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Opinion: New Jersey Renames Its Rest Stops As A Nation Rethinks Monuments

People head into the service building at the Cheesequake Rest Area in South Amboy, N.J.
People head into the service building at the Cheesequake Rest Area in South Amboy, N.J.

How do you honor historical figures?

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced this week the state will rename nine Garden State Parkway service areas after noted New Jerseyites: Judy Blume, Celia Cruz, Connie Chung, Larry Doby, James Gandolfini, Whitney Houston, Jon Bon Jovi, Toni Morrison, and, ladies and gentlemen, the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra.

They join a few other Jerseyites already enshrined along the New Jersey Turnpike, including Alexander Hamilton, who was a rest stop in Secaucus before he was a Broadway musical.

These service areas, where motorists can refuel their cars with gasoline and themselves with a Nathan's hot dog and a Frappuccino and return to the road, will also include exhibits about their distinguished namesakes, with scholarly support from the New Jersey Hall of Fame. The governor says, "This is about putting New Jersey greatness on full display."

Of course it's irresistible to ask, "But what about Buzz Aldrin from Montclair?" He was the second man to step on the moon, and really, doesn't going to the moon rate getting your name on a New Jersey rest stop? It's farther than Parsippany.

Also notably absent: Bruce Springsteen. He reportedly declined the honor. The Boss doesn't stop and rest — baby, he was born to run.

The naming of the service areas comes at a moment when we're reconsidering who to commemorate and how, as statues of some onetime heroes are removed and stowed away.

"History is not set in stone," Gary Younge, a professor at the University of Manchester, told us. "Our views are not the same as they were 50 years ago, and will be different again in another 50 years."

He says even the most revered historical figures have human flaws, and are shaped by their times.

As Elizabeth Samet, author of Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, reminded us, "The unforgivable sin of one generation will be eclipsed by a new one ..."

Maybe a rest stop exhibit will be easier to change around than a cast-bronze equestrian statue.

But Samet points out that most people don't rush into rest stops in Bloomfield or South Amboy to learn history, but just get to the restroom and maybe buy a tube of beef jerky.

"I'm not sure those are the moments when we are the most attentive students," she tactfully observes.

This distinguished scholar also asks, "Would you be over the moon about a 'Scott Simon Service Area'?"

Would I?!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 30, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous introduction on this story incorrectly said New Jersey would be renaming rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike after illustrious state residents. There is no more room for rest stop honors on the turnpike; the nine new names will be memorialized on the Garden State Parkway.