The East-West Highway -- now just plain Route 29 -- when it was just finished in 1957.

A proud Trenton promotes urban renewal in '57.
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1957: Forecasts of boom and doom
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
In the boom times of October 1957, a team of urban planning students from the University of Pennsylvania predicted Trenton and cities like it would be socially and economically dead by 1980 unless business and political leaders changed their policies.

Trenton wasn't mentioned by name in the Penn report, but when it was published nationally by House and Home magazine, local leaders saw a map showing an urban center on a river bend across from a new steel plant and even some pictures of blight from the city.

Statistics cited in the report also made the location clear: The "Case City," population, like Trenton's, had stayed at 130,000 for seven years while the suburbs grew by 100,000 people; taxpaying whites who left the city were being replaced by poor black migrants from the American South.

Unless something changed fast, the students and their professors said, medium-sized American cities in 25 years would be "slums far grubbier than George Orwell envisaged" in his book "1984," which predicted vast urban decay when it was written in 1948.

"How could this be when times are this good?" the political and business leaders of the day asked.

They pointed to Trenton's per capita income of $7,500, which ranked seventh in the nation, and to all the construction and industrial expansion going on.

One contractor alone, William C. Ehret, was at work on the $3 million Notre Dame High School in Lawrence at the same time he was building two smaller suburban schools, erecting a facility for PSE&G and working on restoration of one of the Trenton houses of worship ruined during the 1956 series of church arsons.

Primed by contracts for giant water and gas pumps and U.S. Navy demands for warship turbines and compressors, the Delaval plant on the Hamilton-Trenton border expanded to accommodate a work force that had grown to 2,000.

Like computers today, the typewriter business was booming in those days: In a Trenton Chamber of Commerce magazine article, Trenton's Prior Typewriter Co. reported it had 2,000 typewriters under maintenance contracts and that New Jersey government offices now had 5,000, compared to 50 in 1913.

And then there were the politicians' pet projects: The Route 29 highway, which linked downtown Trenton with Ewing and the farmland beyond when a second new stretch of the road opened in May, and the plans for replacing the city's dilapidated Coalport neighborhood with a model industrial and residential complex.

Donal J. Connolly, Trenton's dapper and handsome mayor, was particularly proud of 29, which was called the East-West Highway in those days even though the route actually runs north and south.

To build the highway, Trenton had to shave away half of Stacy Park, leaving only a strip along the Delaware River, and to demolish its water works and replace it with the filtration plant that stands today.

Combined with the Trenton Freeway, which had been completed a few years before, the new Route 29 would make access to downtown quicker and keep through traffic off residential city streets.

But while Trenton officialdom was ballyhooing the futuristic prospect of new homes, roads and industries, the Penn students were peeling off the new paint and finding damaged canvas.

Tops on the list of problems, the report suggested, was Trenton's growing black population, which had gone from 14,000 in 1950 to 18,000, or 25 percent of city residents.

Most of the newcomers were poor laborers from the South who would have difficulty maintaining homes and paying taxes on them, the report predicted.

Twenty percent of city houses were not habitable due to deterioration or bad plumbing, said the report, which also chastised the city for not enforcing its home maintenance laws as a way to thwart blight of its aging but often elegant housing stock.

Earlier in 1957, Trenton unveiled plans for a major redevelopment of Coalport, below Perry and Southard streets, with a city brochure headlined, "The Slums Are Going!"

Coalport and frontage along Perry eventually was cleared to make way for plants for both city newspapers, other businesses and the police station. With federal money, the Miller Homes complex of townhouses and high-rises also was built.

But the students said the city had sat on the plan far too long. It could have been started five years before, the report said, but leaders didn't do enough to convince private development to come in.

The report also noted that public transportation, provided by a private company in those days, was in serious trouble -- caught in a "circle of fewer riders, higher fares, still fewer riders." The magazine, which cited Trenton's April fare hike from 15 cents to 18 cents, showed a near empty bus moving through downtown.

In addition to simply making it easier for city residents to move out, Trenton's new roads also were creating the suburban blight of treeless housing tracts and scattered roadside gas stations and hamburger stands.

Some suburban homes already were selling for less than they did when new only a few years earlier, the report said.

The report concluded with a series of troubling predictions for the year 1980, "if present trends continue," among them:

* A Greater Trenton population of 750,000, with not enough good jobs to go around, especially for the growing number of unskilled workers.

* A downtown Trenton "deserted" after 5 p.m., with dozens of boarded-up businesses ruined by suburban shopping centers.

* The collapse of mass transit in the city.

* A decline in the quality of education and other city services.

* Municipal bankruptcy or sharp tax hikes.

The predictions came true, of course.

The regional population by 1980 was 750,000, and unemployment was highest among blacks and other minorities without skills for well-paying jobs.

Downtown Trenton was deserted after dark, and only a state decision to locate new offices in the city saved it from appearing to be a ghost town during the day also.

Mass transit by 1980 was subsidized heavily by the state government, student test scores were among the lowest in New Jersey and Trenton was taxing at a high rate and facing fiscal collapse.

The 1957 "Case Study" shook up a few Trenton officials. Enforcement of Trenton's building codes was toughened for a while, and at City Commission meetings leaders spoke of avoiding mistakes of the type mentioned in the magazine article.

But times were too good for most city leaders to be impressed with the predictions of a bunch of university students.

In December 1957, when the city welfare director said more more money was needed because the number of people in need was growing swiftly, the officials could point to the signs of prosperity like the throng that descended on the new Hamilton Jewelry store downtown when it opened in time for Christmas shopping.

How could Trenton be in decline, officialdom asked, when it's in the middle of a renaissance? Just what they say today at City Hall.