be a place that we know. It is an invitation to a game that only we, the hometown crowd, can play. And it is a promise that our attention will be rewarded, sooner or later, by a familiar site.
Clearly, this mode of viewing is unique to New Jerseyans. We pay more attention to the settings and backgrounds of The Sopranos than other viewers would. We watch the show on alert, prepared to ascertain the identity of the show's locations. New Jersey fans enjoy the narrative and aesthetic elements of the program along with the rest of the television audience, but there is this added pleasure of recognition. More than pleasure, it is an added level of meaning, derived from the links between the video images and the familiar locales. The specific meanings are local, often personal, but the general meaning that is being conveyed is that we are insiders, that we are (dare I say it?) family.
The local media jump onto the bandwagon, discussing the Jersey references in newspaper columns and through radio chat, reinforcing the effect. This also serves to widen the scope, as more local residents are clued into the game. For example, during the third season, Bergen county's newspaper, The Record, ran a column by Raymond A. Edel and Virginia Rohan entitled "Hits and Misses: A Weekly Guide to 'The Sopranos'" (which I read religiously). One line from March 18, 2001 reads, "Recognizable locations: Applebees, Harmon Discount on Route 46 west in Totowa" (YT-2). Another section from April 22, 2001 includes, "Did you catch? How Ralphie pronounces [with a New Jersey dialect] the word "whore" (who-er)? . . . That this is the first Thanksgiving we've celebrated with "The Sopranos"? (That stolen-turkey sequence behind the Bada Bing! really was filmed in November.) . . . That Jackie Jr. has a big New Jersey Devils poster over his bed?" (YT2) The Record had also been running a regular column about the TV program Ed, which employed frequent North Jersey location shoots. But for Ed, New Jersey was just a backdrop representing the program's fictional small town setting, Stuckeyville. Ed was not representing New Jersey to New Jersey (and the rest of the world), it was not feeding back into everyday life in the region. It therefore could not have the kind of impact on geographic identity that The Sopranos has had.
The pleasures of recognition flow backwards as well as forwards. Places like Ramsey Outdoor and Party Box may be physically unchanged, but they seem different after being televised. They have gained the kind of aura that Walter Benjamin wrote about, in this case an aura gained through electronic reproduction. The act of driving on the New Jersey highways is no longer simply a matter of transportation. It has become a ritual reenactment of the program's opening. Put The Sopranos: Music from the HBO Original Series CD on the car stereo, turn the volume up as A3 comes on with "Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)," and the experience is complete.
While driving down the Garden State Parkway through David Chase's hometown of Clifton one day, I took note of an elevated sign advertising an Italian supermarket, Corrado's Family Affair. I must have passed by this sign dozens of times in the past, but on this particular ride it dawns on me that this store might be connected—not to the mob, but to David Chase's muse. After all, Tony's Uncle Junior, who Tony makes titular boss of the North Jersey mob, is actually named Corrado Soprano, Jr. And "family" constantly figures into the advertising and promotion for The Sopranos. (Even the song "Family Affair" by Sly and the Family Stone finds its way into the program's soundtrack, as a sample on "Blood is Thicker Than Water" performed by Wyclef Jean, and included on the soundtrack recording.) And consider the following text taken from the website for Corrado's (

Another reason for Corrado's success is the quality, caring and personal touch that people have come to expect from us. That "Family" atmosphere is prevalent throughout the store. You can always find a family member to help with any requests. Jerry, Joey, Peter, Cousins Sal, Carmella, Joanne, Uncle Tony are available if you need help.

Even if Carmella (the name of Tony Soprano's wife) and Uncle Tony of Corrado's Family Affair represent nothing more than a coincidence, they have taken on new meaning now that they are living in Sopranoland. Everything is seen in a new light as The Sopranos aura extends to the North Jersey region as a whole. It is not only a matter of a limited number of landmarks reproduced on the program. All of us North Jerseyans are part of a new cultural landscape, one that has suddenly become sharply defined and highly visible. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan explains:

We may say that deeply-loved places are not necessarily visible, either to ourselves or to others. Places can be made visible by a number of means: rivalry or conflict with other places, visual prominence, and the evocative power of art, architecture, ceremonials and rites. Human places become vividly real through dramatization. Identity of place is achieved by dramatizing the aspirations, needs, and functional rhythms of personal and group life. (178)

By dramatizing North Jersey, The Sopranos has put the region on the map, bestowing upon it a visibility and reality for North Jerseyans and others alike. And as Daniel Boorstin makes clear in The Image, the geographic counterpart to the media event is tourism. It should come as no surprise, then, that North Jersey has now become tour-worthy. On Location Tours, Inc., offers a thirty dollar Sopranos bus tour that leaves from midtown Manhattan. The advertising copy on their website ( reads:

Get a "shakedown" on a tour of sites used on The Sopranos, including Satriale's Pork Store, the cemetary [sic] where Livia Soprano is buried, the Bada Bing! night club, the diner where Chris was shot, and much more! This three hour bus tour . . . takes you through New Jersey's Sopranoland . . . You'll learn Sopranos trivia, origins of the show, and production information on the way . . . Not to "fugged aboud" Mafia speak and a stop for cannolis!

This same company offers a Sex and the City Tour (clearly cornering the market on HBO programming), and a Manhattan TV Tour that takes you to sites familiar from programs such as Friends, Mad About You, Cosby, The Nanny, NYPD Blue, and Seinfeld. Seinfeld was in fact the focus of the first such television tour, pioneered by Kenny Kramer (on whom the Seinfeld character Kramer was modeled). Although the Sopranos tour leaves from New York, they do have a pick up in Secaucus for New Jerseyans who want a guided tour of Sopranoland, or just want the voyeuristic pleasure of watching tourists and tour guides treating their domestic environment as exotic, and even erotic.
The feeding back of televised reality into everyday reality, and the concomitant blurring of the boundaries have long been noted by media scholars. For example, anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, a colleague and collaborator of Marshall McLuhan's, reproduces the following New York Times article, dated April 8, 1972, in one of his major studies of communication, consciousness, and culture:

Joseph Gallo, reputed Mafia leader, was scheduled to give the keynote address before the A. J. Liebling Counter-Convention of Publishers. His topic: "The Image of Joe Gallo, in the Press and as I See It." However, he was murdered a few days before the conference opened.

Gallo's sister, Mrs. Carmellia Fiorella, sobbing over her brother's body, said, "He tried to change his image—that's why this happened." She was treated for shock. (8)

A related form of reversal occurred on July 4th, 2001, when Robert Iler the young actor who plays Anthony Soprano, Jr., was arrested on charges of robbery and possession of marijuana. Just a few short months ago, his character had gotten thrown out of school, after engaging in vandalism and pot-smoking. This is what Baudrillard would refer to as the hyperreal, an instance in which media simulation serves as a model for reality, rather than an imitation of what already exists. This event has been treated with humor by journalists, whose only reason for reporting the story in the first place is the irony of life imitating art.
On the other hand, a series of recent New Jersey political scandals have had a major social impact. They have involved, separately: New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Peter G. Verniero (accused of covering up racial profiling policies while State Attorney General), United States Senator Robert Torricelli (accused of accepting personal gifts from a campaign contributor), and Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco (accused of unethical business dealings and forced to withdraw his gubernatorial candidacy). Incredibly, all three scandals came to light during The Sopranos' third season. An editorial published in The Record on April 22, 2001, called it the "Curse of 'The Sopranos'" and went on to argue:

It's very possible we brought this on ourselves.

New Jersey is in the national headlines again, for all the wrong reasons. . . . It wasn't long ago that we looked positively respectable in the nation's eyes. Former Gov. Christie Whitman had an upscale, suburban image. She wore pastel suits and tasteful jewelry. No one looked at her and thought of landfills.

But apparently we were not satisfied with this new WASP-like identity. Looking back, maybe it all started with "The Sopranos."

The hit show—which depicts the trials and tribulations of a New Jersey family—is set in the present, but it's not about Princeton or Ridgewood or anything to do with a state aspiring to good taste. "The Sopranos" gives New Jersey back its old, familiar image: the mob, the turnpike, the sleaze, the bad taste. Politicians in "The Sopranos" are in the mob's pocket.

And the fans love it. The gritty series has been a hit with viewers and critics alike. It's about sex and violence and crime. But it's also art.

"The Sopranos" gives New Jersey status, buzz, cachet. The show glamorizes everything we'd felt inferior about for decades. And we don't have to pretend anymore that we have moved on. Now we can revel in our corruption.

Maybe that's why the state's karma has begun to turn bad, at least in politics. . . . It might make a colorful backdrop for a TV series, but in reality, it's pretty depressing. (RO2)

Sopranoland may have generated a kind of Jersey chic, but at a price. As noted above, not everyone enjoys living in Sopranoland, and the pleasures of recognition come at the cost of stereotypical depiction, particularly of New Jersey's Italian-American population (an implicit but obvious point in the above editorial). That is why Essex County Executive James Treffinger and Sheriff Armando Fontoura denied Chase and his crew permission to film on county-owned property last year. And on May 23, 2001, Representative Marge Roukema from Ridgewood proposed a Congressional Resolution chastising the producers of The Sopranos for their depiction of Italian-Americans. There have been protests from the National Italian-American Foundation, the Sons of Italy Foundation and the Italian-American Democratic Leadership Council. My friend Camille Paglia, a professor of communication at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, has become an outspoken critic of Sopranoland. For example, in one of her columns for the online magazine Salon she writes:

I have yet to watch a single entire episode of that show, which I find vulgar and boring as well as rife with offensive clichés about Italian-Americans that would never be tolerated were they about Jews or blacks.

What I find especially repugnant about "The Sopranos" is its elitist condescension toward working-class life, which it distorts with formulas that are 30 years out of date. Manners and mores have subtly evolved in the ethnic world that "The Sopranos" purports to depict and that extends from South Philadelphia to central New Jersey and metropolitan New York. (“Energy Mess”)

Philadelphia and New York are the two metropolises that are situated across the border from South and North Jersey, respectively. Of all the immigrant groups that came through Ellis Island, just off the Jersey coast, the Italians were the largest, and they settled in great numbers along the corridor between Philly and New York, the corridor otherwise known as New Jersey. (The two cities are now linked by Interstate 95, which for most of that span is also the New Jersey Turnpike.) And while Italian-Americans are prominent in both Pennsylvania and New York State, they have achieved a unique dominance in many of the towns and neighborhoods of Jersey. Sopranoland is in large part a Little Italy, and while some Italian-Americans (such as David Chase) don't mind America's Mafia mythology, others cringe.
Even if Sopranoland is not an ideal place to live in, it does provide us with the pleasure of recognition, in this case the pleasure of being recognized. In interpersonal communication, this form of recognition is referred to as confirmation. According to communication theorists Paul Watzlawick, Janet Helmick Beavin, and Don D. Jackson, phatic communication, our rituals of everyday life (Hello. How are you? Fine, how are you?), allow us to acknowledge each other's existence and importance, satisfying a deep-seated psychological need. But there is also a need for cultural confirmation, in order to insure social cohesion and morale. New Jersey has long suffered from being rejected, and disconfirmed. As Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson explain, "while rejection amounts to the message, 'You are wrong,' disconfirmation says in effect 'You do not exist'" (86). In this respect, it is better to have a negative identity than no identity at al. Watzlawick et al., suggest that disconfirmation within the family may explain the development of juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior—it's an extension of acting out to get attention. Thus, Sopranoland's love affair with the mob may be connected to the fact that Jersey has for long been ignored and given the message that it does not exist.

Without a doubt, New Jersey has an identity problem, even with its very name. New York is never referred to as just York, nor is New Hampshire ever known as Hampshire, and New Mexico is certainly not called Mexico. But New Jersey is often called Jersey. Jersey has an informal feel to it, familiar and slangy. Add an exaggerated accent to it, and you have former Saturday Night Live comedian Joe Piscopo's famous routine: "Hi! I'm from Joisey! You from Joisey?" However it is pronounced, Jersey does not elicit respect.
There are historical reasons for this linguistic eccentricity. New Jersey traces its origins to the colonies of New Netherland (which also included parts of New York State and Connecticut), founded in 1621, and New Sweden (which also included parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware), founded in 1638. In 1655, New Netherland conquered and annexed New Sweden, meaning that the colony that would one day become New York now controlled most of modern-day New Jersey. New Netherland became New York in 1664, when it was taken over by the English. Portions of New Jersey were granted to Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret and became known respectively as West Jersey and East Jersey. The two Jerseys were consolidated into the crown colony of New Jersey in 1702, but the colony was administered by New York, and did not get its own governor until 1738.
The colloquial use of Jersey therefore is a venerable alternative to the official state name, but most experience it as simply peculiar. It is reflected, however, in the name of the state's second largest municipality, Jersey City, which was incorporated in 1820 (and at that time also called "the City of Jersey"). And because Jersey is not inextricably bound to New, it is free to combine with other modifiers such as North, so that it is just as common to speak of North Jersey as it is to speak of Northern New Jersey. While the names East Jersey and West Jersey are not used anymore, their legacy of the Jerseys, of New Jersey as a plural rather than singular location, remains.
The east-west division remains significant, and Sopranoland is definitely in East Jersey. Northwest Jersey, especially past Morristown, is a country environment that the North Jersey mobsters would find alien. On the other hand, they would be perfectly comfortable heading south down the New Jersey coast, which is referred to as going down the shore, even as far as Atlantic City. West Jersey has an affinity for Pennsylvania, East Jersey for New York (and while Atlantic City is sometimes considered part of the Philadelphia region, it has much in common with New York as a center for the entertainment industry).
The fusion of East Jersey and West Jersey in the past has contributed to the confusion about New Jersey in the present. But just as East-West oppositions have given way to North-South contrasts on a global scale, today, the most common reference to two different Jerseys is based on the distinction between North and South Jersey. This reflects New Jersey's position between two major metropolises, New York to the Northeast, and Philadelphia to the southwest. The boundary between North and South Jersey is therefore defined, in large part, by which of the two cities is closer, which has the greater magnetic pull on a given locale, and most importantly, whose electromagnetic signals you are receiving. New Jersey has no major television stations of its own, and what can be more disconfirming when we are living in an electronic media environment (McLuhan, Carpenter)? This means that we often do not receive even the most basic affirmation that local television news programming provides. Not that they ignore Jersey altogether, but the geopolitics of information on this local level resembles that of global information networks (Smith), with Jersey in the role of a third world nation.
This also makes it inordinately expensive to reach the New Jersey population through television. Much was made of the fact that Jon Corzine's successful 2000 campaign for the United States Senate was the most expensive to date, but television spots were essential for an unknown like Corzine, and he had t
o pay for time in two of the nation's top ten markets. And he had to pay for millions of Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut audience members who were irrelevant to his campaign, in order to reach the minority of the TV audience living in New Jersey.
Of the two Jerseys, North Jersey has it worse. Some parts of South Jersey are considered Philadelphia's suburbs, but they are at a distance from the city, in contrast to the close proximity between the New Jersey's northeast coast and Manhattan and Staten Island. And while Philly's pull may be strong, how could it possibly be as powerful as the Big Apple? South Jersey is also distinguished by the state capital, Trenton, by the Jersey shore resorts and Atlantic City, and by the state's leading institutions of higher learning, Princeton University and Rutgers University (the latter sometime considered Central Jersey).
The northeastern coast of North Jersey, on the other hand, is practically on top of New York City. Admittedly, this makes for spectacular views and easy commutes. After the George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931, Bergen County became know as "the bedroom of New York." Neil Genzlinger, author of The New York Times' Jersey Column, complains about the "residents of Brooklyn and Queens who take an hour to get to their jobs in Midtown Manhattan and then ask . . . how . . . [you] can stand the commute from Jersey, when it takes maybe 20 minutes" (1). This underscores the fact that while the geographic distance is miniscule, the psychological gulf is huge. The state line that separates New Jersey makes it an alien world to New Yorkers.
I can attest to it, as I was born in Manhattan, and moved to Queens when I was two weeks old (my parents thought the more suburban environment would be a better place to raise a child). I probably would still be living in Queens if I hadn't married a Jersey girl (who convinced me that the more suburban environment of Bergen County would be a better place to raise our kids). When I lived in New York, even though I didn't know very much about New Jersey, I was always ready to express my disdain for the Garden State. Most New Yorkers do so as a knee-jerk reaction, it's simply expected behavior. Of course, the put down is common in New York culture: in Queens we put down Brooklyn, in Brooklyn they put down Queens, the Bronx puts down both Long Island boroughs and is in turn put down by them, and Manhattan puts down all of the outer boroughs, even Staten Island. But they all put down New Jersey, even in the suburbs of Nassau and Westchester. Clearly, this can't do much for New Jersey's self-image.
One reason for all of the disrespect is the olfactory association that so many New Yorkers have with New Jersey. I myself have very strong memories going back to early childhood, of the horrendous smell of industrial waste one still encounters on the turnpike, in the vicinity of Elizabeth and elsewhere, of my parents rolling up the windows, myself complaining bitterly, and everyone coughing. In this regard, Tony's official occupation of "waste management" is more than a Mafia cliché, it is a commonplace of North Jersey's heavily industrialized areas. It is hard to miss the irony of claiming to be the Garden State, as Robert Duffy explains in his "New Jersey 101" essay:

Let's face it. To the rest of the world, there's nothing cool about New Jersey. People have called it a huge toxic waste dump, The Garbage State (a witty turn on our state nickname, The Garden State), and yes, New Jersey has even been called the armpit of the United States.

Incredibly, The Garden State did not become New Jersey's official nickname until 1954, and despite the veto of Governor Robert B. Meyner. According to New Jersey State Librarian Robert Lupp:

Alfred M. Heston, in his two-volume work, Jersey Waggon Jaunts, published in 1926 (Camden, NJ, Atlantic County Historical Society, 1926), twice credits Abraham Browning of Camden with coining the name at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia on New Jersey Day, August 24, 1876. On page 310 of volume 2 he writes: "In his address Mr. Browning compared New Jersey to an immense barrel, filled with good things to eat and open at both ends, with Pennsylvanians grabbing from one end and the New Yorkers from the other. He called New Jersey the Garden State, and the name has clung to it ever since." The problem with this is that the image of a barrel tapped at both ends dates back at least to Benjamin Franklin, so this statement crediting Browning with naming the Garden State can not be taken at face value.

Apparently, New Jersey's subordination to its neighbors was apparent as far back as the eighteenth century. As for the Garden State nickname, Governor Meyner opposed it on the grounds that New Jersey was distinguished by a great many activities, and agriculture was hardly the foremost. Among them, we have been a leader in the chemical industries, which has also given New Jersey one of the most polluted environments in the nation.
Insults like "you stink!" may sting, but it is the disconfirmation that has the most powerful effect. Unless someone mentions Jersey, eliciting the automatic response of ridicule, New Yorkers simply don't think about the place. It's not on their mental maps—out of state, out of mind. This is reinforced not only by the absence of major television stations and local news programs, but by our exposure to the New York City media. New Yorkers are constantly being confirmed and celebrated by the media. New York is familiar, not only to those who live and work in the metropolitan area, but also nationally and internationally. As the media capital of the world, New York is highly self-reflexive, continually turning to itself for settings and subject matter. Images of Manhattan have long been part of America's mythic landscape. The outer boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx made their mark in Hollywood movies, and became a mainstay of early television programs such as The Honeymooners and The Goldbergs. Queens came into its own in 1971, when it was featured in All in the Family. But where was New Jersey before The Sopranos? Yes, there is the rock icon, Bruce Springsteen, whom New Yorkers like but New Jerseyans worship (and yes, there is also Hobokon's Frank Sinatra, but unlike Springsteen, Sinatra ignored his roots and preferred to identify himself with New York, New York). But in so often being eclipsed by New York, New Jersey frequently is given the message that it doesn't exist. Moreover, as Duffy puts it:

New Jersey also has a bit of an identity crisis. When national and international events come to town, such as the Final Four, World Cup Soccer, and even the Net Aid concert, all of these events were billed as being in New York. If that isn't bad enough, the two biggest sports teams that play in the state, the Giants and the Jets, both say they're from New York when in fact they play in East Rutherford, New Jersey. With Manhattan shadowing us in the north, and Philadelphia biting our heels in the south, it's no wonder that Jersey has a bad rap.

In all fairness, sports franchises have relocated to the suburbs before and retained their inner city identification. And the Nets basketball team did adopt a New Jersey identity when it moved west from Long Island. But given the fact that Giants Stadium was built in the New Jersey Meadowlands for that team to play in, their rejection of a New Jersey Giants identity becomes "just another brick in the wall." Similarly, New York has for long owned Ellis Island and Liberty Island, even though they are closer to the coast of New Jersey—Jersey City's Liberty State Park has a magnificent view of the Statue of Liberty, but she has her back turned to us.
Having been overshadowed by New York for so long, it is no wonder that The Sopranos are causing such a sensation in North Jersey. And yet, the very same geographical tension is reflected within the program. The program's opening shows Tony coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel, leaving New York City. Across the Hudson is the New York skyline, while looking in his rearview mirror, he sees the twin towers of the World Trade Center (geographically inaccurate, but culturally right on target). From the beginning, then, Jersey is defined in opposition to New York. Also, from the beginning of the series, Tony's North Jersey mob has been portrayed as having ties to New York's Mafia. While the relationship is distant, during the third season there is a suggestion of a threat as Johnny Sack, the leader of one of New York's five families (Rohan), moves out to North Jersey. Although he still "works" in New York, he becomes a subtle influence (and potential interference) in Tony's business.
Meadow's search for a college was also fraught with significance. Tony himself went to Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution in South Orange, not far from his West Orange home (i.e., his mother Livia's house, later occupied by his sister Janice), but he dropped out after a semester and a half. In contrast, the first season episode, "College," has Tony driving Meadow to Maine to look at Bates College, a nonsectarian. and highly liberal, liberal arts school (they also visit Bowdoin and Colby Colleges in Maine, similarly elitist institutions). During the second season, Tony and his wife Carmella make it clear that they want their daughter to go to Georgetown, a Washington, D. C. area university, or to Holy Cross, a college in Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour south of Boston. Both are Catholic and Jesuit schools, both out of town. But significantly, Boston and D. C. are the northern and southern ends of the northeastern United States' megalopolis, which is linked together by Interstate 95. In other words, were Meadow to attend either of these schools, she would be directly connected to the New Jersey Turnpike, only a matter of five or six hours away by car.
In contrast, Meadow's desire to attend Berkeley, an airplane trip across the country, horrifies her parents. While I wonder why my own institution, Fordham University, which is New York's Jesuit university, never came up, Meadow's ultimate choice of Columbia speaks volumes. Just across the Hudson River, Columbia University looks out at the New Jersey Palisades. The proximity means safety for Meadow, who is very much the Italian-American Princess, but situated in Manhattan, in Harlem, the cultural distance between the Soprano's North Caldwell home and Columbia is as great as it would be for Berkeley.
The beginning of Meadow's freshmen year, depicted in the third season, shows her having trouble adjusting to her new environment. Ultimately, she reaches back across the Hudson for the security of the familiar, frequently visiting her parents in part for food and laundry services, in part for her emotional support. Moreover, after being dumped by the exotic Noah, she begins dating longtime friend of the family Jackie Aprile, Jr., son of the late North Jersey mob boss who wants to be like his dad, drops out of Rutgers, and ultimately gets himself whacked. While it is not unusual for college freshmen to get homesick, there is a strong sense in which Tony's two families are defined by their turf and have difficulty on unfamiliar ground.
This was shown with great effect in the third season episode "Pine Barrens," when two members of Tony's crew, Paulie and Christopher, get lost in the South Jersey Pine Barrens following a botched execution. "How can we be lost? We're in New Jersey" moans Paulie. And it is true that you cannot truly get lost in the densely populated and well-developed environment of northeastern New Jersey. But the Pine Barrens are another story. They are part of the largest body of open space on the east coast between Massachusetts and Virginia, a national reserve 1.1 million acres large. The Pine Barrens are also the home of the legendary Jersey Devil ,and [t]he episode is reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project (Erica Leerhsen from the film's sequel has a minor role as a tennis instructor in an earlier episode from the same season). Thus, David Chase's New Jersey has something in common with Blair Witch creators Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's Maryland, Stephen King's Maine, and H. P. Lovecraft's Massachusetts. The Pine Barrens are a part of another of the many Jerseys, Weird New Jersey, which is the title of a local periodical that covers a Jersey that lies hidden beneath industrial Jersey, a folk Jersey full of devils, ghosts, and unexplained phenomena.

New and Old Jersey
North Jersey is defined in opposition to New York in one direction, and in opposition to South Jersey in another. Internally, it is defined by yet another opposition, which I would call Old Jersey vs. Nouveau Jersey. By Old Jersey, I mean the urban areas like Newark, the state's largest city. Even here, there is the linguistic problem that Newark sounds like a garbled pronunciation of New York. And no doubt Newark's proximity to New York has kept it from achieving any degree of prominence. Also, Newark never quite recovered from the race riots of 1967, although recent efforts to build a performing arts center and a sports arena for the Nets and Devils are hopeful signs. Still, Newark is the old neighborhood, the place where poor immigrants and minorities raised their families, the place where Tony's father ruled the streets. This is where Satriale's Pork Store is situated within the show, although its actual location is Kearny. Old Jersey also includes Jersey City, Hobokon, and Paterson, but there are urban neighborhoods distributed throughout North Jersey. In contrast to New York's traditional proxemics of inner city, outer boroughs, and outer suburbs, Old Jersey and Nouveau Jersey areas are scattered around the North Jersey region, forming a patchwork or postmodern pastiche, an episodic arrangement that reflects the aesthetics of the television series, as New York City's more coherent layout reflects the traditional linear narrative of the cinema.
Old Jersey is much like New York City, in contrast to Nouveau Jersey which has more in common with the New York suburbs of Long Island, Westchester and Rockland, and southern Connecticut. Significantly, the ascendancy of Nouveau Jersey is reflected in the fact that New Jersey has replaced Connecticut as the state with the highest median household income, according to the 2000 census. Connecticut lifestyle icon Martha Stewart secretly reflects the move from Old to Nouveau Jersey, insofar as she is a Polish-American born in Jersey City as Martha Kostyra, and grew up in Nutley (not far from David Chase's Clifton).
Tony Soprano's drive during the opening credits takes him out of New York to Old Jersey, and then finally to Nouveau Jersey. Geographically, the sequence is incoherent. It is not a route that you can follow on a map. The sequence is a montage of images shot at many different locations in North Jersey, some south of the Lincoln Tunnel, some north of it, and some to the west. But the drive from Old Jersey to Nouveau Jersey is a drive through time more than space, from the old to the new. It also reflects the drive needed for upward mobility, for making your way through the American class system. Additionally, the drive simply represents the activity of driving. That's what we do in New Jersey (we have the highest automobile insurance rates in the country to show for it). And if the opening drive doesn't follow a linear route, the fact of the matter is that neither do we much of the time. We don't just drive up and down a given highway. We drive around North Jersey. We navigate a dense web of highways, parkways, turnpikes, and roads. There is an almost hyperactive relationship to the highways here in New Jersey, or at least so it seems. Crossing the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan to Fort Lee, the driver suddenly encounters a bewildering array of road signs for the Palisades Interstate Parkway, Routes 1, 9, and 46, Interstate 95 and the New Jersey Turnpike, Routes 4 and 80, and Routes 17 and the Garden State Parkway. Drivers unfamiliar with this busy highway area (e.g., New Yorkers) have been known to stop completely despite the obvious danger, paralyzed by information overload.
After ten years, my experience of North Jersey remains fragmented and discontinuous. For example, I know David Chase's hometown of Clifton, not as a neighborhood that constitutes a geographic whole, but as exits on Route 3, Route 46, and the Garden State Parkway. I know a little of the area surrounding each exit, but not how they fit together to form a coherent place. A more traditional sense of place would require walking around a town, or at least driving around a grid of streets, rather than driving through, and exiting and entering highways. In this respect, then, the opening credits reflects the experience of the North Jersey's driver's "no sense of place."
I am used to it now, but when I first moved out here I was amazed at most people's casual attitude towards driving. In New York City, your first instinct is to stick to your neighborhood. Your second is to travel to another neighborhood, and stay there until you are ready to go home. Traveling is associated with a great deal of overhead, in the time it takes to move through congested areas, in the cost of parking and tolls, and in the risk of accident or theft. And from a New York point of view, New Jersey is a journey, not a destination. It is a place to pass through to get to somewhere else.
You might cross the George Washington Bridge to cut through the northeastern corridor of New Jersey, which would take you to New York's Rockland County suburbs, the Catskill Mountains, and upstate New York. Or you might take Route 80 West and cut across Northern New Jersey on your way to Pennsylvania, southwestern New York State, and on into the midwest. Or you might head down the New Jersey Turnpike and follow I-95 to Philadelphia, or to points south, from Delaware, to D. C., to Disneyworld. Of course, your destination might just be Newark International Airport, considered New York's third major airport, an alternative to the older, more congested Kennedy and Laguardia airports in Queens.
Old Jersey is a bit more automobile-friendly than New York City, but it still emphasizes neighborhoods. And while the mass transit options may not be as extensive as they are in New York, they do exist there, unlike Nouveau Jersey. Bruce Springsteen often paints poignant pictures of Old Jersey, but his most popular works are the songs that romanticize the road, that describe how Nouveau Jerseyans were "born to run." In this, his music mirrors The Sopranos opening. Joe Piscopo's famous line, "You're from Joisey? What exit?" cemented the image of New Jersey as a state that had been paved over by superhighways. "What exit?" has become a Jersey commonplace. And it suggests that North Jersey/Nouveau Jersey has more in common with Los Angeles and Dallas than it does with New York, meaning that there is no there there.
The region is characterized by urban sprawl, but it has a certain coherence that may also qualify it as a "regional city" (Calthorpe and Fulton), a region whose parts, Old Jersey's traditional urban areas and Nouveau Jersey's suburban settlements, add up to the equivalent of a traditional city. The Sopranoland regional city would encompass Essex County, which includes the city of Newark, as well as Montclair and the Oranges; Passaic County which includes the cities of Paterson and Clifton; Bergen County which includes Fort Lee, Hackensack, and Paramus; Hudson County which includes Jersey City and Hoboken; and Union County which includes the town of Elizabeth.
Throughout the series, as in the opening credits, Chase conveys a strong image of New Jersey, one that is culturally confirming, one that reworks our cultural geography. But it is also true that North Jersey comes across as atmosphere, albeit sometimes polluted, rather than an established geography. Jersey is reduced to bits and pieces, which are put together according to dramatic and aesthetic needs, not according to the realities of the actual landscape. This sort of editing has long been a part of film production, as Benjamin has pointed out—an early form of Baudrillard's hyperrealism. And that makes Sopranoland the kind of postmodern scene that Fredric Jameson has detailed. But most of all it suggests a geographic environment that mirrors the electronic media environment. Marshall McLuhan provides one of the best known commentaries on the displacements brought about by the new media ecology, and Joshua Meyrowitz sums it all up with his book title, No Sense of Place.
Electronic media defy distance and dissolve boundaries, undermining a stable conception of space. Space becomes decentered, discontinuous, and dynamic. The electronic media encourage a sense of space that is acoustic, circular, and encompassing and involving, rather than visual, linear, and objectively distanced. Chase makes New Jersey cool, both in making it chic, and in McLuhan's sense of placing us in the midst of it, forcing us to participate in the construction of his new Jersey geography.
Much more so than New York, which is a city born out of print and mechanical technologies, Jersey is an electronic environment. It is the home of Thomas Edison, the great electrical pioneer. Also, because of Edison, Jersey was America's motion picture capital until 1916—how ironic, then, that Chase must now travel to Queens for a production studio. And New Jersey's car culture also reflect[s] an electronic sensibility. Anyone who thinks that an automobile is not an electronic medium has never tried to start a car when its battery is dead. More to the point, the highway system is as much a decentered network of nodes and links as electrical wiring, the telephone system, and the Internet.
Sopranoland is an electronic environment, a television map that has altered Jersey's cultural geography. The electronic media ecology retribalizes, according to McLuhan. Similarly, Walter Ong suggests that electronic cultures are characterized by secondary orality, sharing some of the characteristics of nonliterate, oral cultures. Tony Soprano's Old School harkens back to traditional and tribal societies, with their emphasis on kinship, loyalty, and honor (Goode). It should also be noted that tribal societies can be extremely violent (Carpenter). But the main thing is that such societies are group-centered—no one in Tony's crew ever bowls alone (Putnam). Perhaps that is why we are have been so fascinated with Mafia mythologies over the past few decades (it also accounts for the fascination with street gangs). In contrast, Dr. Melfi represents print culture, with her emphasis on the individual psyche and depth analysis. McLuhan would conclude that her approach is therefore obsolescent, and doomed to failure, except insofar as she herself trades her modern ethics in for postmodern moral relativism.
But the Sopranos' world is ultimately one of secondary orality, reflected in their electronic gadgetry, surrounded as they are by home theater systems, DVD players, videogame machines, and home computers. The Sopranos are wired, and wiretaps and recording devices also figure into their world. Informants such as Big Pussy carry wires, and in the first episode of the third season, "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood," the FBI bugs the Soprano home. There are no private spaces in the electronic media environment, reflecting the fact that we are all under surveillance. At the same time, there is no sense of public space, for the private and the public are only defined as polar oppositions. The extreme cursing that the Soprano mobsters and family members engage in is symptomatic of the electronic media environment's blurring of the public and private, of no sense of place or propriety, and also of secondary orality's retrieval of primary orality's use of vituperation.
The great conflict that the Sopranos face is the conflict between family values, Old School traditions, and the pressures of the tribe on the one hand, and the individualism, desire for freedom, and downright selfishness that motivates them and much of American society on the other. The new North Jersey sense of place does not give them a stable environment within which they might resolve this conflict. Left with no sense of place, they find themselves lost, struggling to achieve a new synthesis between orality and literacy, community and individualism, a synthesis for the electronic age. And they are not alone, as The Sopranos presents the media, academia, and even religion as Mafias in their own right. Sopranoland expands outward to encompass New York and Philadelphia, indeed all of the United States, and perhaps even the world. It turns out that Sopranoland has an alias: the global village. Suddenly, we're all from Joisy, we're all living mythically and integrally while driving around Sopranoland. But we don't know how to answer the question, "what exit?"

1 comment:

Ken Rubenstein said...

I live on Oahu, and if you really want to experience a media-based locale, check this place out. For example, my son visited recently and I accompanied him on a daylong guided tour of sites used in the Lost tv show. I was the only one the minibus who had never seen the show. I saw familiar places on the island, and everyone else (including families from England and New Zealand) experienced a whole different dimension. I'm sure my experience was "mediated" to a degree, but these folks were clearly transported to an imaginary realm that was quite rich and real to them.