Utopia

“All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.”
Toni Morrison

New Jersey – home to the original diner, FM radio, the lithium battery, the zipper, the boardwalk, the phonograph and the electric train. The past three governors have literally broken a leg, and it’s been called the clam state and the mosquito state – but, utopia?

“Utopia. New Jersey. For most people – even the most satisfied of New Jersey residents – these words hardly belong in the same sentence,” says the book jacket of Perdita Buchan’s Utopia, New Jersey (Rutgers University Press, $24.95). “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 her book, Ms. Buchan explores eight utopian communities, or experimental living arrangements, from the cooperative colony founded by Upton Sinclair in Englewood, to Roosevelt, known as Jersey Homestead before the 32nd president of the United States created the New Deal Resettlement and made it the promised land for urban garment workers.

Ms. Buchan will give a four-part lecture on Utopia at Princeton Adult School beginning March 18.

The design for Jersey Homestead was inspired by utopian thinker Ebenezer Howard, whose “Garden City” movement inspired many modern city designs around a central park. Jersey Homestead’s flat-roofed buildings, designed by Louis Kahn early in his career, were influenced by the nascent Bauhaus movement and built on one-acre lots on roads that curved around communal green spaces and woods.

But the original dream of a manufacturing and farming community fizzled. The farmers wanted to make a profit, and the manufacturers wanted to buy produce at a discounted price. The factory failed, and the farm cooperative could not make a profit feeding so few families.

In its wake, a new kind of community emerged. After Ben Shahn completed his mural, he and his wife, artist Bernarda Bryson, settled in Roosevelt. Soon other artists, who discovered the “utopia” through their association chose to settle here as well: Jacob Landau, Gregorio Prestopino, Stefan Martin, Sol Libsohn and others.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City was a way to bring nature back to dark, dirty urban areas with wide boulevards lined with parks and trees; it was a precursor to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’ Central Park in New York.

Some road movies are the very embodiment of the utopian search, with the characters often leaving cities in search of the perfect place in nature: Easy Rider; Bonnie and Clyde; My Private Idaho; Central Station; Paris, Texas.

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