Celebrating Rutgers University Press at 80

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By Stuart Mitchner

According to Caroline Seebohm’s Cottages and Mansions of the Jersey Shore (Rivergate/Rutgers University Press $39.95), which features Peter C. Cook’s evocative photography, “the essence of New Jersey in all its beauty, tragedy, toughness, and diversity” can be found in that 127-mile-long stretch of coastline from Atlantic Highlands to Cape May. Taken five years before Sandy devastated the Shore, Cook’s cover image, with its deep blue sky and resplendent red bicycle, makes a suggestive contrast to the cover photo of a book featured on Rutgers’s spring/summer list, Karen M. O’Neill and Daniel J. Van Abs’s Taking Chances: The Coast after Hurricane Sandy. A collection of articles by leading researchers, biologists, urban planners, utilities experts, and climatologists, Taking Chances documents reaction to the storm in light of the “main question, which is whether Sandy was a transformational event, just another storm, or something in between.” The implicit message of the cover is here we go again, with the blue-sky-backed framework of a home built high enough off the ground to presumably survive another Sandy, except the subtext is closer to the dark side of the field of dreams—if you build it, no matter how well you build it, devastation will come. As the editors of Taking Chances point out, “Community ties, place attachment, culture, infrastructure, and money create powerful incentives for residents and businesses to stay in hazardous coastal places and for newcomers to join them.”

Also new from the Press, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, Diane C. Bates’s Superstorm Sandy: The Inevitable Destruction and Reconstruction of the Jersey Shore highlights the elements that compounded the disaster while at the same time providing a framework for understanding it. The book analyzes post-Sandy narratives that stressed human ingenuity over nature (such as the state’s “Stronger than the Storm” advertising campaign) or proclaimed a tough, enlightened community (“Jersey Strong”). According to Kari Marie Norgaard, author of Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, Bates’s book “provides an impressively clear exploration of the events surrounding the hurricane. Readers can feel themselves walking down the boardwalk alongside the author and worrying alongside the residents.”

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Hello Brooklyn

While specializing in Garden State subjects like the shore and Sandy, not to mention Jersey diners, “forgotten towns,” celebrity chefs and politicians, Rutgers University Press has devoted profitable attention to the New York metropolitan area. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the only work in print on the subject was Angus Kress Gillespie’s Twin Towers, which became a surprise best-seller as a result. Another Rutgers best-seller with a regional flavor is Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing, “novels I will never forget,” in the words of The Color Purple’s Alice Walker. Among new books, the regional title generating the most excitement for the spring and summer season is Ellen Freudenheim’s The Brooklyn Experience, an insider’s guide to 41 Brooklyn neighborhoods, with their shops, greenmarkets, festivals, and cultural scenes at the Brooklyn Academy of Art, Barclays Center, and neighborhoods like DUMBO, Williamsburg, and Bushwick. There are exclusive interviews with experts from the James Beard Foundation to the cofounder of the famous Brooklyn Book Fair, from MacArthur “genius” award winners to young entrepreneurs, hipsters, and activists, all of whom have something to say about Brooklyn, including the definitive New Yorker columnist Pete Hamill: “If you’ve lived in Brooklyn for generations or arrived last month, this book is a splendid companion in the delicious task of exploring the grandest New York borough. Pull up a chair and read. Even better, head for the street, this book in hand, and look around.”

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Seeing the State

Moving closer to home again there’s Envisioning New Jersey, the big, lavishly illustrated volume that Edison Papers Editor and Director Paul Israel calls “a wonderful introduction to the history of the Garden State,” combining “a concise and readable narrative with hundreds of significant written, visual, and material documents.” Maxine N. Lurie and Richard F. Veit, two leading  authorities on New Jersey history, have put together more than 650 images covering the course of the state’s history, ranging from paintings and photographs to documents and maps. There are portraits of George Washington and Molly Pitcher from the Revolution, battle flags from the War of 1812 and the Civil War, women air raid wardens patrolling the streets of Newark during World War II, as well as pictures of Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African American to vote after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment; Paul Robeson marching for civil rights; university students protesting in the 1960s; and Martin Luther King speaking at Monmouth University. The authors highlight the ethnic and religious variety of New Jersey inhabitants with images that range from Native American arrowheads and fishing implements to Dutch and German buildings, early African American churches and leaders, and modern Catholic and Hindu houses of worship.

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City and University

Meanwhile New Brunswick is booming. Home to the Old Queens campus of Rutgers University, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, the city on the Raritan is also the subject of a new Rutgers University Press book focused on the extraordinary renaissance that has led many experts to cite New Brunswick as a model for urban redevelopment.

The Press is marking the occasion with Rutgers: a 250th Anniversary Portrait edited by Nita Congress. Chartered in 1766 as the all-male Queen’s College, the school was renamed Rutgers College in 1825 to honor Revolutionary War veteran and trustee Colonel Henry Rutgers (the motto of the moment is “Revolutionary for 250 Years”). Illustrated with over 200 new and archival photographs, Rutgers features contributions by prominent faculty members, University leaders, and renowned alumni like Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz, also a graduate of Rutgers Press, having worked there as an intern back in the day when he was an unpublished novice trying to get the New Yorker’s attention.

I would give Junot Diaz the last word if not for the fact that a quote from him about the state bookends Ilene Dube’s story in this issue, “Boardwalks of the Jersey Shore.” I could quote Senator Cory Booker (“people helping people: this is New Jersey”), the subject of Don Gilpin’s profile.    Looking for a more upbeat closing statement, however, I turned to Trump supporter Governor Chris Christie, featured in a previous Book Scene, where he’s quoted to the effect that “anybody who lives in New Jersey, the Jersey Shore is in your heart.”