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Utopia, New Jersey

Travels in the Nearest Eden

Perdita Buchan

Publication Year: 2007

Utopia. New Jersey. For most people—even the most satisfied New Jersey residents—these words hardly belong in the same sentence. Yet, unbeknown to many, history shows that the state has been a favorite location for utopian experiments for more than a century. Thanks to its location between New York and Philadelphia and its affordable land, it became an ideal proving ground where philosophical and philanthropical organizations and individuals could test their utopian theories.

            In this intriguing look at this little-known side of New Jersey, Perdita Buchan explores eight of these communities. Adopting a wide definition of the term utopia—broadening it to include experimental living arrangements with a variety of missions—Buchan explains that what the founders of each of these colonies had in common was the goal of improving life, at least as they saw it.

            In every other way, the communities varied greatly, ranging from a cooperative colony in Englewood founded by Upton Sinclair, to an anarchist village in Piscataway centered on an educational experiment, to the fascinating Physical Culture City in Spotswood, where drugs, tobacco, and corsets were banned, but where nudity was widespread.

            Despite their grand intentions, all but one of the utopias—a single-tax colony in Berkeley Heights—failed to survive. But Buchan shows how each of them left a legacy of much more than the buildings or street names that remain today—legacies that are inspiring, surprising, and often outright quirky.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

Walking down a dirt road in Vermont some years ago, I came upon a field of wooden animals—a giraffe among them—paint weathered and faded, heads and tails broken off by storms or vandals. In the long grass were the remains of monkey bars and, in a grove of birches, boards that might have been a shed. It was late September, the crickets sang, grasshoppers whirred...

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pp. xv-2

Many people helped in the writing of this book, but some I especially thank: Laurel Hessing, with her encyclopedic knowledge and generosity of spirit, who really started me on this road, and Dr. Fernanda Perrone, archivist, of Special Collections and University Archives of the Rutgers University Libraries, who was unfailingly helpful and efficient. I also thank Jillian...

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Helicon Home Colony: A Cooperative Living Community

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pp. 3-25

I take the turnpike north, which reminds me how close Englewood is to New York City. I hope I’ll get the exit right and not end up on the George Washington Bridge. I do get it right and make my way through Englewood’s comfortably dowdy downtown to the public library. I want to look at maps and get directions. I know that Helicon was on the Palisades above the town, but as...

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Free Acres: A Single-Tax Colony

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pp. 26-54

I am in the middle of the central New Jersey commuter belt on my way to Free Acres. It’s a relief to leave the speeding crowd on Route 78 and head toward Berkeley Heights. The traffic doesn’t let up, but it moves more slowly.
“Turn at the Getty station,” my directions read. I drive past the cul-de-sacs of identical houses off Emerson Lane, past the Tyvek-shrouded construction rising on a ridge of the Watchung Hills. At the old red farmhouse, I turn again...

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Stelton: An Experiment in Education

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pp. 55-84

I know my way to New Brunswick very well. For a while, it was my twice weekly commuting route. Route 18, like the Garden State Parkway, is an old road, built when driving was meant to be a somewhat aesthetic experience. I began driving Route 18 in the fall of the year after my move from New England. This is beautiful, I thought, as the trees flamed into color—who says...

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Physical Culture City: The Kingdom of Health

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pp. 85-115

Back on Route 18 again, this time I’m heading for Spotswood, a name on a sign that I have passed many times en route to work. I know this is where Bernarr Macfadden built his utopia, but I have never explored it. Now I swoop down the exit ramp, around to the right, and onto Main Street. The center of Spotswood is small: the library, post office, a strip mall, and an old tavern building. Physical...

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The Self Master Colony: A Home for the Homeless

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pp. 116-137

I am on the parkway again, headed for Union. This time the exit is simple, none of the baroque twists and switchbacks I have come to dread, just a road that tunnels under Route 22 and climbs past the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church and Cemetery. It’s an old brick and stone church, reminiscent of ones I’ve seen in southeastern Pennsylvania, although, as the name suggests, Union’s...

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Woodbine: Immigrants on the Land

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pp. 138-172

South Jersey farmland is fl at. The drive inland from Cape May reveals a landscape of broad fields fringed by trees, both pine and deciduous. Lakes appear around curves in the road. Stretches of woods are preserved habitat for wildlife. When the Jewish farmers first came here to Alliance, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was a wilderness. There were no motel cabins by the...

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Roosevelt: New Deal Town

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pp. 173-201

Route 571 winds through meadows; it is far enough inland that there are gentle hills, plowed fields, stands of trees, a horse farm. On this spring day, wisteria gone wild is blossoming high in the trees. This corner of the state, near Hightstown and Princeton, is hardly isolated, yet there is still farmland, making it easier to imagine the early farming days of Jersey Homesteads, as Roosevelt...

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Rova Farms: Preserving a Culture

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pp. 202-218

In the summer of 1971, I took a bus from Asbury Park to Philadelphia. As the bus made its way down the coast, I fell asleep. I awoke in the Pinelands to see, rising, like a wayward dream, out of the acres of stunted pines, a gilded onion dome. A minute later we passed a sand lane whose sign clearly read Pushkin Road. Then the bus pulled up to a cluster of buildings at the edge of a lake...

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pp. 219-222

Most of the communities I have written about in this volume were founded between the last ten years of the nineteenth century and the first fifteen years of the twentieth, a time when utopian communities proliferated in response to the industrialization and urbanization of America, and perhaps the sense that people ’s lives were no longer in balance with nature and other...


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pp. 223-240


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pp. 241-246


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pp. 247-254

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813543956
E-ISBN-10: 0813543959
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813541785

Page Count: 257
Publication Year: 2007