Alpha, New Jersey: The town the freeway DIDN’T destroy.

Stretching 144 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to the Holland Tunnel just outside Manhattan, Interstate 78 is hardly among the longer limited-access highways in the country. And, while certainly busy, I’d imagine plenty other freeways out there link a greater number of major population centers than I-78. Elsewhere in New Jersey, the Turnpike unquestionably carries a far greater traffic volume. Truth be told, it’s hard to think of anything distinct or remarkable about I-78. And even the segment I’m about to analyze is no great shakes. But the fact remains that, just to the east of the Delaware River that forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the path of this freeway makes an unusual turn—literally.

 

map1See it? Essentially the road creates a U shape when the more logical trajectory would have been a straight line, thereby adding at least two miles to the road’s length. So why did the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) design this strange bypass? A closer zoom might help explain.map2This time, I’ve added Google Maps’ red outline to emphasize the key municipality affected here. What we’re witnessing is, as is obvious by now, the Borough of Alpha.

The serene municipality of approximately 2,300 seems to lack any sordid details in the past that would give it a colorful history. Quite simply, it was a company town, and even though the cement industry that spawned its growth shuttered generations ago, the municipality has held steady thanks to its proximity to larger economic centers: specifically Phillipsburg, NJ and Easton, PA, which together comprise the eastern edge of the Lehigh Valley region (whose largest two cities are Allentown and Bethlehem, both in Pennsylvania). Alpha is close to a lot of things—it is in New Jersey after all—yet it still feels much like a rural town.

As the official website for the Borough of Alpha indicates, the area owes its settlement almost completely to enterprise. A.B. Bonneville, an Allentown resident passing through the area in 1891, noted the quality of limestone deposits and decided to set up a cement factory in the area. He founded what eventually became the Alpha Cement Company in 1895 (though it briefly held the name “Vulcanite”), and his business quickly attracted recent immigrant families that clustered around the business. Within ten years, the community had calcified enough to warrant disaffiliation from the surrounding rural Pohatcong Township, and the State of New Jersey incorporated the Borough of Alpha in 1911.

Unfortunately, I limited my photos of Alpha to a restricted but compelling district. That said, the area strikes me as distinct for two key characteristics: 1) its settlement and incorporation at the turn of the 20th century is uncharacteristically late for a state like New Jersey (it’s a young town); 2) Alpha is astonishingly lacking in any real commercial node. Despite the fact that it sits less than a mile from the much larger city of Phillipsburg, and a streetcar once connected the two communities, Alpha lacks any evidence of a mixed-use district where passengers would disembark. There’s no downtown, no main street, not even a real intersection. This Google Street View of a strip mall offers the highest concentration of commercial facilities in the borough. Besides this, scattered auto-oriented uses in the periphery comprise the extent of commercial activity. Alpha may have owed its origins on an industry (which apparently closed by World War I), but today it’s a bedroom community in the fullest sense of the word.

It would be unreasonable for me to postulate that these characteristics had any bearing on the FHWA’s decision to bypass Alpha in the path of I-78. Clearly, in this case, the planners chose an inefficient serpentine path, despite the inevitably greater construction costs over a beeline trajectory. Why would they do this? Usually, it’s because of topography. While much of the Delaware River Valley is quite hilly, the terrain does not pose any great challenges around Alpha. Another reason could be the greater cost of land of going through an urbanized area. While land values in Alpha are probably greater than the surrounding farmsteads, they’re nowhere near as high as if Alpha had a high concentration of commercial properties, or if it were a particularly affluent community. (Alpha is resolutely middle class.) Besides, many of the earliest limited-access highways careened right through urban downtowns, so the earliest architects didn’t let population density deter them.

So what’s the reason for the bypass? Could the planners have avoided this borough of 2,300 when designing I-78 because of a specific feature unique to Alpha? I’m going out on a limb here, but let’s zoom in just a bit further to that Google Map.map3Notice that patch of green immediately to the right of the word “Alpha” on the map. Want to guess what it is?IMG_3831It’s a sizable cemetery. Cemeteries, to be frank. I couldn’t confirm exactly how many there are, but at least two. Here’s another label on essentially the same plot of land.IMG_3818So Catholic and Presbyterian. That’s all fine and well, but then there’s a third.IMG_3819This is the clincher: it’s the unmistakable cross of an Eastern Orthodox church—a far less common sight than the other two Christian expressions. But not so rare here in Alpha. The Orthodox cross appears in multiple incarnations throughout this hybrid house of eternal rest.Alpha NJ Orthodox Cemetery

IMG_3828

While Ukrainian, Russian, and other Eastern Orthodox faiths are a relatively rare sight in much of the country, they’re fairly easy to spot in eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. More specifically, these faiths align strongly with the immigrant groups that Alpha originally attracted. Per the Alpha website, these included Hungarian, Slovak and Italian arrivals. And judging from the last names, the ethnicities intermingled quite fondly in the afterlife, jettisoning cultural differences to capitalize on limited real estate in the borough’s only dedicated space for a cemetery.IMG_3817IMG_3820IMG_3823IMG_3829

I have no idea if the FHWA ever proposed to plow I-78 right through Alpha. But it sure looks like, judging from the unusual path, that the bypass to the south of Alpha was a last-minute decision. And if they did originally propose a path right through the borough, the very odds that it could disrupt a sacred space would help galvanize opposition to this plan. Meanwhile, the chances that such a proposal would affect the burial ground of virtually all the historic immigrant ethnicities in Alpha could strengthen the remonstrators’ case even further. Putting religious differences aside, they’d unite in defeating such a proposal. Urban, rural, suburban or small town, cemeteries fall under particularly high preservationist and archeological scrutiny when construction involves earth disturbance.IMG_3827IMG_3825If I-78 had taken the beeline approach, it would have installed a huge chasm that would separate Alpha and the much larger Phillipsburg to the north. Freeways are chasms, whether urban or rural. They rarely confer a net benefit to the previously quiet residential lands nearby. Home values plunge. In the ideal world, the planners and engineers who constructed this strange, curvy path conducted a cost-benefit analysis, assessing the added price for extra lane miles of freeway through the U-shaped path, versus the inevitable loss of property value to the formerly quiet communities of Alpha and Phillipsburg.

In this case, Alpha won. Opposition prevailed, defeating the Robert Moses mentality of freeway construction (i.e., the quickest way from A to B). Whether because of a cemetery, a well-organized Orthodox contingent, a sinkhole, or general public disdain for high-speed vehicle sewers, Alpha is all that much stronger for this decision. Or it may be that planners and engineers simply knew better. Throughout the late 1950s and1960s, freeway design went right to the heart of town, aiming to revitalize ailing downtowns by improving their access from the suburbs. (It didn’t work.) But, like the Borough of Alpha, I-78 was a late bloomer; only a few segments operated in the 1970s, and the bulk of construction work took place in the late 1980s. By this point, not only were planners well aware of the ineffectiveness of plowing right through a town, but concerned citizens knew how to organize to defeat such a path. The result? Alpha and Phillipsburg both survive. And so do hundreds of graves in a distinctive cemetery, with Italian surnames next to German Palatines, Slovaks next to Magyars.

10 thoughts on “Alpha, New Jersey: The town the freeway DIDN’T destroy.

  1. dixie dugan white

    But there’s no problem tearing up Native American burial sites for pipelines, highways, mine development. Hhhmmm.
    (patdugan@hotmail.com)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Dixie, thanks for writing, and sorry for my delay. It’s always interesting to see where activism helps bring in the government–or keep it out–as is preferred by the local population. Clearly, after centuries of serious injustices, Native Americans have enjoyed protections and far greater territorial sovereignty in the last 75 or so years than they before that. We now have examples like the Taos Pueblo of sites that the U.S. Government actively helps to preserve. But it doesn’t always work that way.

      As you noted, in contrast, we get the heated protests at Standing Rock, which I’ll admit I haven’t followed as closely as I should, but it seems more like a 21st century reinvention of the ribbons of highways that plowed through low-income neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s. My home state of Indiana recently experienced an extension of the I-69 interstate from Evansville to Indianapolis, across state parks and some of the most environmentally sensitive area, as well as some threatened Amish farms. I’m only speculating on what happened in Alpha–it would be great to know if the cemeteries helped spare the town from the freeway.

      Reply
  2. Wanderer

    Interesting. This reminds me a bit of Colma, California, a few miles south of San Francisco. There’s a cluster of cemeteries there, removed from San Francisco in the 1930’s, I believe. There are two freeways that go through Colma, but they both manage to avoid the cemeteries.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the observation, Wanderer. I had never heard of Colma, but it sounds fascinating–it was intended to serve as a necropolis all along. And it looks like the highway just skirts the western side of the municipal limits. And, judging from the fact that it has several successful shopping centers, I’d imagine Colma has no problem providing municipal services…

      Reply
  3. Chris B

    Think of Kokomo, Indiana, where the state DOT just completed a “bypass bypass”.

    Back in the 60s they built a highway with traffic lights around the east side of the city. Then came the mall and sprawl, and lo the bypass was too congested and slow to serve the trucks from the industries that had located along it.

    So in INDOT’s continuing quest to turn US31 into an interstate-grade highway from Indy to South Bend, they built a new limited access bypass (which they should have done the first time). But they didn’t convert the original bypass to limited access…all those strip mall parking lots and outlots were too valuable to take, and apparently Chrysler and Delco plants formed a bottleneck, so they plowed through farmland a couple more miles out.

    End result? The “interstate” bends around the town almost exactly the same way. Not because of a cemetery, but because the sprawl was too “valuable” to build a highway through.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Interesting, Chris. I’ve only been to Kokomo once, just a few years ago, and I did notice the two parallel highways. But it never occurred to me that it was built out of a lack of foresight the first time around. Now that you’re mentioning it though, of course that’s what happened…

      Who knows how much longer the shopping along S.R. 931 (the original bypass) will remain viable? What a dire sight that could be, if the original bypass ends up becoming just as fast-moving as the limited-access road, since all the “sprawl” themed businesses have failed, thereby eliminating any congestion.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Exactly my point. Sprawlmart will have to move out to the new edge in a few years.

        (While the city revitalizes the old downtown.)

        Reply
  4. Brian M

    Chris B: Sounds exactly like U.S. 30 and Coliseum Blvd in Fort Wayne, now bypassed by the massive loop road I 469 which swings way to the east. Not sure you can even tie it to land speculation all that much, as most of the surrounding land bypassed in resolutely rural.

    The sheer ugliness of Coliseum Blvd (which has faded over the decades as Fort Wayne basically stagnated) inspired my interest in urban design and city planning. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Common denominator: INDOT 😉

      I wasn’t suggesting land speculation, only commenting that in Indiana, it didn’t require a town center or a cemetery to re-route a highway. Even disposable and not-so-nice aging strip malls, outlots, and parking lots are too valuable/expensive for INDOT to take (in the 5th Amendment “takings” sense).

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.