The Ottumwa Courier

AP National

January 10, 2014

NJ town caught in scandal loves, hates that bridge

FORT LEE, N.J. (AP) — When Mayor Mark Sokolich's annual Christmas card showed up in mailboxes a few weeks ago, some residents took careful note of the photo selected for the front: the steely silhouette of this borough's treasured, and sometimes detested, George Washington Bridge — and a Revolutionary War cannon firing off a shot, as if to warn off unseen enemies who might try to threaten it.

"My opinion, just as a recipient of the card, I think the photo speaks for itself," said Tom Myers, a fourth-generation resident, town cultural officer and student of Fort Lee's history, chuckling at the thought.

Until a political scandal centering on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enveloped this town of 37,000, many people knew little more about Fort Lee than do the thousands of drivers whose cars speed — or, too often, crawl — across its landmark bridge each day. The town was just the blur of glass high-rises and brick Cape Cods on the other side of the guardrail.

But to people who live in this New York City bedroom community defined by both a feisty pride and frustration over the mixed blessings of its chokepoint locale, the scandal is the reminder they did not need of how the bridge dictates the rhythm of everyday life — and the lack of recognition the town gets for the challenges that poses.

"We endure combat here every single day dealing with that bridge traffic," Sokolich said Thursday, when he stepped before television cameras to respond to allegations that Christie's top aides orchestrated a plan to clog the borough streets with traffic as a form of political payback. "So ... to deal with it from a man-made standpoint, yes, it's very frustrating. It is."

To those who know Fort Lee, rather than merely pass through it, the borough boasts a distinct identity, shaped by location and history. The borough distinguished itself first as the site of a Revolutionary War encampment used to stage a crucial, but unsuccessful attempt by George Washington's forces to turn back the British. A century ago, Fort Lee briefly reclaimed fame as the nation's pre-Hollywood capital of movie-making, where celluloid dramas shot atop the rocks of the Palisades gave birth to the term "cliffhangers." And it has long defied stereotypes of suburban sameness as a settling place for immigrant up-and-comers, with aging Italian and Jewish populations now giving way to Koreans and other Asians.

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