Ramapo Mountain

PH03816I In this week's New Yorker, Ben McGrath writes about the people of the Ramapo Mountain, known as the Jackson Whites. (Sadly, the article is behind a paywall. I'll save it for my local friends without a subscription.)

I live about twenty minutes from Ramapo Mountain. In nicer weather, we frequently take the kids up there for hikes. I also taught at Ramapo College for two and a half years, so I have some affinity for that area. 

McGrath does an adequate job describing the unique culture that has been living a stone's throw from Manhattan for generations. But perhaps the best writing about the area and the troubles that they have faced was in a series of articles done by the Bergen Record several years ago. It was a fine bit of reporting that hopefully won them some awards.

The Ramapo Mountains have been settled since the 1700s. The bullets from Revolutionary War muskets were formed with iron found in the mines in the mountains. In the 50s and 60s, the Ford Motor Company built paint plants up there. As part of the paint making process, sludge or waste from plant accumulated. The executives didn't know what to do with the sludge at first. Then they noticed all the holes in ground from the 200 year old abandoned iron mines. Aha! They dumped the sludge down the holes. Really smart, right?

Well, all the sludge has been bubbling to the ground in people's backyards and on the edges of playgrounds and everybody has thyroid cancer. There have been lawsuits, but, so far, Ford has been able to avoid paying damages to the local people.

Bergen County is a highly developed, suburban area. Real estate starts at $350,000 for a tiny home with an outdated kitchen. I was surfing the real estate websites last night and looking at houses that were advertised as teardowns that cost $500,000. Developers fight over little plots of land to build $900,000 McMansions with two feet of backyard space. So, Ramapo Mountain is prime space for development. It's one of the few untouched parts of our county.

McGrath explains the tension that is arising from the encroachment of developers and local law enforcement into the community of people who live there. It's like the Saddle River Junior league set up a garden party in the middle of Appalachia. And all within the shade of the Empire State building.


5 thoughts on “Ramapo Mountain

  1. “Well, all the sludge has been bubbling to the ground in people’s backyards and on the edges of playgrounds and everybody has thyroid cancer.”
    It’s this sort of stuff that makes me leery of urban gardening and projects for turning former industrial areas into residential.

  2. I’m a bit leery of gardening in my neighborhood. I was talking to one of my old professors shortly after I moved into my new house. It turns about that 30 years ago, he used to live about six blocks from where I now live. He was telling me that they used to walk to the giant slag heap, get a bucket of slag, and spread it on the sidewalk to melt ice. The giant slag heap is now capped with clay (topped with houses from $300k to $600k). Even without the deliberate slag-spreading, being so close to the largest steel works of its era can’t have been good for the soil.

  3. The last paragraph is a very evocative, brief description. Of course, at this end of Appalachia, you have Junior League full of women with white, ethnic last names.

  4. A very interesting read. Twenty odd years ago, a college friend from Ringwood had told me the Hessians and prostitutes version of the founding of that town.

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