Site Description – KS

Preliminary Paper Title: The Merchants of Trenton: Business, Recreation, and the Highway in a Postwar City

Author Biography: I am interested in studying historical environmental justice, mainly focusing on postwar-America, and I am beginning to be active in the current climate justice movement. Though Trenton is the city of my birth, I never had the opportunity to delve into its history. I am seeking to put into a broader context the places around which I grew up – buildings, streets, parks, etc. – and thus to become more connected to my original living space. The debates surrounding the construction of Assunpink Way is just one story amongst many in Trenton’s experience with postwar urban renewal.

Site Description: The City of Trenton – specifically parts of West Trenton and the Capital area – during the immediate postwar period holds many stories of environmental justice. The State of New Jersey, in the late 1940s and 1950s, was planning the placement and construction of an urban freeway to run along the Delaware River and cut through some of Trenton’s most precious spaces. The road went by different names – Route 29, Sanhican Drive, the East-West Highway – but many contemporaries called it the Assunpink Way, for it would run through the historically potent Assunpink Creek. Polls conducted at the time declared a majority of Trentonians supported the new freeway in order to relieve traffic congestion downtown, but some locals rejected the plans; small business owners along South Broad Street saw it as a detriment to their bottom-line, and leisurely citizens in search of green spaces were afraid it would cause the destruction of Stacy Park.

Historical Questions: What were the social identities of citizens against the construction of Assunpink Way? How did they choose to confront the state in opposition to the freeway? Why did they oppose the freeway? How did they view and use their local space, whether public or private? How did these citizens connect their spaces with their city’s history?

Project Significance: Urban freeway construction occupies significant space in the discourse of postwar environmental justice. The scholarship has generally focused on cities such as New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit. Trenton, however, has been somewhat neglected, despite its important history as an industrial hub of the world. Analyzing the story of Assunpink Way will hopefully reveal insights into how Trentonians saw their surrounding environment – built and organic – and interacted with the state in a contest over control of that environment in the postwar era.

Concluding Paragraph: The construction of Assunpink Way in Trenton threatened many aspects of local life – business and recreation being two significant factors. It is another story in the bigger history of postwar urban renewal where citizens around the country stood up to the state in order to retain (or gain) control over their local environments. How did Trentonians view their environment? Who were the Trentonians in opposition to the freeway’s construction, and how did they interact with the state in this particular dispute? Trenton and its citizens are important players in the history of postwar urban renewal, yet they have not been couched in the context of environmental justice like other cities around the United States. This story of Assunpink Way demonstrates why Trenton’s history should stand with industrial cities like New York, Chicago, and Baltimore.

Tags: Roads, Parks, Water, Business, Class