N.J. cities are losing their names

Tide of suburbanization swamps old identities

March 12, 2000|By Iver Peterson | Iver Peterson,New York Times News Service

TRENTON, N.J. -- The city is still here. It is just the name, "Trenton," that is slipping fast.

The Trenton Times dropped the name years ago as suburban circulation grew. Trenton State College became abstracted into the College of New Jersey three years ago, when the campus administration became concerned with the college's image among suburban applicants. Mayor Douglas Palmer even had to fight the state Department of Transportation to have "Trenton" added to the signs pointing to the railroad station.

"It's a constant battle, just to keep the name up there," said Palmer.

What is happening around Trenton is also going on in other cities that have suffered economic woes. As population and political and financial power have swelled in the suburbs, the identities of many old cities have fallen out of fashion and, increasingly, out of the names of public and private institutions.

Partly as a marketing decision aimed at suburban consumers, partly from new suburban pride, the people who decide these things sometimes favor names that mask the urban identity of a place or an institution. In the shuffle, the geography of place becomes geographically indeterminate, as with Trenton's new downtown showplace, a $60 million sports arena, developed and underwritten by Mercer County and named Sovereign Bank Arena at Mercer County.

Where, Palmer wonders sardonically, is that?

"I have to admit that I was quite shocked and taken aback to see that sign outside and on the court inside," he said. "I was frankly a little surprised that Mercer County would feel so insecure about their image that they would have to put that there."

But image clearly counts for a lot these days, and the Postal Service's nine-digit ZIP codes, which permit mail carriers to ignore place names entirely, make it easier for anyone to migrate to a more fashionable mailing address without moving a single stick of furniture.

Trenton vs. Princeton

Trenton has a population of 88,000, yet the local phone book contains barely a page's worth of businesses beginning with that name. But businesses named for Princeton, one of the most fashionable addresses in the state, with a population of 26,000, fill 3 1/2 pages. How could that be? Most of the listed businesses are in surrounding suburbs, giving "Princeton area" as their address. Princeton lies about five miles from Trenton.

Ted Hershberg, a professor of public policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an advocate of tying cities and suburbs closer together, complained that the tendency to deny the identity of a region's core city amounts to a way of placating nervous suburbanites.

"It provides a very subtle and insidious way to sanitize the identity of an entire region," said Hershberg, a champion of regional cooperation in Philadelphia. "In a place where people pride themselves on never visiting the downtown, this gets them off scot-free -- they don't even have to recognize that they are part of a region that owes its identity to a city."

Temple University center

Hershberg offered Temple University's conference center as an example.

"It's the Sugarloaf Conference Center and it's in Philadelphia, only its stationery says 'Chestnut Hill,' which is not even a place," he said. "Here's an urban university in the heart of the Philadelphia ghetto and these guys mask the fact that this beautiful conference center is even in the city."

Harriet K. Goodheart, the university spokeswoman, said that the university wanted only to signal to visitors looking for the center that it was not at the university's main central city campus, but in the neighborhood known as Chestnut Hill. "It is a very distinct location, very much on the far northwestern periphery of the city and only a block or two from being in Montgomery County," she said. "It is certainly not for a more sinister reason than that."

The delicate nature of the name game means that it is often hard to pin down who is making the choices.

Robert D. Prunetti, the Mercer County executive who is responsible for directing tens of millions of dollars in new investment into downtown Trenton, said Sovereign Bank Corp., which paid for the naming rights of the arena, was responsible for having its new arena placed "at Mercer County."

But the bank denied that.

"We did not want to appear to decrease the value of the naming rights by adding that," said Melissa Gettler, vice president of marketing at Sovereign. "It was the county's decision."

The name game has been going on for some time. Newspapers were among the first businesses to shed their urban identities in New Jersey as their readers filled the suburbs in the 1970s, said James R. Hughes, dean of the school of planning and urban studies at Rutgers University.

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