Homesteads to Homelots

The history of New Jersey suburbs as told through five data visualizations

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View of the city from the suburbs, author’s panoramic drawing of suburbs with urban skyline in the distance

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“The state of New Jersey offers an ideal setting in which to analyze the distinctive residential landscape of mass suburbia. [….] In time, 70 percent of the state’s total land area would qualify as suburban, so that by the turn of the twenty-first century New Jersey and Connecticut shared the distinction of being the nation’s most suburbanized states.”

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– Lizabeth Cohen, “Residence: Inequality in Mass Suburbia” in A Consumer’s Republic, p. 197.

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Northern New Jersey has long been central to the history of America’s suburban growth. From America’s oldest suburban developments to its most homogeneous to its most diverse, New Jersey’s 565 municipalities span the full portfolio of suburban living arrangements. New Jersey is unique in the sheer number of municipalities, each with its own elected leaders, school district, police, fire, and land use policies. As a result of inefficient and often duplicate public services in competing suburbs, New Jersey has some of the highest property taxes and cost of living in the country. This problem is not unique to New Jersey; it affects the country at large in dozens of other places. So the story of New Jersey makes for a powerful and revealing case study of larger trends in American suburban history.
This analysis examines New Jersey census data from 1940 to 2010. It is not the end point or a full analysis. Instead, each of these data visualizations plots a direction for future research. Telling history through maps and census data reveal the history of a larger region and country.

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Method

With data from the US Census Bureau, I extracted details on the population of every New Jersey municipality from 1940 to 2010, the period of greatest suburban growth. With spatial data on municipal boundaries from the NJ Office of GIS, I plotted the census data onto the map of municipal boundaries. This allowed me to see spatial patterns and to produce heat maps of population change over time. The spatial data also revealed the surface area of each municipality, which allowed me to calculate the historical population density of each municipality as a function of municipal population divided by municipal surface area. You can browse all the data visualizations or download the open source data here from Tableau. These data visualizations represent analysis of about 13,560 data points for 565 municipalities over eight censuses.

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1. Population loss vs. gain

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The map below reveals that every urban area in New Jersey lost population from 1950 to 2000. Meanwhile, the majority of rural areas gained population to become commuter suburbs. Wedged between the metropolises of New York City with 8.4 million residents and Philadelphia with 1.6 million, New Jersey has no cities with over 300,000 people. Thousands of white-collar workers live in the state’s suburbs and commute out of state for work, at least a quarter million people per weekday pre-pandemic. New Jersey is therefore more of a bedroom community than any other American state. The map below shows the scale of suburban population growth with areas that gained population colored in green. The darker the shade of green the greater the population gain from 1950 to 2000. At the same time, almost every major New Jersey city was losing people. The darker the shade of red the greater the population loss. This map produces two parallel stories of urban decline vs. suburban growth.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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Unsurprisingly, the rural parts of the state with the farthest commuting distance from New York City and Philadelphia experienced the least population growth. Instead of becoming suburbs, the farmlands in the northwestern corner of the state that once provisioned New York City markets with food reverted to forest during the twentieth century. At the same time, Central Jersey’s richest and most fertile farmland – along the line of the Northeast Corridor between New York City and Philadelphia – became suburbs. The farms here were pushed farther away, such that, by the end of the twentieth century, New York City food is supplied from thousands of miles away. New Jersey’s nickname of the “Garden State” once referred to the state’s rich agriculture and farms. Today, this name has an unintentional double meaning, as the only gardens left are the green suburban lawns in the ever-expanding crabgrass frontier.

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2. Link between population densities and suburban growth

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From 1950 to 2000, a total of 52 New Jersey cities lost about one million white residents and gained about 400,000 Blacks and Hispanics. As whites moved out, other ethnic groups moved in. The flight of urban whites to the suburbs happened across twentieth-century America.
In contrast to the population decline of New Jersey cities, a total of 513 towns and boroughs gained around four million people from 1950 to 2000. New Jersey’s suburban population growth was through a combination of whites arriving from cities, whites arriving from other states, and the natural birth rate during “baby boomer” generation. The average population density per square mile of places that lost people in this period was 6,400, while places that gained people contained on average 2,100 people per square mile. New population growth has been occurring in once rural areas that historically had low population densities. In other words, sprawl. Almost all of New Jersey’s population and economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century was concentrated in lower-density suburban areas, often at the expense of the cities where wealth was traditionally concentrated.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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Horizontal axis ranks places by population loss or gain (logarithmic scale). Vertical axis ranks places by population density in 1950 (linear scale). Dots are sized according to population in 1950. Red dots are, on average, larger cities that lost population. Green dots are, on average, smaller suburbs that gained population. All the largest cities with the higher population densities, that is, all the largest dots (with the exception of Union City) lost population to neighboring suburbs. The higher the population density, the greater the magnitude of twentieth-century population loss due to decentralization. Notice how high-density cities with large populations form one red cluster, while low-density suburbs with small populations form a separate green cluster.

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3. Resistance to municipal annexation

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dozens of American municipalities were consolidated into larger urban areas. For instance, the 1898 consolidation of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and dozens of small farming hamlets in present-day Staten Island and Queens produced the contemporary city limits of New York City. This 300 square mile area allowed for New York City’s urban expansion, the elimination of otherwise duplicate municipal services, and the central organization of rapid transit, zoning, and land use policies. The metropolitan-scale vision and infrastructure projects of Robert Moses would have been impossible otherwise.
Municipal consolidation never went as far in New Jersey, with a few exceptions. The state’s second largest city of Jersey City with a population of 266,000 (2018) was formed in 1870 by merging the small towns of Hudson City, Bergen City, and Greenville. The state’s largest city of Newark with a population of 282,000 (2018) was reformed in 1905 by annexing neighboring Vailsburg. Yet, as a whole, the state’s geography remained divided with its largest cities unable to increase in population or expand their political power through municipal annexation. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and even before the era of rapid suburban growth, the trend in New Jersey was already toward decentralization with the subdivision of larger towns into ever-smaller units and school districts. For instance, if Newark covered the same surface area in 2019 as it did in 1790, it would be the eighteenth largest city in the US in 2019 with an estimated population of 800,000, ahead of Denver and behind Seattle. Instead, Newark is the country’s third oldest city behind Boston and New York, but is only the 73rd largest in population. Suburban towns straddle it on all sides, isolating a majority Black community in the inner city from the prosperity of surrounding suburbs. In contrast to cities in most other developed countries, most American cities are concentrations of poverty ringed by wealthier areas.
Cities like Newark rank higher in their regional and economic influence than their small populations and limited surface area would lead one to believe. Newark is the state’s economic, shipping, rail, airport, and higher education hub, with more of these key industries concentrated in Newark than in any other New Jersey city. But suburban policies resistant to centralized government and municipal annexation have thwarted Newark’s deserved political influence. Kenneth Jackson describes consolidation in Crabgrass Frontier: “Without exception, the adjustment of local boundaries has been the dominant method of population growth in every American city of consequence. [….] Viewed another way, if annexation had not been successful in the nineteenth century, many large cities would have been surrounded by suburbs even before the Civil War.”
Unfortunately, while the rest of the country was moving toward annexation in the nineteenth century, New Jersey experienced municipal fragmentation. For instance, the more urban and higher density borough of Metuchen is entirely surrounded by the less urban and lower density town of Edison. At one time, these two places were part of a single and larger township called Woodbridge. As railroads began linking city and country in the mid nineteenth century, urban residents started moving to Woodbridge and formed an early commuter suburb. The existing residents of Woodbridge were largely Democrat farmers, while the new commuters were largely Republican businessmen. The farmers were content with few municipal services, while the new commuters demanded paved roads, water supply, sewers, and street lighting. In the resulting conflict between rural and suburban, the small suburb of Metuchen clustered around its commuter train station broke off from the larger municipality. At 2.85 square miles, Metuchen is the size of postage stamp on the map of New Jersey, while more suburban Edison is like a doughnut that surrounds Metuchen on all sides.
There are at least thirty towns like Metuchen across the state, known as “doughnut towns” because one municipality encircles another. The average size of these towns is less than three square miles. This unique quirk of New Jersey geography hints at the longstanding conflict between rural and suburban. As the state evolved from a land of homesteads into a sea of platted suburban home lots, existing farmers resented their state’s changing geography and urbanizing economy. In many other states, rural farmers went along with the newly arrived residents of commuter suburbs and accepted greater investment in municipal services. In New Jersey, rural residents did not; they insisted on autonomy, independence, and decentralized government. Hence, New Jersey splintered into so many hundreds of places with their own strong, separate, and long-established civic identities. As a result, cities like Chicago and New York cover enough surface area that a Black or Hispanic family can move to a better neighborhood nearby without being in a new suburb. Yet, New Jersey municipalities are so fragmented that a change of address almost inevitably means a change of town with new laws, new taxes, a new civic identity, and a new school district. The table below outlines these municipal enclaves.

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Hover over data points to reveal details.

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The county maps from John P. Snyder’s History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries are revealing. They illustrate the division of New Jersey into ever-smaller municipal units. The map below shows, for instance, the original vs. contemporary municipal boundaries in Hudson and Bergen County along the Hudson River. Colored in green are original boundaries vs. the present-day ones in black.

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4. The municipal fabric before suburban growth

New Jersey’s municipal framework for suburban growth was laid out early, even centuries before its suburbs grew. The earliest settlers and colonists in America believed in local control of government. In the New England farming hamlet of colonial days, all eligible white male taxpaying citizens participated in direct democracy. These voters were tasked with passing new laws, improving roads, and maintaining common lands. Over 200 years of early American growth, almost all of the land within the eight states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were divided into “incorporated communities.” This produced hundreds of New England towns with relative autonomy from higher authorities.
By contrast, the rest of America followed a different development path from the original thirteen British colonies and contained more “unincorporated communities” – that is land and people not part of a local and direct democracy. People in unincorporated communities are still full citizens with voting rights, but the management of their municipal services, like roads and water, is often tasked to a larger and more distant power, like the county government. Several unincorporated villages might also be grouped as part of a larger municipality.
New Jersey’s belief in local control and direct democracy resulted in the early incorporation of municipalities, and a likely stronger sense of local identity than in other regions. The chart below shows that most of New Jersey’s municipalities were laid out in two sweeps. In 1798, 104 rural and farming towns were incorporated as part of the “Township Act of 1798.” Decades later, new residents in the state’s growing commuter suburbs like Metuchen demanded more municipal services like water, fire, and sewer. When residents of the existing farming areas objected, dozens of boroughs broke away to form bedroom communities in the second sweep of new municipal incorporations. The peak year was 1894 when 36 new towns and boroughs were created along the Bergen County commuter rail lines linking northern New Jersey to New York City. However, during the high period of suburban growth from the 1930s to the present-day when New Jersey gained 4.8 million people, a mere twelve new places were incorporated. In other words, the political geography of New Jersey suburbs was laid out before the mass exodus of Americans from cities to suburbs in the twentieth century.

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New Jersey’s anti-urban outlook and politics are no recent or twentieth-century phenomenon. Nor did these fears of central administration come about during the suburban age. In fact, the groundwork for New Jersey’s rapid twentieth-century suburban growth was laid in the state’s earliest days.

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5. Conclusion: New Jersey is still in the suburban age

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After 1980, thousands of Young Urban Professionals (“Yuppies”) returned from the suburbs to live in the cities. However, any post-1980 urban population gain was usually not enough to counter pre-1980 population loss. While a few smaller New Jersey cities regained earlier losses from 1980 to 2010, new population growth and new housing construction were concentrated in suburban areas on the whole. New Jersey cities have grown, but they are not growing as fast as the suburbs surrounding them.

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Mixed results of “back to the city”

Color key
Urban growth since 1980 does not offset earlier losses
Urban population growth since 1980 offsets earlier losses
No net population loss 1950 to 1980

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This table above shows that of the twenty-four largest New Jersey cities in 1950, sixteen had a net population loss from 1950 to 1980. In the period 1980 to 2010, only seven of these sixteen cities have seen population growth (Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Passaic, Hoboken, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). Even among these seven cities, only five of them have seen enough population growth to offset pre-1980 population losses (Paterson Elizabeth, Passaic, Perth Amboy, and Kearny). In addition, two of the twenty-four cities have even seen a higher rate of population loss from 1980 to 2010 than from 1950 to 1980 (East Orange and Irvington).
Viewed another way, of New Jersey’s twenty-four largest cities, only nineteen have seen an increase in the rate of population growth after 1980. But among these nineteen cities, population growth has always been from the replacement of whites with largely lower-income immigrants from Latin America. The only two cities yuppies and middle class whites were uniquely responsible for “turning around” through gentrification were Hoboken and Downtown Jersey City, both of which still had a net population loss from 1950 to 2010. Immigrants, more than wealthy young people, are the new drivers of urban growth in New Jersey.
The table below shows that New Jersey’s six leading cities of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton, and Camden were always majority white until 1950-1960 when thousands of whites fled for the suburbs. The demographic trend lines have not reversed. Only small numbers of younger and wealthier whites have returned to cities, which is not enough to offset the continued white flight to the suburbs. In other words, the urban population of New Jersey cities has stagnated since 1980. Population gains have been small and not enough to offset continuing population loss. Because many cities have not made up for their earlier losses of people and economic power, the story of “Back to the City” can only be applied to a limited number of cities in New Jersey.

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Hover over data points to reveal details. Hispanics not counted in graph because they were not measured on US census until 1970.
White population loss from 1930 to 2000: 330,047 in Newark; 222,306 in Jersey City; 93,838 in Camden; 89,514 in Paterson; 87,446 in Trenton; and 42,486 in Elizabeth

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Hover over data points to reveal details. Hispanics not counted in graph because they were not measured on US census until 1970.

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Taking these charts into account, Newark lost 330,000 whites from 1930 to 2000. Since then, population loss has slowed; the city gained a mere 400 whites from 2000 to 2010, a drop in the bucket. In the same period of 1930 to 2000, Jersey City lost 222,000 whites, Paterson lost 90,000, Trenton lost 87,000, Camden lost 94,000, and Elizabeth lost 42,000. This brings the estimated white population loss of the state’s six leading cities to about 866,000. If including smaller places that also lost their white population, such as Union City, Clifton, Atlantic City, and Plainfield, the urban population loss comes to well over one million people. At the same time, the population replacements of Blacks and Hispanics have not been as large as the population losses of whites. Cities across New Jersey are smaller and less central to the state’s economy than they were before the auto era.
Despite construction of new light rail systems and improvements to existing rail infrastructure, over 80% of New Jersey residents still commuted to work by car. Even in Hudson County, with excellent transit connections in Hoboken and Secaucus, 66% of commutes were still by car in 2000. New Jersey might be rich in transportation options and railroads, but most of its built environment of sprawling suburbs was not built with these “urban” transit modes in mind.
In other words, the image “Back to the City” with young people riding on bikes and public transit is more of a New York City story than it is a Trenton, Newark, Camden, or Atlantic City story. “The Garden State” was and remains suburban despite surface appearances of a renewed interest in cities. As economic historian Leah Boustan writes in Competition in the Promised Land: “Even though black in-migration to northern cities has tapered off, relative black wages have not rebounded in the North and white flight has not reversed course (despite media reports of a ‘return to the city’)” (p.9). Much of the public thinks that young people prefer to live in cities, and that the age of suburban sprawl is over in the age of the climate crisis. Yet two centuries of urban growth have failed to turn New Jersey into a state whose residents think of themselves as urban, even though it is densely populated and an integral part of greater New York City. The path of decentralization that New Jersey has followed for two centuries will guide it for decades more.
Is “Back to the City” part of a larger cultural shift, or is it a short-term illusion that the pandemic reversed when thousands of high-income young people moved back to the suburbs? If the history of New Jersey is any guide, the suburbs are alive and well and here to stay. As Robert Fishman writes in Bourgeois Utopias, a 1987 study of the origins and future of America’s suburbs:
“The ‘gentrification’ phenomenon has been highly visible yet statistically insignificant. It has done as much to displace low income city dwellers as to benefit them. The late twentieth century American environment thus shows all the signs of the two nations syndrome: one caught in an environment of poverty, cut off from the majority culture, speaking its own languages and dialects; the other an increasingly homogenized culture of affluence, more and more remote from an urban environment it finds dangerous.”

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Levittown, America’s most famous mass-produced suburb, was replicated in Pennsylvania, Long Island, and New Jersey

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Sources

Data for all municipalities:

Population of all municipalities from 1940 to 2000, from NJ State Data Center report (table 6, p. 26-51)
Shapefile of municipal boundaries with 2010 population of each municipality, from NJ open data
List of municipalities by year incorporated, from Wikipedia

Three data sources above are merged into these visualizations, posted to Tableau for free download

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Data for New Jersey’s six leading cities:

Populations and races of NJ’s six largest cities from 1810 to 1990, from US Census Bureau working paper (table 31, p.78-79) and this documentation page
Populations and races of NJ’s six largest cities for 2000 and 2010, from Census Viewer website because above table was only up to 1990

Two data sources above are merged into this visualization, posted to Tableau for free download

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Other sources:

NJ population density map, from Census Viewer website
Analysis of transportation patterns, from NJ Department of Transportation report
Satellite imagery of the entire state in 1930 offers a comparative view of the rural “Garden State” before suburban sprawl, from NJ Office of GIS

 

Further reading:

Leah P. Boustan. Competition in the Promised Land: black migrants in northern cities and labor markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Lizabeth Cohen. A Consumer’s Republic: the politics of mass consumption in postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Robert Fishman. Bourgeois Utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Kenneth T. Jackson. Crabgrass Frontier: the suburbanization of the United States. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985.
John P. Snyder. The History of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968. Trenton: Bureau of Geology and Topography, 1968. (link)

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