The becoming of today's Trenton: A historical analysis of social and economic changes

Trenton, New Jersey, once an industrial powerhouse, slowly decayed over the years. "Trenton Makes, The World Takes," is bolded as you cross the Delaware River because the city was once a template of innovation for cities across America. Many social and economic changes occurred to decompose the quality of life in the state's capital. Trenton faced dark times, but is now seeing the light. New Jersey’s capital is an illustration of innovation and is making strides to become a powerhouse once again. This article pinpoints social and economic shifts to understand the past in efforts to prevent recurrences on Trenton’s pathway to improvement.

1920s Trenton, source:

1920 Trenton, Source: www.Trentonmillhill.orgThe 1920s

In the story "1924: Hatred Wore a Hood in Jersey," written by Jon Blackwell for the Trentonian, he breaks down the Klu Klux Klan influence or lack thereof, in the early shaping of Trenton. In 1924, the largest "Klanvocation" the northeast had seen was hosted in Hamilton, NJ-a bordering town of Trenton. The Klu Klux Klan migrated north of the United States in the early 1920s, finding residency in South and Central Jersey. History Professor at the College of New Jersey, Robert McGreevey, commented that the region south of the Raritan River was nicknamed “The New Mason Dixon Line.” Towns surrounding Trenton were hospitable towards the white nationalist group, but Trenton wanted no association. Trenton, governed by Frederick Donnelly, an Irish-American and the Roeblings, German-Americans, rejected the agenda of the KKK within their city because they were proud of their non-American nationality. The KKK promoted breeding "all American whites," and white immigrants did not want to neglect their roots. Therefore, the KKK built its roots in the surrounding towns. Noted in the city’s historical society archives, Trenton soon became a melting pot of ethnicities. “Jew Town,” was building its base on and around Union Street, the Irish heavily populated Coalport and Blacks were settling in Spring and Willow, as well as Five Points. The migration of Blacks from the south to Trenton continued for decades.

Fredrick Donnelly in the 1940s

According to the TCNJ Journal of Student Scholarship Entry, A Journey Northward: The African American Migration in Trenton, when the Second World War ended in 1945, the non-white percentage of Trenton residents increased by 55.6%. The population of non-whites grew from 9,340 to 14,352. People of color fled to industrial areas, and New Jersey's capital had many industrial opportunities. There were primarily two categories of Black families looking to settle in Trenton. The first were veterans looking to use their benefits from the GI Bill. Unfortunately, they became products of a housing system called red lining, which started in the 1930s. The government legally permitted housing segregation in cities across America. In the journal, Professor Robert McGreevy noted that in Trenton, Blacks were only sold houses in the northward and southward. An influx of Black Americans were competing for the limited housing they were offered and landlords took advantage of this, increasing the prices. Since African Americans were being denied jobs or offered less money than white counterparts already, their wages were not conducive to the inflation of housing. This created poverty and increased the wealth gap. The same journal entry also mentioned that aside from Black veterans, there were still Blacks migrating from the south searching for industrial opportunity. These migrants were often uneducated, so they had to settle for ‘bottom of the barrel,’ jobs. This too contributed to heightened poverty levels in Trenton.

Mayor Carmen Armenti and Trenton residents after the riots of April 1968,

source: Times of Trenton The 1960s

Thriving industrial cities turned into 'hoods' was a social and economic shift occurring nationally in urban areas. Trenton was just one of many examples. Professor McGreevy explained that in the 1960s, the government bulldozed parts of urban cities to build something new that would bring in revenue. The goal was to import and keep middle-class families in the cities. Specifically for Trenton, a state complex was in the works. An essay from one of McGreevy’s students states that this preparation of the complex not only displaced over 400 families in the southward, but also Jews in “Jew City,” on Union Street. The Jews relocating to the outskirts put a dent in Trenton’s revenue because of the tax base. Unlike the Jews, Black families did not have the resources to relocate. They became homeless. From observation of research, the trend was that Blacks were blamed for the economic downfall of these areas, even though the government denied equal opportunity for jobs, housing, and education, which leads to impoverishment. Ultimately, the victim was blamed and not the victimizer. African Americans unified under the national Civil Rights Movement to protest the inequitable treatment of African Americans. Protests transpired in cities all Across America. In a Princeton University Research Paper about the 60s, it states that the protests took a turn after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. especially in New Jersey’s capital. The Trenton ‘68 Riots resulted in looting, which wiped out the majority of Trenton’s businesses. The city’s losses were in the millions and insurance companies dropped all coverage. White Americans no longer felt safe and fled to the surrounding towns, taking their businesses with them. This movement was called "white flight." The industrial industry declined as a result of cheaper foreign competition, and was soon eradicated by the end of the 1970s. With the city’s losses in revenue from riots and the fall of the industrial industry, Trenton was bankrupt.

The 1980s

According to the United Way of Greater Mercer County, between the 1980s and the 2000s, the Latino population tripled in Mercer County. The majority of Latinos lived and still live in Trenton. Due to political unrest, the downfall of the economy, and/or war, in their native countries, Latinos migrated to the United States. With Latinos settling in urban regions because of lower costs of living, poverty rates continued to increase in those areas. Some white business owners would threaten Latinos with deportation if they tried to negotiate better salaries and work conditions. As a result, they did not speak up and stayed underprivileged. Injustices were taking place in both African American and Latino communities. In the journal entry, A Journey Northward, it was mentioned that both communities demanded resources and change from the government. There was an opportunity to unite and demand justice together but instead, Blacks and Latinos were rivaled against each other for resources. This led to tension between both ethnicities. Today, the saying, "history repeats itself," is becoming a reality in Trenton. In a document titled "Consequences and Solutions of Trenton Structural Unemployment" by Tyler Holzer of TCNJ, he stated that investors see the potential for private businesses to decrease unemployment rates and modern housing developments to attract middle-class families. Instead of the industrial industry providing the city wealth, the government believes it will come from entrepreneurship and business accelerators. Trenton is slowly transitioning into a 'mini Manhattan'. The city has promoted multiple initiatives for downtown businesses to be minority-owned, as well. While towns, such as Jersey City, have pushed those impoverished out, Trenton is incorporating Trentonians in the development process of downtown. Trenton is displaying an innovative and moral way to generate revenue for the city, unlike other methods the city has implemented in the past. The question still remains if the state's capital on track to be the powerhouse that other cities look towards, in order revive their economy.

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