City of Extinguished Dreams
I grew up in a broken city filled with smoke and debris from extinguished dreams.
Trenton, New Jersey was a broken city by the 1980s. I was born in 1981 and my parents moved there 1984ish, buying a row house for a mere $23,000 dollars. I still remember going into the house for the first time- whoever had occupied it had died and all of their belongings were left. The deceased was a smoker- there was an ashtray filled with cigarettes the first time we walked inside. Most of the walls were semi-yellow from the nicotine and smoking indoors. I don’t think the smell of smoke ever completely disappeared during our time there. The house was a steal because frankly no one in their right mind wanted to purchase it, the interior was in horrid disrepair, but the silver lining was, it was in the “white” part of the city. That’s why my dad wanted the house. Because it was in a neighborhood that was still relatively safe, despite the fact that crime was surging throughout the city. A mere 10 blocks away was still one of the most dangerous areas I’ve ever been to in my life. The area was so poor it felt like a 3rd world country.
There was something about growing up in this city, a feeling, a sad zeitgeist that I’ve never encountered anywhere else(Baltimore might be the other place that comes closest to the feeling). The easiest way I can describe it is hopeless despair, a feeling that dreams are long gone, survival mode is the name of the game and everyone is always in fight or flight mode, eking out the most basic of livings. There was no rich- there was poor and poorer. There was no middle class. There were law abiding citizens and criminals living next door to each other, just trying to make sure they survived another day. The mob had a presence as well, stereotypically owning Italian restaurants and the like as ways to hide their dirty money.
Drugs and drug use was rampant. In the days of my youth, I constantly found dirty needles. I never saw people smoking pot really, not like I do here in California where I live now. I only saw the hard stuff. Which is really weird when I think about it now. I remember one time my family rented a car and I, like a curious child does, stuck my hands inside the seats. My hand came upon a small baggie and I pulled it out, finding it filled with white powder. I was horrified, but didn’t want my parents to know I had discovered this and stuffed it back in the seats. These types of things were common. By the time I was 12 I would say I found drug paraphilia laying around at least 50 times.
So how did the city get to this place of despair? At the turn of the century, it was a bustling metropolis. The state capital is located in Trenton. Like Allentown, Pennsylvania, and more famously Pittsburgh, Trenton was a town built on the steel industry. The John A Roebling and Sons company, which manufactured wire steel cable, basically dominated the town. They were responsible for building the Brooklyn Bridge and other major feats of engineering at the time. They built one of the weirdest bridges, the Trenton Makes bridge- a bridge that no longer makes sense. In the 1970s, the company, after a sale years earlier, ceased all operations in the city.
Like our modern day coal miners, waiting for a dead industry to one day return, the city went through an identity crisis. The major industry dried up, unemployment and crime increased. During the 1990s, the city tried to start a revitalization project. A minor league ballpark was built along the river. A nightclub was built. The city had plans to turn it into a busy public space. That never happened. Years later the area still lacks much development. The only project that worked was moving much of the state government to this area- the state employees 20,000 people and is still really the only major employer in the city.
One of the most interesting parts of my childhood was that a few doors down from the house I grew up in sat an abandoned old neighborhood general store.
The abandoned store was a gateway to my imagination. I’d peer often into the glass- there was still old boxes from decades ago on the shelves. There were old cans of food. It looked like the type of place a survivor finds 30 years after the apocalypse has happened. I loved envisioning the store still open, 30 years before, filled with ghosts of the departed. I imagined the conversations. I imagined the city, vibrant and friendly and neighborly as it once was. It always gave me hope to think of this.
In recent years, I’ve learned that my Ely family, many generations before, were part of the group of Quakers that helped establish Trenton as a city in 1679. When I found out this fact, it made sense why the city always felt like home, despite the despair. It made sense why so much of my family stayed rooted there for generations, despite the fact that opportunity only seemed to dwindle as time went on.
I think there is a real, sad beauty in urban decay. Growing up in it has made it feel so comfortable to me. The opportunity for renewal, for repurposing, is truly inspiring. I still have hope that one day, this little abandoned store will be made into a new business, a new part of the community. Maybe a little deli will go in there, or a brewery tasting room, or a record shop, or a shoe store. I still have hope that the city of my youth, this broken city in all it’s grime and dirt, will one day be made new again. That one day it will return to the growing metropolis it once was. That one day I’ll be proud of it. That one day I can take my kid there on a trip, detailing the past generations of my family and what they did there- the stores they owned, the businesses they started, the tragedy they faced, the houses they bought, the communities they were engrained in.