From the driver’s seat of his Toyota SUV, blogger Mark Matthews spots potential stories at nearly every interchange and intersection.
The tunnel-esque segment of the I-295/I-76/Route 42 Direct Connection project? He’s got video.
The latest front in the epic Wawa vs. Royal Farms battle? He’s posted a site plan.
And that prime piece of property along the South Jersey highway, pike, or avenue near you? Chances are he’s dug up the info or has been tipped off about which pharmacy chain, mattress store, urgent care center, fast-casual restaurant, or brewpub is going to open there. Or not.
“I broke the story about Hobby Lobby coming ... ,” said Matthews, a software development manager and father of three who lives in Deptford’s Garden City neighborhood. “The new Target in Westmont? I absolutely pounced on that first. Three days later, everybody had it.
“And in May of 2018, before anybody else, I had the story about Dave and Buster’s coming to the Gloucester Premium Outlets,” he said with the sort of delicious pride any journalist — citizen or professional — savors.
I joined Matthews at the kitchen table of the comfortable home he shares with Sharon, his wife of 27 years, and their daughter, Kristina, a nurse. This is where he regularly updates his 42Freeway.com site with what often are scoops about road-related construction, development, and redevelopment projects of all sorts.
He started the site about five years ago, at first focusing on the Route 42 corridor from Bellmawr, where he grew up, to Washington Township, writing frequently about family-friendly pubs and restaurants where people gather. More recently, Matthews has added video (“I’m a geek. I’ve got a whole array of cameras”), expanded his coverage area to include Camden, Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel, and other communities, and launched a companion blog called Marlton Pike.
He’s got plans and domain names for more and always has an ear to the ground — or the pavement — for tidbits.
“I’m giving people more than just facts,” Matthews told me recently “I try to tell a little bit of my experience, and bring a little bit of my personality to it.”
The guy keeping his eyes on the road on our behalf is a personable, energetic South Jersey-born and -raised fellow. “I used to sing in a cover band called Zipper,” said Matthews. “Once we were in the competition to be the official band at the Wing Bowl.”
He’s also got a born reporter’s skills — an alertness to changes, a comfort with asking questions, a desire to figure things out, and a genuine enthusiasm for his subjects. He’s competitive, too.
“I just think he’s amazing, the way he goes out and talks to all these people,” said Sharon Matthews, who‘s an office-product sales administrator. “He’s had many, many other hobbies. But he’s really into this one.”
The state’s gargantuan Direct Connection project to send I-295 soaring above, instead of colliding with, I-76 and Route 42 in Bellmawr, inspired Matthews to begin making videos. He studied the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s extensive content about the $900 million effort — and its companion, $160 million “Missing Moves” project — and decided that video would be the best way to explain South Jersey’s version of Boston’s “Big Dig” to the public.
Among the results is a 41-minute ‘mega-video’ that features Matthews sitting in front of a green-screen arrangement in his basement while narrating displays of graphics, images, and computer simulations, updating viewers in a voice that’s down-to-earth and jargon-free.
Ever wonder if that diabolical, single-lane Route 55 northbound merge onto 42 is going to be widened? The answer is yes, according to Matthews. Refreshingly, in addition to offering juicy bits of information like that, he also acknowledges during the video that he doesn’t know everything — such as, what the future holds for the former Bellmawr landfill site long talked about as a potential Bass Pro Shops location.
Matthews has big love for and deep knowledge of his suburban homeland and its auto-centric lifestyle. To him, a part of the world outsiders sometimes dismiss as a traffic-clogged, second-rate sprawlscape is a fascinating frontier of the retail evolution/revolution.
He sees himself serving a community of people on the go who want to know what’s going on around the next corner, folks who live in woodsy neighborhoods like his, with rustic charms and entrance ramps for the regional road network.
“The 42 Freeway site is a community itself ... kind of like an old-fashioned chat room, before Facebook,” said Matthews, who maintains a 42 Freeway page there as well.
“The site is getting bigger," he said. "But there’s still a community sense to it.”
There certainly is.
Urbanites and their communities are far more fashionable, and, arguably, more sustainable, than many suburbs. But as someone who lives in South Jersey — in a walkable town with a quaint main street, but a suburb nonetheless — I’m glad a grassroots guy like Matthews is on the road and keeping our communities informed about what’s up ahead.