Hard Times Require Radical Solutions: The Future of Trenton

Stephen Slusher

Times are hard, and for Trenton will get harder.  The same old politics, even if well-intentioned, socially progressive liberal politics, isn’t likely to turn Trenton around.  Municipal government in Trenton over the last few decades hasn’t been bad; hearts were mostly in the right place, and the kind of dishonesty that has plagued other New Jersey urban cities has been refreshingly absent.  But at a fundamental level not enough has changed.  Trenton is still a city with potential but no direction.  The premise of this paper is that, given the economy and challenges facing Trenton, we need radical solutions.  I’m not sure what those radical solutions should be, though I make some suggestions.  However, it is increasing clear that more of the same old politics won’t work.

Writing this in early 2010, the following points seem to be indisputably true:

  • Economic times are tough and, at least for government, will get tougher.  State government will run a deficit of roughly one billion dollars this year, and unless there are drastic cuts in expenditures or increases in taxes, a deficit of roughly ten billion dollars next year.  The most likely outcome is a radical and severe reduction in state spending, which will directly affect municipalities.
  • The City of Trenton will face unprecedented budget problems over the next several years.  Projected revenues aren’t sufficient for current and projected expenditure levels.  We don’t have much in the way of potential one-time fixes; selling the water distribution system may work this year, but what will we do next year?  One thing is clear – the State of New Jersey won’t be in a position to help.

The Problems

The economic reality facing us means that business as usual isn’t an option.  In part, politics in Trenton has involved maintaining comparatively high levels of municipal jobs – employed people vote right.[1] Politics in Trenton has also involved avoiding difficult decisions.  For example, property assessments have not been updated for over fifteen years, so that tax rates are based upon property values that bear little correlation to actual market prices.  From a political perspective, a liberal Democratic philosophy has prevailed, under which social services is a high priority, but with a tendency to simply adopt programs coming out of Washington, rather than to develop unique Trenton solutions to Trenton problems.  Without radical restructuring – and perhaps even with radical restructuring – the City of Trenton is unlikely to be able to maintain either its present municipal employee levels or its level of services.

There are also a number of both hard and soft facts that we all need to consider.  These run the gamut from population to economic development.  Selecting these facts is inherently a political choice – carefully selected facts can make any proposition sound reasonable.  Facts are, where possible, driven by objective statistics, generally from the U.S. Census Bureau.

  • Trenton’s population is continuing to fall.  From a high in 1950 of 128,009 residents, our population has continually fallen, with an estimated 82,883 residents in 2008.  This graph tells the story:

  • Trenton’s population decrease is in marked contrast to its two nearest neighbors, Ewing and Hamilton.  In both Ewing and Hamilton populations have increased over the same time period.  In comparable post-industrial cities, population decreases have halted or reversed in both Newark and Camden, compared to Trenton which continues to slide.
  • Housing is a mixed bag.  While the last few years have seen an increase in new housing there are still systematic problems.  Roughly 20% of the housing units in Trenton are vacant and boarded up, with many too far gone to rehabilitate.  Building new housing in Trenton while the population continues to fall means that more and more older housing units will become vacant – hardly a long-term solution.
  • The City of Trenton hasn’t found a viable economic development niche.  Trenton was historically an industrial town, but for a variety of reasons by the 1970’s manufacturing had left Trenton.  While both county and state governments are important parts of the City, they aren’t new – Trenton has been the county seat since 1838 and state capital since before the Revolutionary War.  Trenton hasn’t targeted any particular economic segment, and doesn’t have a vision for change or growth.  By contrast, cities like Wilmington, Delaware, comparable in size and industrial history, have successfully reinvented themselves.
  • From a demographic perspective, and using Census Bureau categories, Black or African-American population is stable at around 53%, Hispanic or Latino population is growing, and White non-Hispanic continues to gradually decrease.
  • Despite record spending, Trenton schools continue to rank very low on a state-wide basis, with attendant dropout rates.  Over 30% of adults over 25 years old have not graduated from high school.
  • There are more female householders with children under 18 and no husband present than there are married couple families with children under 18.  There are a large number of grandparents who are responsible for and are raising their grandchildren.
  • Crime rates remain unacceptably high.  While much of the crime is drug and gang related, it clearly impacts the vast majority of law-abiding Trenton residents.  High crime also makes it impossible for Trenton to serve as a regional entertainment and performance center – if people are afraid to go to the War Memorial or Sun National Bank Center, they certainly won’t go to smaller performance venues.
  • Trenton is “user-unfriendly.”  In large parts of the city, lane striping, traffic stop lines and signage is absent or woefully inadequate.  The failure of Trenton to make the city easy for non-residents to negotiate contributes to isolation and outsider fear.

Radical Solutions

Given this litany of problems, what is to be done?  There isn’t any single magic solution to complex systemic problems.  It may well be that many, maybe most, of the following ideas won’t work, and I’m sure that many will conflict with each other.  Few of these ideas have any significant track record in other cities.  But hopefully they’ll spark thought and dialog.  So in no particular order here are some radical suggestions:

  • Significantly change how Trenton disposes of municipal-owned vacant housing units, particularly single-family dwellings.  The current system favors contractors and developers, virtually all based outside of Trenton.  Implement an “urban homesteading” plan that focuses on homeowner rehabbed and occupied housing units.  Use this as part of a plan to increase population, and advertise the program heavily in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens – particularly areas where gentrification has limited the availability of low-cost housing stock that can be rehabilitated.
  • Hire 30 to 50 people – focusing on minimum wage jobs (and job training) for local chronically unemployed people – to implement a broom-on-the-street Make Trenton Beautiful program.  Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but if someone who lives in the neighborhood has, as his or her job, keeping an urban street like Perry or Calhoun clean, we might see a change in community self-perception and behavior.  Provide numerous trash receptacles and frequent trash pickups.  Focus on cleaning major urban streets, particularly in poorer areas, and the Delaware and Raritan Feeder Canal through Trenton.
  • Encourage creative thinking in municipal government.  When we moved to Trenton about four years ago, we toyed with the idea of opening a bed and breakfast – high end and expensive accommodations in one of Trenton’s large mansions.  The idea flummoxed Trenton’s municipal bureaucrats – they could regulate rooming houses and variants of flop houses, but couldn’t conceive of how to regulate and license a small bed and breakfast hotel.
  • Pick an industry or two with an acceptable environmental footprint that can be successful in small scale and heavily push Trenton as the “in” place of the moment.  For example, Trenton has a rich history in pottery, including art pottery.  Pottery studios could range from a couple of employees to thirty or more, and half a dozen studios could have a meaningful impact on both local employment and Trenton as an art or tourism destination.  Millville, New Jersey has done this with glassworks – why can’t Trenton do something similar with pottery?
  • Radically rethink the back end of the criminal justice system in Trenton, particularly at the municipal court level.  The system in Trenton is just like everyplace else – offenders get socked with heavy cash fines, probation costs and various payments that are required on penalty of jail time.  Requiring defendants who are unemployed or chronically underemployed to pay cash fines is the height of irrational behavior[2] – we want people to change their behavior rather than be hounded for fines.  Require, as a first step and not a last resort, community service in lieu of fines.  In the long run community service and group counseling will cost less than encouraging recidivism by imposing fines that are unrealistic for someone without a regular (and legal) source of income.
  • Beg a half million dollars from the federal government for a road safety improvement plan in Trenton, focusing on upgrading street signs, traffic signs and road striping, including lane striping and stop lines.  If some poorly marked streets are state-controlled (think Route 29), issue a weekly press release about how the state has failed to maintain roadways in Trenton until they get embarrassed enough to apply paint.
  • Work to develop – and import – a vibrant art scene.  Trenton has the beginnings of a strong class of professional artists, many of whom are young and struggling.  Trenton has comparatively low cost studio and work space and the kind of cultural and ethnic interplay that is attractive to many artists.  This art scene has developed largely under benign neglect.  Think of what might happen if the City of Trenton actually encouraged Trenton as a place for working artists, and tried to facilitate artists in non-traditional space and living arrangements.  Remember, artists are historically an “indicator population” of an urban area about to undergo a renaissance.
  • Incentivize good behavior.  For example, both charter and public local schools frequently have unacceptable quantities of trash in public areas.  Think of things as simple as a competition between fourth grade classes on which class keeps its assigned area cleanest.  And obviously the winning class gets a meaningful prize – a class outing, fun day, special movie or something similar.
  • Read – and focus on implementing – Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (see www.creativeclass.com/).  Trenton is convenient to New York City and Philadelphia, and has a cost infrastructure significantly cheaper than any of the larger metropolitan areas.  Capitalize on this.  Web content, marketers, service providers, software programmers, game developers – focus on businesses and technologies that need lower cost space but ready access, both via the internet and by mass transit, to business and finance centers like New York City.  Do research, pick an underserved niche, and devote creative effort to targeted marketing of Trenton as the solution.
  • Radically rethink the probation system component in the criminal justice system.  The typical response is to put non-violent offenders on probation, and then threaten them each time they violate probation.  At some point both the probation officer and the judge get fed up, revoke probation and the offender ends up in the county jail for months on end.  Now think about raising kids.  If you want to raise truly dysfunctional kids all you have to do is keep threatening them each time they misbehave, engaging in yelling but no real punishment, and then finally in frustration beat the kid or otherwise impose punishment entirely out of proportion to the immediate wrongful behavior.  What’s the solution?  Impose immediate punishment that is proportional to the wrongful behavior.  If someone doesn’t report to their probation officer on Monday, then they go before a judge no later than Wednesday, and immediately serve 24 hours in jail.  Second offense, three days.  Dirty drug test, an immediate three days in jail.  No deferrals, no continuances, no hearings weeks or months after the fact – just quick and fair punishment.  While it has a limited track record, the approach can work wonders.  See “Prisoners of Parole” by Jeffrey Rosen in the January 8, 2010, New York Times Magazine for results of an experiment by one judge in Hawaii.
  • By the 1950’s Chambersburg developed a truly outstanding group of Italian restaurants.  By the 1970’s officialdom in Trenton recognized this, and started marketing Chambersburg as an Italian restaurant destination.  Today Chambersburg is developing a truly outstanding group of Central and South American restaurants.  Get ahead of the curve by pushing this as a good thing (and tasty alternative) rather than bemoaning the flight of Italian restaurants to the suburbs.  Where can you get the best Ecuadorian or Guatemalan food along the eastern seaboard?  I don’t know, but if someone wants to claim that it’s in Trenton, go for it.  As the immigrant population in Trenton changes, accentuate the positive.

Concluding Thoughts

We need candidates and elected officials willing to try radical and unconventional approaches.  When the box is empty, the only solution is to think outside the box.  The ideas in this paper may not work.  But if we don’t collectively come up with new, creative and even radical solutions to our problems, then failure is virtually guaranteed.  So what radical solutions do you think Trenton should try?


[1] According to the City of Trenton’s official website, the City has 1,750 employees.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the estimated 2008 population within the City is 82,883.  Thus Trenton has one City employee for roughly every 47.4 residents.  By contrast, Newark has 4,197 employees with 278,980 residents estimated in 2008, which is one municipal employee for each 66.5 residents.  Camden, which is comparable in size with 79,383 residents, also has about one municipal employee for each 66 residents.

[2] It is disheartening, to put it mildly, to talk to a neighborhood young adult male who candidly admits that the only way he can think of to come up with several hundred dollars in court fines and fees is to deal drugs.  Just what social purpose is served by imposing fines and fees that have the ultimate effect of encouraging criminal behavior?  The push in the 1970’s through the 1990’s for “user fees” from criminal defendants and others has resulted in a Kafkaesque system that accomplishes the exact opposite of the ostensibly intended purpose.

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