Imagine your typical suburban New Jersey town. You’ve got your SUV-clogged highways lined with box stores. Scores of happy shoppers mill around the Walmart, giddy with thoughts of the money they’re about to save. This is route 9 in Lacey Township, New Jersey.
But it’s not only Lacey. It’s rt. 17 in Paramus. It’s rt. 37 in Toms River. It’s rt. 1 in Edison. What the hell’s the difference? They all look the same. Everywhere, throughout New Jersey and the nation, the landscape is becoming increasingly homogenized. Look around any public setting and you’ll see the exact same backdrop. It’s like a low-budget side-scroller; the 2D background just gets a pallet swap at each level to signify that you’re somewhere new. And we love it. What’s not to love about simplicity and convenience?
Before Sam Walton’s magnum opus opened in 2009 to provide all 28,000 Lacey residents with low, low prices, a farm stood at 580 Route 9. If you go to the Walmart today, you can read a few paragraphs about the farm on a display board behind glass right beside the store’s entrance. It stood there for more than two hundred years, a two-story house on twelve acres of land beside the highway. It was known as “Good Luck Farm.” Good Luck was part of the village of Cedar Creek. Cedar Creek was a former name for the town, along with Aumachtown and Williamstown. The current name, “Lanoka Harbor,” which is now a section of Lacey Township, came about later.
The Van Arsdale family came to America from the Netherlands in the 1650s and had originally settled in New Amsterdam (what is now Lower Manhattan) before moving to New Jersey. Generations of Van Arsdales lived in the house until 1957, earning it the nickname “The Van Arsdale House.”
In 1957, Fred and Grace Ross purchased the property and had indoor plumbing installed in the house. They were the final owners of the home. They lived there, raised three children as well as sheep and asparagus, and watched Lacey change more dramatically than it ever had before. In the time they lived there, the population surged from around 1,000 people to over 25,000. These tens of thousands of new residents needed their town to grow with them, and it did.
These tens of thousands of new residents had to shop, had to eat, had to stock their homes, and the town had to comply. In 2007, Walmart bought the property and began the process of creating another one or their Supercenters. The Rosses had stopped living in it years prior.
Should we care? At the time, some people did. Groups like Preservation New Jersey petitioned that Walmart should choose a different site for the store, but their requests were too little, too late. Construction began anyway and in 2009, it opened and Lacey was finally able to buy anything it wanted, from baked goods to fishing poles 24 hours a day, every day of the year except Christmas and a few hours on Thanksgiving.
And, like I asked in the previous paragraph, should we care? The story of the Van Arsdale house is just that – a nice little story and hardly a unique one. It wasn’t a ratable. It wasn’t undercutting the competition to ensure you get the very best deal possible, but it also can’t be replaced. For those who have only ever seen a Walmart there, they don’t bother a thought for the original structure that stood for two hundred years before it, but there isn’t another one – anywhere.
Another unique structure slated for demolition and replacement comes to mind: Pal’s Cabin in West Orange. The restaurant, which began in 1932 as a tiny cottage out of which Martin L. Horn and Bion Leroy Sale sold hot dogs, grew into a local favorite over the years. Toward the end of 2012, CVS applied to the West Orange Zoning Board for variances to build on the property. Rumors flew that the eighty-year-old establishment would close. As of right now, there are no definite answers about the fate of Pal’s Cabin, but should it close and CVS buy the property and build a store, there’s another piece of local history gone. American-style entrepreneurship and period-specific architecture ripped down for another beige, red, and white pharmacy.
It’s impossible to save everything. I know that. And when a buyer purchases a property (or anything else) it’s his or hers to do whatever he or she chooses with it. I get that. But this business of slapping up a Target or Barnes & Noble on every corner comes with a price. Your city is paying with its individuality. When a town loses its unique structures, it becomes another generic Anytown, USA.
It doesn’t have to be like this, though. In the 1980s, concerned citizens of New Hyde Park, NY protested when McDonald’s purchased a dilapidated eighteenth-century mansion in the town. Rather than tear it down, as originally intended, McDonald’s opted to restore the house to its 1920s level of opulence and open a restaurant inside. Now, it draws tourists from all over who want to experience this actual “McMansion.” This is one of the finest examples of Corporate America working to maintain our country’s heritage rather than rip it down and build over it. All it took was some creativity and local resistance.
Thank you very much to Eleanor Ditton and the rest of the Lacey Township Historical Society for helping me write this article.
Check out some pictures of the property, before and after Walmart came to town.