Something I’ve been struck by as I’ve explored cities and urban neighborhoods across the country and here in South Jersey is how much work went into “otherizing” cities and urban communities in the 20th century. The cliché in the suburbs when I was growing up was that cities were dangerous places full of dangerous minorities and that venturing into them was to risk personal harm or death. Surprisingly, this view often came from the lips of people who moved out of them decades previous, a move which itself set off the chain reaction of decline we know so well today. And unfortunately, this is still sometimes the mindset of older Americans despite a solid few decades of urban growth. But visiting even the most struggling communities left behind by generations of people can show you that people are still people, no matter what environment they live in, despite ugly, racist stereotypes about what kind of person lives in these places.
Yesterday, New Jersey said goodbye to outgoing, controversial-to-say-the-least governor Chris Christie and hello to the new guy in Trenton, incoming governor Phil Murphy. At almost exactly noon, Murphy was sworn in with Sheila Oliver as his lieutenant governor, the first woman of color to serve in a statewide elected office – a welcome and overdue achievement. A few political commentators noted the day seemed more about saying goodbye to Christie than hello to Murphy, but while I do think there are plenty of reason to be happy Christie’s gone, there are a few things to like about the incoming Murphy administration. Here’s what I’m looking forward to.
Four years ago this month, I sent an email to an acquaintance of mine at Rutgers–Camden bemoaning the Latin American Economic Development Association’s Dine Around which takes people from downtown offices and education institutions to lunch spots in the city’s neighborhoods. To be clear, I thought it was a fantastic idea. My problem was that it was only available during lunch, and working in Center City, it was impossible for me to participate. As someone who wanted to explore more of Camden, that bummed me out. Thankfully, my friend had a simple suggestion: let’s get some people together for dinner instead. And later that month, in January 2014, with eight people around a table at Corinne’s Place in the Parkside neighborhood, the Camden Supper Club was born. As we start our fourth year of bringing people to dinner at restaurants all over the city, I sit here amazed that it’s become more popular than I could have ever imagined.
Somewhere between South Jersey’s suburban towns and its popular seaside resorts lay a network of train tracks draped through the forests of the state’s seven southernmost counties. From 1933 until 1976, they bustled with passengers escaping to beach towns up and down the state’s coastline from crowded and sweltering neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden. The growth of private car travel and the opening of the Atlantic City Expressway in the mid-1960s reduced rail offerings to the shore down to just the Atlantic City Line, which still operates today. But at least a few times a year, you can take a ride on some of the historic tracks that ignited the Philadelphia region’s love affair with New Jersey’s southern beaches.
Over the past few days, two articles have come out that speak to a few weaknesses New Jersey is suffering from at the moment. The first is a Wall Street Journal piece about how the state has a “millennial problem”, detailing how younger people don’t want to live, work, or play in the state’s sprawling suburbia, nor could they afford it if they wanted to. The second rightly suggests that our overbuilding of suburban office parks in the 20th century has put has at a disadvantage as younger people today look for work in dynamic urban environments and not the pastoral campuses of the generation before us. Both articles get at something I think about a lot, especially as a millennial that does live in this state. I was inspired to put together some ideas that elected officials and civic leaders would be wise to consider if they want to address the fundamental problems our state has going into the 21st century.
This is a pretty hot take (as far as urbanist hot takes go), as it’s based more of a few random visits than an in-depth look at history, but here it is:
Burlington City should be more of a happening place.
I don’t know the deep history of one of South Jersey’s most historic cities (if you have more insight, I’d love to hear it), but this idea comes from having taken the River Line train a few times for dinner at Brickwall Tavern‘s Burlington location (the other, in a fascinating bit of upper-south/lower-central Jersey cultural exchange, being in Asbury Park). It’s got a downtown on par in size and scale with Collingswood’s or Bordentown’s, both DVRPC classic towns, though for some reason it doesn’t feature on the site. It has frequent rail access to Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia, something that might become even more of an asset thanks to the big projects going on in Camden thanks to a strategy of tax-incentivized development there and when the project to extended it to downtown Trenton offices comes to fruition. It also has old, historic buildings and neighborhoods thanks to it being one of South Jersey’s oldest cities incorporated in 1693 and it’s located along the Delaware River and its riverfront has plans for improvement. It seems to me to have a lot of elements of successful places, and it actually reminds me of many desirable historic Massachusetts towns.
I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.