By some measures, Princeton is the second-poorest town in Mercer County, richer only than Trenton. That’s just one of the surprising insights that Ralph Widner, an experienced urban planner, found when he took a hard look at the census data gathered back when there was a Princeton Borough and a Princeton Township and only just now being analyzed in light of the municipal merger of 2012.
Widner is part of a group that plans to use this data to plan for the future of the town of Princeton and the surrounding area. The Princeton Future citizens group will meet on Saturday, December 13, at 9:30 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Peter Kann, retired CEO of Dow Jones, will moderate a discussion about how the group plans to use the data that Widner has spent the last year compiling. It includes demographic, economic, cultural, and geographical information.
Princeton Future plans to release the community information in spreadsheet form to make it available to other civic groups. This will take the form of an online database, as well as a reference volume, published annually, called Princeton, New Jersey: A Statistical Portrait. The group also plans to publish periodic “Princeton Profiles” bulletins about different issues.
The group’s work also has the potential to help predict the future of the greater Route 1 corridor. Widner says he plans to participate in a central New Jersey planning group soon that will address regional issues. Many of the trends that Widner uncovered are relevant to commuters.
The outsourcing of Princeton: “The university has been decentralizing for several years,” Widner says. With administrative offices set up along Route 1, less of the university’s bureaucracy is centralized in downtown Princeton as it was before. That’s several hundred workers who once worked in town who now live outside of it. Of even greater significance was the move of the Princeton Hospital from Witherspoon Street to Route 1 in Plainsboro. “That’s about 2,000 commuters who don’t come into town,” Widner says.
Moves like this are effectively reversing the flow of commuters to and from Princeton, he says. Where once people lived in the surrounding towns and worked in Princeton, Princeton is increasingly becoming a bedroom community for people who work elsewhere.
The Traffic Puzzle: “I tell the mayors of the towns along Route 1 that they are the mayors of two towns. One is the world during the day, when the workforce is there, and at night they’ve got their voters at home who have a totally different set of interests,” Widner says. Widner estimates that between New Brunswick and Trenton, there are about 155,000 people coming in to work from other places, and 135,000 people who live in those towns commuting elsewhere. This great flip-flop of population, plus the traffic passing through, is what creates the traffic headache that is Route 1.
“It gets complicated,” Widner says. “The question is, how do you manage these different flows?” Widner says the data suggests there is a need to move people via mass transit between Princeton and the towns on the east side of Route 1, such as Plainsboro and West Windsor. Another Dinky stop, connected to local places of employment rather than the train to New York, might provide a convenient way to avoid traffic jams.
Income Disparity: Widner says the most startling thing he found was the very wide disparity of income within Princeton. While Princeton has a reputation as a wealthy town, and has a high average income to back up that claim, the truth is more complicated. Widner says when you divide the population into quintiles — 20 percent blocks — a real wealth gap emerges.
It turns out the income of the top 20 percent is so high that it skews the statistics for the entire town. The median income of the members of the bottom 80 percent is actually lower than the bottom 80 percent of residents of Ewing, Hopewell, Hamilton, Lawrence, West Windsor, or Robbinsville. After factoring out the super-rich, most Princeton residents are actually worse off than the residents of other Mercer County towns.
Widner says there are 225 Princeton families living below what the federal government determines as poverty line. The demographics of the poorest Princeton residents defies old stereotypes. About 57 percent of them are non-Latino white, and zero percent of them are black. “A lot of the African-American and some Latino families have very high incomes,” Widner says. “This obviously doesn’t conform to the notion of Latinos being recent immigrants mowing lawns. They only account for a small percent of Latinos in Princeton. There are some very wealthy Hispanic families who have lived here a long time.”
Widner, 84, was born in Philadelphia. His father was a Marine officer and his mother was a banker. He started out his career as a journalist at the Paterson Evening News before working at the New York Times.
His career as a planner has spanned most of the past five decades. He was assistant director of Pennsylvania’s state planning board, and was the first executive director of the 13-state Appalachian Regional Development Program. he has led numerous local, regional, national, and international projects, including stints overseas for the United Nations, the European Union, and the State Department. He moved to Princeton in 2006 to be near his daughter, a professor at Princeton, and considers planning for the region a retirement project to keep himself sharp.
Widner’s 25-minute presentation will cover some of his findings, but he expects the data he compiled to be a rich source of discussion in the years to come.
“A whole range of issues are going to crop up as a result of this exercise, some of which aren’t evident yet,” he says. “We’re trying to get the facts and then see where they lead us.”