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Political Physics: The Cheesecakes and the Italians Have Left the City of Trenton


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

newsegregation-PhotocapyI grew up in Trenton, NJ in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood in the East Ward called Wilbur Section (affectionately referred to as “The Section”).  The far edge of the section was bordered by Hamilton Avenue.  On the other side of Hamilton Avenue was Chambersburg, an old, working class Italian enclave.  Hamilton Avenue was the dividing line.  We did not go into their neighborhood and they did not come into ours.

But there used to be this Italian restaurant on Hamilton Avenue (on The Section side).  The name escapes me, but they served the most amazing cheesecakes.  And my mom loved (still does) cheesecake.  So every once in a while she’d order a cheesecake and she’d send my brother and I over to pick it up.  I used to hate it, because the teenagers from Chambersburg would sit across the street and yell racial slurs and other nasty names at my brother and me.

In a study entitled, “Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States: 1980-2000,” the U.S. Census Bureau used five distinct dimensions: evenness, exposure, clustering, concentration and centralization.  Of the five dimensions, the most commonly used is evenness and evenness is measured using a dissimilarity index.

According to CensusScope.Org, “the dissimilarity index is the most commonly used measure of segregation between two groups, reflecting their relative distributions across neighborhoods within a city or metropolitan area. It can range in value from 0, indicating complete integration, to 100, indicating complete segregation. In most cities and metro areas, however, the values are somewhere between those extremes.”

Trenton is the 3rd most segregated cities in NJ following Newark (#1) and Kearny (#2).

Its White/Black dissimilarity index is 69.3 – remember 100 indicates complete segregation.  This means that 69.3% of whites in the City of Trenton would need to move to other neighborhoods in the City in order for whites and blacks to be evenly distributed across all neighborhoods.  So for example, though Chambersburg is no loner predominantly Italian, there are neighborhoods in the City where the majority of the white population reside, for example, Mill Hill, Hiltonia, Glen Afton, South Trenton, etc.  So 69.3% of whites in those neighborhoods would need to move into neighborhoods like Wilbur Section in order to be more integrated.

Now to be fair, population can skew the dissimilarity index.  For example, in a City where there are 20,000 white people and 200 black people, it doesn’t make sense to try this type of analysis.  The rule of thumb is when a group’s population is less than 1,000; you should exercise caution in interpreting its dissimilarity indices.

So, what about other races (e.g., White/Latino or White/Asian)?  Or what about other cities (e.g., Los Angeles, Chicago or New York)?  Below is a list of the most segregated cities in the nation by racial group:





1. Chicago, 84.6

1. Oakland, 69.9

1. New Orleans, 57.9

2. New York, 82.2

2. New York, 67.1

2. Newark, 55.4

3. Atlanta, 81.5

3. Los Angeles, 65.6

3. Long Beach, 51.7

4. Washington, 79.7

4. Philadelphia, 64.3

4. Detroit, 51.0

5. Cleveland, 77.3

5. Long Beach, 61.1

5. St. Paul, 50.6

6. Newark, 76.7

6. Milwaukee, 60.9

6. Oakland, 50.3

7. Philadelphia, 76.4

7. Dallas, 60.6

7. Pittsburgh, 50.1

8. Baltimore, 71.1

8. San Diego, 60.1

8. New York, 49.2

9. Houston, 70.9

9. Washington, 59.4

9. Philadelphia, 48.6

10. Los Angeles, 70.6

10. Chicago, 59.2

10. Atlanta, 48.1

So what does it matter?

Segregation, particularly in urban areas, has been connected to everything from income to educational attainment to infant mortality rates.  Predominantly African American and Latino communities are more likely to be low-income, have higher crime rates, lower educational attainment levels, etc.

Fast forward almost twenty years later.  I am back living in Trenton though far from Wilbur Section.  The Section is still predominantly black, but poorer and more dangerous.  Most of the Italians have left Chambersburg and today it is a predominantly working class Latino community.

The cheesecake place is gone.  But Hamilton Avenue is still the dividing line.

The demographics have changed, but Trenton is still a very segregated city.  No one talks about it, but it is ever-present and I feel it now more than I ever did as a child.

What about you?  Are you surprised to see your city on the list?  Or are you like me and feel like you could add your city to the list?

.. photo credit: Photocapy