Summer Reading 2018: A Historian Traces the Roots of NJ’s Tree-Shaded Suburbs

NJ Spotlight | August 29, 2018 | 2018 Summer Reading
In his contribution to Lurie and Veit’s omnibus history of the Garden State, Howard Gillette explores the rise of the suburbs and their ‘uncertain future’

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The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.

The complex social, legal, and technological forces that drove the birth and subsequent growth of suburbs like Voorhees and Tom’s River emptied cities like Camden and Newark of their industrial economic engines and left their aging infrastructure to African Americans and Hispanics, leaving New Jersey “a state divided,” according to Howard Gillette’s engrossing analysis.

Suburbanization and the Decline of the Cities

From the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, cities represented the state’s primary engines of growth. The concentration of jobs at historically favored sites for the transportation of goods by water or by rail made New Jersey’s six major cities — Newark, Trenton, Paterson, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Camden — magnets for human settlement and capital investment. Banks, retail facilities, and entertainment venues joined factories to create bustling centers of opportunity, drawing settlers, including large numbers of immigrants, within city boundaries to live as well as to work. Marvels of production and associated means of distribution created considerable wealth. A leader in the production of rubber, pottery, and primary metals, Trenton proudly promoted itself through the phrase “Trenton makes, the world takes.” As late as 1950, 38 percent of the city’s residents found employment in manufacturing. New Jersey’s other cites similarly employed large portions of the regional work force in a range of manual occupations, from skilled leatherworkers in Newark and electronics specialists in Camden to rail workers in Jersey City and oil refiners in Elizabeth. Historically, holders of these blue-collar jobs lived close to their places of occupation, forming dense, often ethnically distinct neighborhoods anchored by parish churches, which served to bind neighbors through social as well as religious affiliation. New York and Philadelphia offered special employment opportunities for New Jersey residents, as well as shopping and entertainment, but the state’s urban areas maintained their primacy.

To be sure, there were some workers who took advantage of electric rail lines radiating outward to the countryside to assure their families a cleaner and more exclusive environment in surrounding suburbs while still commuting to the city. Around Newark, in the late nineteenth century, these pioneer suburbanites worked successfully to keep the influence of the city at bay. Until the 1950s, however, such contests represented a side story, one neither typically celebrated by boosters nor widely commented upon. For convenience and cost, cities remained the preferred location for a large segment of state residents. Then the situation changed dramatically.

Cities Left Behind

Fears that the nation would suffer an economic setback following the close of World War II, when demand for manufactured goods was at its peak, prompted business, government, and labor to enter an unwritten compact to assure growth by encouraging high levels of individual consumption, a goal later realized by higher wages and easy credit. The motivation for this “consumer’s republic,” as historian Lizabeth Cohen identifies the new ethos, “would not be a personal indulgence, but rather a civic responsibility designed to provide ‘full employment and improved living standards for the rest of the nation.’” Targeted especially was the home-building industry, deemed capable of boosting employment and stimulating secondary spending for home appliances and furnishings, to say nothing of the family automobile. Because the best opportunities for new construction lay outside city boundaries, where land was cheaper and open space made larger projects feasible, suburbs attracted the bulk of new investment. Federal guarantees for home loans helped spur development, even as they assured that these communities were overwhelmingly white and middle class through appraisers’ guidelines that directed loans away from racially mixed or changing areas. In the meantime, government appraisers discouraged loans in cites whose populations were becoming more racially mixed, a practice known as “redlining” for the colored maps used to discourage investments in areas considered risky. Not surprisingly, suburbs boomed across the country, property values while minimizing social costs. Such exclusionary zoning, as it came to be called, helped some suburbs, if not all, maintain their distance from urban influences. Moreover, prohibitions against multiple-unit developments and ordinances restricting new housing to single-family use were initially upheld in the courts.

For a while, cities held their predominant place in the state economy. Although their relative share of employment dropped in the first part of the twentieth century, they continued largely, even beyond World War II, to hold their own. Camden, for instance, employed even more industrial workers in 1960 (39,000) than it had in 1948. Over the next decade, however, the city lost almost half of those jobs; the biggest loss came in 1967, when New York Ship, which at its height had employed more than 40,000 workers, closed entirely. The city’s population dropped accordingly, by 15,000 in the 1960s and another 30,000 in the 1970s. From a height of 125,000 in the mid-1920s, Camden’s population fell to only 84,910, and its industries supplied just over 10,000 jobs. Similarly, manufacturing drained away from Trenton with the sale and ultimate abandonment of its Roebling steel mill and the almost total departure of its rubber and pottery industries. Although Trenton gained some economic growth through state jobs, the city also experienced a decline in population, from a high of 128,009 in 1950 to 92,124 in 1980. Between 1952 and 1962, Newark lost nearly 20,000 jobs, and no new industry located in the city after the Anheuser-Busch brewery in the late 1940s.

The new pattern of decentralized development extended throughout New Jersey. Even though the state’s population increased by 50 percent between 1940 and 1960, every major city except Paterson lost population. Newark, the largest city in the state, fell in national rankings from twenty-first in 1950 to fifty-sixth in 1990, as both jobs and residents flowed out of the city. Soon 70 percent of New Jersey land could be classified as suburban. “The ‘garden state,’” Lizabeth Cohen asserts, “was fast becoming the ‘backyard garden’ state, as housing subdivision became the New Jersey farmer’s final crop.”

Both the loss of jobs and the powerful pull of the suburbs idealized as the preferred places of residence after World War II sharply altered New Jersey’s geography. Camden, which was once the anchor of the entire south Jersey region, underwent a rapid change of status. In the mid-1950s, as developers offered attractive new suburban housing at affordable prices, residents started moving out of the city. Institutions followed, beginning with the Jewish Community Center, which relocated from Kaighn Avenue in the heart of the city to still largely undeveloped Delaware Township just across the city border. The process of decentralization accelerated with completion of the Cherry Hill Mall in 1961, the first enclosed regional shopping facility on the East Coast, also in Delaware Township. Within only a few years, the town had not only adopted the name Cherry Hill, but residential development, boosted by the mall, returned property taxes that exceeded those for all of Camden, despite Cherry Hill’s smaller population. Employers left the city, too, some for nearby suburbs like Pennsauken, which developed an attractive office park near accessible transportation routes, and others, most notably RCA-Victor, to Cherry Hill and to Moorestown in adjacent Burlington County. By the late 1960s, white-collar employers that had typically located near county offices in Camden — most notably law and engineering firms — also relocated to the suburbs. Major “anchor institutions” — educational and medical facilities — remained in the city, but Camden by 1970 no longer served as the region’s hub.

Where whites once dominated the old industrial neighborhoods, their places were taken by minorities, predominantly African Americans, with the exception of Paterson, which drew a larger number of Hispanics to its older neighborhoods. Both African Americans and Hispanics were initially drawn to the cities during World War II, when manpower shortages opened employment opportunities, but adequate housing was difficult to find in still racially restricted markets. Only when the suburbs proved more attractive to returning servicemen who wanted to start their families did urban housing open up. In some neighborhoods, including the one where Philip Roth grew up, the change in residential composition was startling. In only five years between 1961 and 1966, Weequahic shifted from 19 to 70 percent African American. Moreover, as urban neighborhoods changed, newcomers faced two major obstacles: a shrinking market for nearby employment and demands from city officials that many of the homes they had moved into give way to redevelopment …

Tensions reached their height in the latter part of the 1960s as civil disturbances wracked Newark and Plainfield in 1967, Trenton in 1968, Asbury Park in 1970, and Camden in 1971. Th e destruction over six days of riots in Newark was especially devastating, with 26 people killed, 750 injured, some 1,500 arrested, and millions in property damage. The immediate response from state and local officials to social unrest included greater sensitivity to concerns about relocation and some modest programs for housing re-investment and job training. But the damage had been done. Th e psychological and physical damage was more than any particular program could overcome. The flight of population following each of these riots was ac-companied as well by further loss of employment, as businesses closed and regional patrons found other locations at which to shop, eat, and be entertained. Badly stigmatized by signs of decline everywhere, New Jersey’s cities increasingly struggled to be self-sustaining. The cycle of decline that had started slowly in the postwar years accelerated and deepened in the last third of the twentieth century.

New Suburban Dominance

The first postwar generation of suburban development was largely accomplished by the mid-1970s, as communities close to urban centers filled up. Cherry Hill in Camden County, for example, which had fewer than 11,000 residents in 1950, peaked just below 70,000 persons. New growth moved to the open land of outer suburbs. Th e next generation of development was exemplified by Voorhees, a town of just 1,823 people in 1950 and 12,919 in 1980, which reached 24,559 a decade later. In line with the outward migration of more affluent residents, Voorhees became the preferred location of new upscale shopping centers and office parks. Not insignificantly, the Jewish Community Center moved once again, from the border with Camden to the eastern part of Cherry Hill, immediately adjacent to Voorhees.

At the same time, development spread well beyond the immediate influence of cities to less developed portions of the state. Here, boosted by massive investments in highways made possible by the National Highway Act of 1956, an entirely different world of exurban development arose, closely tied to the new post-industrial economy. A number of these communities emerged at major highway interchanges. In the Camden area the opening of the New Jersey Turnpike’s Exit 4 at Mount Laurel in 1952 boosted the development of office parks and hastened the conversion of farmland to commercial and residential development. From a hamlet of only 2,800 people in 1950, the town doubled its population every decade thereafter, exceeding 40,000 residents by 2000. Farther north, where the New Jersey Turnpike intersected with the Garden State Parkway, once rural Woodbridge Township boomed, aided by the completion of an enclosed regional mall in 1971 as well as construction of single-family homes marketed to new homeowners benefiting from government programs for veterans after the war. By 2010, the town had almost 100,000 residents and ranked sixth in the state, well ahead of both Camden and Trenton. Impelled initially by the completion of the Garden State Parkway in 1955 and subsequently by construction of the Ocean County Mall, Tom’s River (known until 2006 as the Township of Dover) in Ocean County grew from only 7,000 people in 1950 to 43,000 in 1980. Its 2010 population of 91,239 made it New Jersey’s eighth-largest jurisdiction

The introduction of Interstates 80 and 287 through the state’s central and northeastern counties helped to create a new suburban “wealth belt” characterized by all the elements of the new post-industrial economy. With some 1,000 housing units built per week, the state added one million units in the period 1950 – 1970, primarily located in this new region. Increased reliance on trucking and single-story manufacturing structures in growth industries — electronics, oil, petrochemicals, and aviation — undercut the dense physical structure and functions of the state’s older cities. The pharmaceutical industry favored the new suburban settings and attracted other development. Merck & Company, for example, moved its world headquarters from Rahway in the northeastern part of the state to Readington Township in Hunterdon County at the shoulder of I-78. Eighty percent of the state’s total office space by the 1980s was located in the state’s freeway-oriented suburban growth corridor. During the 1980s alone, the area added 173 million square feet of office space, more than the entire standing office inventory of the Chicago metropolitan area. Route 1 through “Greater Princeton” proved another magnet for development.

“Suburbanization and Decline of the Cities: Toward an Uncertain Future,” copyright © 2012 Howard Gillette Jr.

This excerpt from New Jersey: A History of the Garden State copyright © 2012 by Maxine N. Lurie and Richard Veit and Rutgers University Press and used with kind permission of the author, editors, and publisher.

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