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Steven Malanga
Jersey’s Urban Meltdown
The problem isn’t sprawl; it’s collapsing cities.
19 January 2005

Two years ago, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey announced that one of his administration’s highest priorities would be to control suburban sprawl. To the applause of environmentalists and other no-growth types who said that the Garden State was running out of land, McGreevey laid out an ambitious agenda to limit development.

But like most sprawl activists, McGreevey danced around the real problem—which is that Jersey’s cities had become increasingly uninhabitable and that suburban sprawl had largely resulted from the flight of hundreds of thousands of city residents away from crime and bad public schools. Recent news reports about still rising crime in Camden and gang killings in Newark help remind us how little progress Jersey’s cities have made and how misplaced McGreevey’s priorities were.

Once upon a time, long before “sprawl” entered our vocabulary, Jersey’s population was concentrated in and around its major cities. Places like Newark boasted thriving and diverse neighborhoods, from solid blue-collar districts like the old First Ward to upscale enclaves like the Forest Hills and Weequahic sections.

But decades ago Newark and Camden and Trenton became among the most crime-ridden, inhospitable cities in the country, and residents fled them, moving first to the close-by suburbs like East Orange and Irvington and then, as the disorder spread, going further and further out. Newark, a city that once boasted nearly 450,000 residents, now has just 279,000, and entire neighborhoods that once pulsed with life have long since been cleared of their houses (some of them splendid) by nonresidential urban renewal projects, because no one wanted to live in these places anymore.

None of this got better on McGreevey’s watch; and we now have clear evidence that it got much worse. A recent report by the Kansas-based research group Morgan Quinto, which rates cities on all sorts of measures, found that in 2003 Camden became the most dangerous city in America, with 41 murders in a city with a population of just 79,000. Things look even worse in 2004, with homicides up another 20 percent. Meanwhile, Newark has been rocked by a series of gangland killings that have helped push that city’s murder rate up by more than one-third in the last two years. Newark’s murder rate is now double the national average for cities and five times that of New York City.

It isn’t just crime, of course. Jersey’s urban schools remain exemplars of underperformance. Only 56 percent of 11th graders in the Newark system passed the state’s assessment test in language arts last year, compared with 90 percent statewide. In Camden public schools, meanwhile, the dropout rate is above 50 percent.

It’s not for lack of resources that these schools are failing. Operating under court decisions that have pumped state money into the school systems, Jersey’s urban schools are among the best funded in the country. Newark’s school system, for instance, spends $15,000 per pupil.

Given this situation, you would have thought that, sometime during his tenure, McGreevey would have stood up and said that fixing Jersey’s cities was his number one priority—certainly ahead of suburban sprawl. From the bully pulpit of the governor’s office he could have insisted that Jersey’s cities employ the most modern and scientific techniques of crime fighting, now being copied from New York around the country with great success in cities as different as Baltimore, Miami, and Providence. You might have also thought that McGreevey would have pushed for innovative changes for the schools, including expanding school choice, as former gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler advocated, as well as former Newark mayoral candidate Cory Booker.

Politically, it’s no mystery why he didn’t. An agenda of fixing the state’s cities would have required that McGreevey take on his political allies, like Newark Mayor Sharpe James and the state’s powerful teachers’ union. Far better to blame Jersey’s problems on developers, middle class families, and McMansions in the suburbs.

McGreevey’s misplaced priorities will continue to plague Jersey, where the failure of cities is a drag on the entire state. That failure not only contributes to sprawl, because Jersey’s cities could comfortably accommodate hundreds of thousands more residents, but is an increasing financial burden on state’s middle and upper class residents.

New Jersey used to be the place that New Yorkers fled to when they were looking to escape high taxes and urban disorder. But that is rapidly changing as the state turns into a tax and spend haven. Under McGreevey, the state raised spending a whopping 17 percent this year. To finance this spending spree, it raised taxes on wealthy individuals and borrowed $1.9 billion (a move that the New Jersey Supreme Court said violated the state’s constitution, but which it nevertheless allowed to stand for one year).

Not surprisingly, Jersey now faces another big budget gap, and it has about come to the limit of its wealthiest residents’ ability to pay. A recent report by Rutgers University noted that a narrow band of Jersey’s suburban communities—the very ones that sprawl activists rail against—have become “cash calves” providing much of the tax revenue now being funneled into cities. Given Jersey’s sharply progressive income tax structure, Jersey is now seeing a massive redistribution of tax revenues from middle and upper income suburbs to cities, which, the report said, is probably “unsustainable,” given how vulnerable Jersey’s richest communities are to gyrations in the stock market.

What the report didn’t say, but what is increasingly obvious to anyone who watches what’s going on in Jersey’s cities, is that much of that money is being used ineffectively and is not producing any positive change in the cities.

That doesn’t make the prospects for the future very appealing. Although Jim McGreevey will go down as the governor who was forced to resign because he granted favors to his illicit male lover, he should be remembered as the leader who partied while Jersey’s cities burned, and who went to war with the state’s greatest strength—its sprawling suburbs.

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More by Steven Malanga:
The Cost of New York
A Tale of Two Scandals
Borrowing Trouble
More . . .
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