Trenton: Present-Day Reputations

I know next to nothing about the state of New Jersey. I have been going to school here for almost two years and still can only name about three counties in the whole state. Rhode Island has been my home for my entire life. When I first arrived here, I was given the scoop about where to go, where not to go, and where to avoid at all costs. Everyone seemed to come to the same consensus, as the name Trenton returned multiple times as having one of the worst reputations. Again, being from out of state, I heeded the advice, as the only thing that Trenton meant to me was the fact that it is the capital. Freshman year passed and never once had I been to Trenton. From the little that I knew, I did know that keeping clear of the area was ideal.

It wasn’t until the Trenton Makes Music project that I became aware of the fact that Trenton’s history was going completely unnoticed by the people who actually are from New Jersey.

When I began to bring up the fact that Trenton was once an incredibly rich city filled with world-class composers, musical groups, and artists to my friends and peers, everyone I talked to had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

Because of this, I decided to gauge what people from New Jersey thought of Trenton in the present day, and then see how they reacted when they found out that the city was once something completely different.

The people that I decided to aim my questions at were four of my own peers about the ages of nineteen and twenty, all who come from different areas of New Jersey, and all sophomores at TCNJ. The interviews were held separately, but each person was asked the same questions.

My first question asked what people’s impression of Trenton is, more specifically, what came to their minds when I simply said “Trenton”. The responses that I received were basically all the same, with the familiar words and phrases popping up again and again. Everyone in the group responded with “Poverty”, “Not the best area to be in”, “Low-income place”, “A place that needs help rebuilding and improving businesses”, “A city that is not very wealthy”, and “Not the best school systems”.

Based on the US Census, about 14.8 percent of Trenton’s population is living in poverty. From these responses, it is completely evident that Trenton’s reputation is stained with negative connotations, and people associate undesirable thoughts with the city.

My next question centered around telling people to associate the words “Trenton” and “music” together, and see if any kind of connection took place, or if they could think of any kind of relation between the two. Once again, the answers were mostly the same. One person told me about what kind of music they thought people form Trenton would listen to, like jazz or rap, but then quickly admitted that these genres only came to mind based on the types of race they correlated with Trenton (these thoughts and responses coming from someone who is white).

In a study done by Jazz Arts Group about the people attending jazz performances, African Americans are 16-20% of audiences, but only 11% of the adult population. According to the Brandon Gaille website, 40% of the total hip-hop audience is African American. Based on the US Census, twenty six percent of the population of Trenton is white, and fifty two percent of the population is African American.

One person did in fact have at least an idea of what I was referring to. He told me about a book he read for a history class called Satchmo Blows Up the World, which explores the jazz era that changed America. A more detailed description of the book can be found here: Trenton was heavily involved with that movement, as noted in the book.

The most honest answer I received was from someone who was not trying to grasp at an answer or tell me what that person believed I wanted to hear. When asked what that person thinks about when hearing “Trenton” and “music”, the answer was crystal clear: absolutely nothing.

The last question I asked was “If you heard that Trenton was once a rich center for popular music, famous music groups and artists, and classically trained composers, would this change your view of Trenton?” Once again, the answers were all the same, this being a unanimous “yes”.

In their elaborated answers, the four people interviewed revealed that they really do have a one-track mind when it comes to thinking about Trenton. Many said that it changes their view because they don’t know Trenton like that, and it’s interesting to see how over time it has changed and now is something completely different. Being unaware of such a complex and rich history allows room for people to make quick judgments and snap-decisions about a place that little is know about.

The main reason why I asked these questions was not to test people about their knowledge about the history of Trenton. If that was the case, I think almost every person I asked and even people I didn’t ask, including myself, would have failed miserably. This was not an assessment. The purpose of these questions was to gauge the kind of reputation Trenton has with people who have lived in New Jersey their whole lives.

It is unmistakable that Trenton has an unfavorable status among those who are unaware of what it was. Trenton Makes Music is a project focused on rebuilding a city’s reputation. It is a project working to educate and inform people about a great city that people should be proud to call their capital.

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