Ebner on Gale, 'Greater New Jersey: Living in the Shadow of Gotham'

Dennis E. Gale
Michael Ebner

Dennis E. Gale. Greater New Jersey: Living in the Shadow of Gotham. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. xvii + 190 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-3954-6.

Reviewed by Michael Ebner (Department of History, Lake Forest College) Published on H-New-Jersey (August, 2007)

Delineating North Jersey

Here is a book with an inspired conception by way of assaying what it terms "the Manhattan-North Jersey Axis" (p. 13). How many authors---present company among them--have fleetingly mused upon the prospect of writing a truly imaginative study about a topic whose parameters are virtually uncharted? Fortunately for his readers, Dennis Gale persevered. He gave literary life to an instinct rooted in his very relocation from Washington, D.C. to the Newark campus of Rutgers University, where he assumed a professorship. Moreover he makes the concept of Greater New Jersey seem so eminently plausible. That he does so in a manner that is at once innately modest yet far-reaching in its ambitions has led this reader to appreciate why it took so long for some enterprising author to write a book such as this. The inter-state fault lines that Gale has expertly mined--suggestive of the protracted scholarly journey recently completed by the celebrated historical geographer D. W. Meinig--provide a most bountiful yield.[1]

I have a hunch, tied to a question in play among cultural anthropologists, about why Dennis Gale succeeded. Unquestionably this is the work of an "outsider."[2] I surmise that the author commenced his labors almost immediately after his arrival and before he became immersed in the minutia of his new-found, culturally complicated landscape. Hence he devised, as his working assumption, a big-picture conception of how his book would unfold. To his credit he never allowed himself to become ensnared by what the late Alan J. Karcher--politician turned historian--so aptly classified as New Jersey's "multiple municipal madness."[3]

Underscoring Gale's unique mental map of the state's northeastern counties is the device he uses to open his book: a one-hour journey on a commuter train that transported him from Morristown to Penn Station in Manhattan. Long ago a historian of transportation, the venerable Wheaton J. Lane, understood that New Jersey merited the label of "the great transit state."[4] Wonderfully rendered railway scenes in the early pages of Greater New Jersey furnish Gale's methodological metaphor: avoid casting one's gaze unendingly upon any single location before moving on to either another place or, better yet, to an altogether different conceptual prism. Anyone aspiring to write about the urban history of New Jersey, especially on a macro scale, should be mindful of his approach.

By its very nature this book--the sixth of the University of Pennsylvania Press's "Metropolitan Portraits"--is more impressionistic than exhaustive. When Gale raises the issue of New Jersey's megalopolitan circumstances, to cite one especially pertinent instance, he invokes globalized vantage points--Hong Kong, Seoul, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro--that appropriately expand our geographic sensibilities. (Admittedly this is of a different magnitude from conventional comparisons that might encompass Bayonne, Elizabeth, Hackensack, Passaic, and Perth Amboy.) Readers also find themselves immersed in abbreviated but well-turned narratives on divergent topics essential to this book's scope and texture. Among them: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the ramifications of 9/11; the suburban culture of Montclair; the natural history of the region; the cultural landscape of journalism as well as media; professional sports franchises; the underworld; the machine politics of Hudson County; political corruption (including a detailed six-page compendium of convictions between 1990 and 2005); and the embittered contemporary cleavage over immigration that has divided residents of Morristown.

Gale's case study on Newark--historically the largest city in New Jersey--focuses exclusively on its contemporary history, starting in 1967. To amplify his argument the author might have made more of the entirety of its twentieth-century urban history and in particular the noble--albeit unrealistic--aspiration of Louis L. Bamberger. Owner of his family department store from 1892 until 1929, Bamberger disdained Manhattan, and nurtured Newark as an alternative cultural and commercial center.[5] To make the city a center of learning, Bamberger also favored permanently locating the Institute for Advanced Study--whose founding he underwrote and which was ultimately built in Princeton--either in Newark or in an adjacent suburb.[6]

By the late nineteenth century, Newark had grown increasingly complex, contravening Bamberger's ideal, as a consequence of its industrialization. Abysmal hygienic conditions tied to its manufacturing economy burdened it with an unwanted label--bestowed by the Census Bureau in 1890--as the nation's unhealthiest city.[7] Entering the new century it already teemed with new-stock Americans whose diverse Old World cultures surely appeared all but incomprehensible to long-established residents. The industrial work force further multiplied during the mobilization caused by World War I, making Newark a choice destination for African Americans seeking economic and political opportunity. In 1930 the city attained its all-time-high population mark--442,377 (10 percent African American)--ranking eighteenth among the nation's cities. But from the beginning of the century a suburban exodus, tied to Newark's density, had begun. The Bambergers joined the migrants, moving to an estate in South Orange that they eventually donated to Seton Hall University. Newark's proportion of Essex County's population subsequently diminished: from 69 percent in 1900 to 64 percent in 1920 and 51 percent in 1940. Ethnic and racial conflicts magnified the city's demographic segmentation. The resurgent Ku Klux Klan, directing its focus toward Catholics and Jews as well as African Americans in its most recent guise, established a Newark chapter in 1922 with a membership of 2,000.[8]

I would suggest that matters of proportionality and scale--see Gale's excellent analysis, evocatively entitled "Crustal Urbanization"--shaped the cultural geography of greater New Jersey. In his masterful study of New Haven, Douglas W. Rae underscored the powerful economic reach of New York City, dubbing that metropolis "the tarantula at the center of the manufacturing and financial web that was American capitalism."[9] Take the year 1900: the population of Manhattan alone, to rely upon Professor Gale's prism, stood at 1.85 million (comparable to Berlin, then the world's fourth largest city). Newark's totaled 246,000. Manhattan's population still would have qualified it as the nation's largest city in 1900, with second-ranked Chicago at 1.7 million. One might wonder if it ever had represented fair measure to balance Newark on the very scale whose counterweight was Manhattan.[10] What is undeniable is this: in Newark, at least until the Great Depression, it amounted to something akin to civic ritual for its leaders--inspired to a considerable degree by Louis Bamberger--to perpetuate this far-fetched comparison.

A further point worthy of contemplation has to do with New Jersey's population history. It comprises a recipe for hyper-concentration consisting of three ingredients: the state's small physical scale; the very high levels of density in its cities; and the constrained, frozen-in-time boundaries of its municipal entities.[11] An effort to significantly expand the boundaries of Newark, surely inspired by the formation of Greater New York City, had failed by 1905.[12] Edmund Wilson, writing in 1922 and with his geographic sensibilities very much influenced by his then-recent undergraduate experiences at Princeton University, darkly characterized the state as "moribund from the point of view of the cities."[13] Clement Alexander Price, in his history of Newark, pinpoints how physical constraints proved elemental in exacerbating the quest for one of humankind's most basic requirements: "While there were many sources of instability, the most important between 1890 and 1920 was the limitation of space--Newark was unable to house its working-class residents."[14]

Consider census data for the cities of New Jersey from 1910, to cite a year when data on square mileage is easily accessible. Newark's physical scale was the largest (23.2) and Hoboken's the smallest (1.3); the mean was 8.5 for the nine locales within New Jersey listed among the nation's one hundred largest cities. Newark was the nation's fourteenth largest city and Jersey City ranked nineteenth. When we average the square mileage for the ten cities--including the two within New Jersey--between numbers eleven (Milwaukee) and twenty (Kansas City), the mean equaled 62 square miles or almost three times greater than Newark's. If we also measure population density for 1910 among the nine cities within New Jersey they outdistanced their counterparts. Jersey City registered almost 20,600 persons per square mile and Newark's statistic was nearly 15,000. The average for the ten cities in the national cohort ranking eleven through twenty was slightly under 8,900. Looking solely at all of the cities within New Jersey among the nation's top one hundred as of 1910, their mean density exceeded 18,100. Hoboken surpassed 54,000 (70,000 inhabitants within a municipality consisting of 1.3 square miles).[15]

Further questions surface. Do these density calculations enable us to comprehend New Jersey's narrowness of vision that readily translates into the tradition of arch localism that pervades its political culture? Did these reverberations become even more exaggerated within Newark as a consequence of its distinctive cultural complexity? And was not all of this reminiscent of the misgivings playing in the mind of James Madison (a Virginian educated in Princeton)--drawing on Enlightenment thinkers opining upon the perils of factions within the densely inhabited polities of the young republican nation--when he gave himself over to the himself to the task of drafting the federal Constitution?[16]

Extending this story line into the second half of the twentieth century, we encounter the mournful transformation of Newark that Professor Gale explicates for readers in one of his case studies. The conflagration in July of 1967--commonly categorized as somewhere between an upheaval, a riot, and an insurrection--dominates this narrative in the final third of the twentieth century. Some thirty years later when an anthropologist conducted ethnographic research in Newark it remained a milestone in its history that reappeared as sharply etched within the memories recalled by some of her informants.[17] Conversely, social historians trace the roots of what transpired during 1967 back more than a century to the city's industrial origins before the Civil War.[18] Frequently mentioned when assayed from this extended temporal plane are: successive waves of demographic transformations; cultural cleavages that manifested sustained political conflicts; elevated density levels; and much more recently the combined ramifications of de-industrialization, de-population, and physical deterioration. A survey assessing American cities published by Harper's magazine in 1975 issued Newark a baleful citation: the worst of all. It occupied last place in nine of the twenty-four analytic categories. Behind it, in rank order, were St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit.[19]

While Newark remained the largest city in New Jersey, its national population rank dropped precipitously between 1950 and 2000 from twenty-first to sixty-fourth. The half-century loss amounted to 165,230. This also contributed significantly to Essex County's displacement in 1990 by Bergen County as the leader in population among New Jersey's twenty-one counties. Essex lost more residents (-73,098) than any county during the 1980s, but Newark (-53,072) accounted for three-quarters of the decline; its loss of residents also far exceeded any other city statewide during this decade, with Hoboken a distant second (-9,063). Moreover as of 2000, Jersey City--long ranked second statewide--only trailed Newark in population by 33,500; fifty years earlier the difference had been nearly 140,000. Over the fifty years ending in 2000 the population of Newark declined by 165,230 as contrasted with Jersey City's decrease of 59,000. Jersey City also gained population during the 1980s and again in the 1990s whereas Newark registered continuous decreases since1950.[20]

Correspondingly the African American population of the Newark reached its zenith. At mid-century, one-third of the nation's African American population resided in the northeast; by contrast, in 1900 nine of every ten African Americans had resided in southeastern states. Within Newark the number reached 207,500 as of 1970, accounting for 54 percent of its total population--the first time blacks comprised a majority. Among the nation's biggest cities, the proportion of Newark's black population was largest. Immediately behind were: Gary, Indiana (53 percent); Detroit (44 percent), Cleveland (38 percent), Philadelphia (34 percent); and Chicago (33 percent).[21]

But most compelling of all is the fact that on a metropolitan scale Newark was balkanized--a term added to our glossary by the demographer William H. Frey--whether measured demographically or economically. Within Essex County we encounter suburban Essex Fells, ranking sixth statewide in per capita income, $53,363 as of 1989. Juxtapose its circumstances with the New Jersey's ten lowest-ranked municipalities, whose median per capita income was $10,159; Newark placed fifth from last ($9,424) and Camden ranked last ($7,276).[22] Thinking about communities so strikingly divergent as Essex Fells and Newark--separated by a mere twelve miles--enables us to fix northeastern New Jersey upon a larger canvas that exemplifies the close geographic proximity of glitter amid despair that embodies the American dual metropolis.[23]

Robert N. Wilentz, who contributed immeasurably to recasting the contours of public policy in New Jersey during his tenure as chief justice (1979-1995), sounded a forlorn note in June of 1991 as he contemplated the consequences of its social geography. From the high bench he had unflinchingly spearheaded an assault upon judicially sanctioned, racially exclusionary zoning embodied in the benchmark case of Lionshead Lake v. Township of Wayne (1953). In his much-debated 216-page opinion in the "Mount Laurel II" case (1983) Wilentz sought to undermine the deadening hand of local autonomy in the state. But in this instance the setting was not an opinion rendered by Wilentz with the authority of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Rather the chief justice addressed a graduation ceremony at Rutgers School of Law in Newark. Whatever the audience might have anticipated as appropriate to this celebration, the tenor of the commencement speech surely caused a measure of discomfort for some and seldom-heard words of consolation for others. Imagining a contemporary map of New Jersey, Wilentz characterized its communities as "a collection of islands." The speech then raised a problematic question for the new lawyers and their admiring well-wishers: "Our separateness is frightening...How can a society be happy when its two major components--white and black--don't work with each other, and cannot even truly understand each other?"[24]

So it is geography that stands paramount to our understanding of the fragmented cultural landscape that comprises "Greater New Jersey." Dennis Gale enables readers to comprehend how its inhabitants conducted--and occasionally revised at key junctures such as the epochal events of 1967 in Newark--their lives within the Manhattan-North Jersey Axis. Whether singularly or operating in tandem, racial, ethnic, and class forces imposed their influence upon this cleverly constructed artifice. But more than any other book about New Jersey that I have encountered, Gale's helps us to comprehend how the accrual of historical baggage shaped so distinctive a form and texture of an inter-state regional geography. The cumulative consequences have influenced, and in some instances manifestly re-ordered, the multiple choices made by people on a day-to-day basis: where to purchase basic household foodstuffs or supplies; where to purchase soft as well as durable goods; where to seek health care; where to enjoy a film or a live performance; where to attend a sporting event; where to worship, and, ultimately, where to reside and educate children.[25] Contemplated in total, the decisions that people formulated manifested themselves in the purposeful erection of "invisible fences"--a term Kenneth T. Jackson introduced with northern New Jersey very much in his thoughts--that themselves amount to a defining characteristic of contemporary metropolitan America.[26]


[1]. D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, 4 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986-2004).

[2]. Donald A. Messerschmidt, ed. Anthropologists at Home: Methods and Issues in the Study of One's Own Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[3]. Alan J. Karcher, New Jersey's Multiple Municipal Madness (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

[4]. Wheaton J. Lane, From Indian Trail to Iron Horse: Travel and Transportation in New Jersey, 1690-1860 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1939), 10-11.

[5]. John E. O'Connor and Charles F. Cummings, "Bamberger's Department Store, Charm Magazine, and the Culture of Consumption in New Jersey," New Jersey History 102 (1984): 1-34; and Maxine N. Lurie and Marc Mappen, eds., The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 52-53 and 560-565.

[6]. Laura Smith Porter, "From Intellectual Sanctuary to Social Responsibility: The Founding of the Institute for Advanced Study, 1930-1933" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1988), 159-62.

[7]. Stuart Galishoff, Newark, the Nation's Unhealthiest City, 1832-1895 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

[8]. Paul A. Stellhorn, "Boom, Bust, and Boosterism: Attitudes, Residency, and the Newark Chamber of Commerce, 1920-1941," in Urban New Jersey since 1870, ed. William C. Wright (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1975), 46-77; Clement A. Price, "The Beleaguered City as Promised Land: Blacks in Newark, 1917-1947," in Urban New Jersey since 1870, 11; Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan and the City, 1915-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 178; and Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 176.

[9]. Douglas W. Rae, The City, Urbanism and Its End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 66. Also see D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 301.

[10]. Kenneth T. Jackson, "The Capital of Capitalism: The New York Metropolitan Region, 1890-1940," in Metropolis, 1890-1940, ed. Anthony Sutcliffe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 31- 53.

[11]. Bruce Bahrenberg, "New Jersey's Search for Identity," Harpers 228 (April, 1964): 94; and Karcher, New Jersey's Multiple Municipal Madness.

[12]. Richardson Dilworth, The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 171-93; and Joel Schwartz, "Suburban Progressivism in the 1890s: The Policy of Containment in Orange, East Orange, and Montclair," in Cities of the Garden State: Essays in the Urban and Suburban History of New Jersey, ed. Joel Schwartz and Daniel Prosser (Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt Publishers, 1977), 64-66.

[13]. Edmund Wilson, Jr., "New Jersey: The Slave of Two Cities," The Nation 114 (June 14, 1922): 714.

[14]. Price, "The Beleaguered City," 11. Bringing this further into the twentieth century are Kevin Mumford, "Double V in New Jersey: African American Civic Culture and Rising Consciousness Against Jim Crow, 1938-1946, " New Jersey History 119, nos. 3-4 (2001): 22-56; and Cohen, A Consumers' Republic, 175-80.

[15]. Campbell Gibson, "Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States: 1790-1990," Population Division Working Paper # 27 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998) and http://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/phc-t5.html [accessed May 8, 2007] provides 2000 census ranking data for incorporated cities with populations greater than 100,000. Incomparable on this subject is: John E. Bebout and Ronald J. Grele, Where Cities Meet: The Urbanization of New Jersey (Princeton, N. J.: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1964).

[16]. Gerald E. Frug, City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 42-45. Frug expands the ramifications of this discussion in his invaluable "Beyond Regional Government," Harvard Law Review 115, no. 7 (May 2002): 1763-1836.

[17]. Sherry B. Ortner, New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 2-4, 72, 276, and 295 note 4. Ortner's focus was not the events of 1967 but rather the recollections and reflections gleaned from her classmates about their experiences as students at Weequahic High School, from which the author had graduated in 1958.

[18]. Kenneth T. Jackson, "July 12, 1967--Days of Rage: The Life and Death of Newark, New Jersey," in Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History, ed. James M. McPherson and Alan Brinkley (New York: D. K. Publishing, 2001), 418-439; and Stanley B. Winters, ed., From Riot to Recovery, Newark after Ten Years (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979).

[19]. Arthur M. Louis, "The Worst American City: A Scientific Study to Confirm or Deny Your Prejudices," Harper's (January 1975): 67-71.

[20]. Statistical data for this paragraph is drawn from the census compilations cited in note 17 as well as New Jersey Population Trends, 1790 to 2000 (Trenton: New Jersey State Data Center, 2001), 25 (Table 5).

[21]. D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 4, Global America, 1915-2000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 180, 225-227.

[22]. William H. Frey, "The New Geography of Population Shifts: Trends toward Balkanization," in State of the Union--America in the 1990s, Vol. 2, Social Trends, ed. Reynold Farley (New York: Russell Sage, 1995), 271-334; and James W. Hughes and George Sternlieb, Rutgers Regional Report, Vol. 1: Job, Income, Population, and Housing Baselines (New Brunswick: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1989), 46-48. And for an important discussion of Newark's balkanization refer to Cohen, A Consumer's Republic, 194-256.

[23]. Provocatively re-conceptualizing the American metropolis is Peter Marcuse, "The Ghetto of Exclusion and the Fortified Enclave: New Patterns in the United States," American Behavioral Scientist 41, no. 3 (November/December, 1997): 311-326. Marcuse updates, to the final years of the twentieth century, the specter of people striving to fashion metropolitan lives on sociological islands apart from everyday realities, a notion first explicated in the context of the Industrial Revolution by Robert H. Wiebe in The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967), 44. William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996); and Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) are paramount for comprehending the ramifications of the dual metropolis.

[24]. Robert N. Wilentz, "Commencement Address-Rutgers University School of Law, Newark," Rutgers Law Review 49, no. 3 (Spring 1997): 1064. David Kuzma, Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, tracked down this important but elusive article and I am most grateful to him for his kindness. To learn more about Robert N. Wilentz and Mount Laurel II refer to Maxine N. Lurie and Marc Mappen, eds., The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 548 and 873, as well as David L. Kirp et al., Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 112-136.

[25]. Evoking such sentiments are Divided Cities in a Global Economy: The 1992 European-North American State-of-the Cities Report (Washington, D.C.: German Marshall Fund of the United States, 1992), ii. Expanding on this insightful document are Neal R. Peirce, Curtis H. Johnson and John Stuart Hall, Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World (Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1993), 299-300; and Derek Bok, The State of the Nation, Government and the Quest for a Better Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 113.

[26]. Kenneth T. Jackson, "Gentlemen's Agreement: Discrimination in Metropolitan America," in Reflections on Regionalism, ed. Bruce Katz (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 186; refer also to Frug, City Making, 43.

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