Pearls Of The Delaware


Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

“The neighborhood keeps getting worse,” said my father, David. We were standing in my sister’s kitchen. The Thanksgiving turkey was roasting in the oven. Gang violence had been increasing and someone had gotten shot across the street from Delorenzo’s, the venerated Trenton pizza place. Last month, after 46 years practicing dentistry at the corner of S. Olden Avenue and Pierce Street in the city’s Chambersburg neighborhood, David had closed his office and moved into a new one in the suburbs. Recently, Delorenzo’s announced it would move too.

The dental office had been my grandfather’s. Upstairs, where my father reviewed cases and kept supplies, had been his bedroom growing up.

In 1966, when he opened the office, Trenton was a city of about 110,000. In 1950, when my father was 13, its population had been 128,006–the city’s historical peak. Thanks mostly to Latino immigration, the New Jersey capital’s population has recently stabilized, at about 85,000. But that stability belies endemic, and tragicomic, political corruption, high poverty, and violent crime. Trenton is a city with only one industry–state government–and seems to have no other prospects for growth.

“A city needs to have so many things going in order to reverse long standing decline,” I said. Small cities, indeed, still confound us. Trenton, Camden, Chester, Wilmington–pearls on our Delaware chain–are each old and interesting places. They’re large enough to have complex histories, a vernacular architecture, and distinct local traditions, but too small to and not economically dynamic enough to overcome longstanding decline.

After all, it’s taken 50 years for big city Philadelphia with its massive and unusually diversified economic base and field of wealthy institutions to recalibrate and grow again.

“Trenton has nothing,” my father said, “it’s a city turned inside out. People used to come to Trenton for everything. Now, if you live there, you have to leave.”

Calhoun Street Bridge, Trenton | Photo: Bradley Maule,

“I think I got out just in time,” he added said after a moment, perhaps with a hint of irony. Moving his office had been a subject of family conversation since I was 13, but content with his workspace and patients, he never could do it.

He’ll struggle to sell the building for the price of a few hi-tech x-ray systems.

It’s an old story, and in Trenton, my family has been through it before.

Now Trenton (24.5 percent poor), like Camden (36.1 percent poor) and Chester (35.1 percent poor), is poorer than ever. But all three cities have stopped shedding population. In Trenton and Camden this is due to immigration. Almost a quarter of Trentonians are foreign born. And some small US cities are feeding on the same demographic and economic shifts that have large cities growing again. Wilmington, a pearl at the end our Delaware chain and about the same size as Camden, is growing. So are Bethlehem and Scranton. Asheville, North Carolina, the same size as Trenton, has evolved into into the maker capital of the mountain southeast.

Image: Googlemaps

Can we envision something similar happening to our Delaware pearls? Let’s place Philadelphia on the river chain connected by water transit to Trenton, to Camden, Chester, and Wilmington as Venice is connected to its sister islands. Let’s put ourselves on the river, a river that’s not a boundary or a view, but the thing that gives Trenton–and Camden, Chester, and Wilmington, and certainly Philadelphia–a chance to outdream its shrunken destiny.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


  1. Certainly the face of Trenton has changed in my lifetime. Some of the change has been good but most of it has lead to crime,violence and falling property values. I hope that some day, certainly not in my lifetime, the city will come back to prominence. It posesses an inventory of people, ideas and architecture that could foster a renaissance. Most importantly it must begin with intelligent and honest leadership in City Hall. Until Trenton elects people who know how to govern it will continue to sink into the hole of dispair.

  2. I,too, hail from Trenton, and have had many of the thoughts expressed above by my brother and nephew. Most smaller towns turn around when real estate gets cheap enough. Then new industry(r&d these days) moves in. This process is hastened if transportation infrastructure is at hand. Curiously, this process has eluded Trenton despite its proximity to leading research universities and to New York and Philadelphia and the transportation that connects them to Trenton and beyond. So maybe a strategy that builds on the Delaware would work. Freighters and ocean liners did visit Trenton until the end of WWII. So i think that river should be part of any plan. So my nephew’s emphasis on making the river the focus of redevelopment is right-on. That is unless there is something to be “fracked for” in the

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