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, PhllySkyline.com

“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 also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



2 Comments


  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
    vicinity.

Recent Posts
Baking Yuletide Cheer At Potito's

Baking Yuletide Cheer At Potito’s

December 19, 2014  |  Last Light

There is nothing like lining up to buy baked goods in South Philly during the holidays. Theresa Stigale has this photo essay about Potito's, a classic, family-owned neighborhood bakery at 16th and Ritner > more

Temple Police Treading An Expanded Beat These Days

Temple Police Treading An Expanded Beat These Days

December 18, 2014  |  Morning Blend

North Philly university moves to protect its off-campus students from violent crime, DVRPC approves I-95 capping study, Nightingale Properties to rebrand Seven Penn Center, and a “Little Farm” expands in South Kensington > more

With Churches Fast Disappearing In Fishtown, A Chance To See What's At Stake

With Churches Fast Disappearing In Fishtown, A Chance To See What’s At Stake

December 18, 2014  |  News

What to do with all the churches? With the imminent loss of another Fishtown church, New Kensington Community Development Corporation wants you to see what's at stake--join them for a post-holiday tour. Michael Bixler reports > more

Transforming The Schuylkill

Transforming The Schuylkill

December 17, 2014  |  Morning Blend

A re-bridging of sorts for the Central Schuylkill, good news for South Philly ship, Liberty Square work begins, and the lax enforcement of condos’ Christmas tree ban > more

Reanimating The Archives At William Way

Reanimating The Archives At William Way

December 17, 2014  |  News

It's been a long journey home for the William Way Community Center and a bumpy ride for their archives. With a William Penn Foundation grant in hand, they will soon have a proper research facility dedicated to local LGBT history. Erin Bernard takes us into their stacks and down the path that led the community center to Spruce Street > more

On The Dangers Of Ad Hoc Interpretations Of The Zoning Code

On The Dangers Of Ad Hoc Interpretations Of The Zoning Code

December 16, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Just how slippery of a slope are laxer readings of “safety services," Mummers seek a more approachable experience this year, CDC gets $40K reward, and making way for East Market development > more