As you ride the train south from Trenton, N.J. toward Philadelphia, a sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge boldly proclaims, Trenton Makes, The World Takes. Many who see that sign nowadays laugh at it, but at one point Trenton really was one of the largest producers of ceramics, rubber, iron and steel in the U.S. Iron from Trenton even helped build the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
But since the 1970s, Trenton, along with many other cities across North America, hasn’t fared too well. Manufacturing left the city long ago. Today, the largest employer in Trenton is the state government, which began moving operations back into the city from the suburbs in an attempt to stave off complete urban collapse. That sign on the bridge might seem like a cruel joke today, but there is reason to hope that another industry can revive Trenton.
Last month, the sixth annual Art All Night festival took place at the former Roebling Wire Works factory in the Chambersburg section of Trenton. Hosted by ArtWorks, Trenton’s downtown visual arts center, Art All Night is a 24-hour festival held every third Saturday of June that aims to promote local artists and bring together the local community. Inspired by a similar event in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, Art All Night begins on Saturday afternoon and spans the entire night without break. It attracts not only visual artists but live music and DJs from a local radio station. This year’s festival represented over 900 artists with 850 pieces of artwork on display, as well as over 30 bands. About 18,000 people attended, an increase of 5,000 from last year.
And the aim of this massive arts festival? According to festival Chairman Joseph Kuzemka in an interview with The Star-Ledger, “we kind of look at ourselves as helping to jump-start the urban renewal in the city.” It is a rather lofty claim for an arts festival to say that they’re helping to revitalize one of New Jersey’s most destitute cities. Is there much truth to it?
Inside of the former factory, nearly 850 works of art were displayed. Credit: Sean Andrew Chen
Instead of focusing on the idea that you can expand economic growth simply by attracting artsy people — as some followers of the idea of the Creative Class would prescribe — Art All Night focuses on the more fundamental unit of urbanism: the community. The festival makes rebuilding and strengthening Trenton a primary focus. Kuzemka, in the same interview with The Star-Ledger, said he believes that “the arts help rebuild communities.” Rather than isolating itself, embracing only one demographic (namely the white, Bohemian type) Art All Night “has two guiding principles: inclusion and participation,” writes Peggy McGlone of The Star-Ledger. Indeed, the festival draws in attendees from many social groups in the Trenton area.
According to Diana Moore, a volunteer coordinator at the festival, Art All Night aims to represent Trenton in its entirety. “We want to hold up a mirror to Trenton. To say, ‘You are Trenton.’” For Moore, one of the most beautiful things is seeing the Polish, black and Hispanic communities intermingling around art made by local artists. The nearly 300 or so volunteers (the festival is run completely through volunteer help and funded by local businesses) represent a broad range of residents as well.
By bringing different groups of Trenton and the surrounding Mercer County area — which has many wealthy neighboring towns — festival organizers want to show that there is potential in what has become known as one of New Jersey’s troubled cities. As Kuzemka explained, “We want to show off the city to those who might not come otherwise.” Last year, the New York Times covered Art All Night, granting the festival coverage over the entire Tri-State area and the nation. Moore also stresses the importance of displaying the rich architectural heritage in Trenton, complete with its many colonial- and industrial-era buildings, from brownstones to the State Capitol.
The festival took place in the former Roebling Wire Works, where steel wire was made for the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges. Credit: Sean Andrew Chen
After six years of success for the grass-roots Art All Night, some in the city government have begun to take notice. In a phone interview, Trenton Councilmember Marge Caldwell-Wilson expressed her amazement at the festival’s success, which in turn had led her to found the Trenton Arts Explosion, an atelier devoted to bringing together local artists to aid in collaboration and prominence. Caldwell-Wilson says she wants to see art become a vital part of the Trenton economy, making it a destination once again.
Many struggling cities across the United States, believing that artists by themselves will revive the economy and replace booming industry, are finding that these tactics often fall short of replacing the thousands of jobs lost in the post-industrial era. But Trenton, with its strategic location between two commuter services to New York City and Philadelphia, has the advantage of potentially attracting new commuter residents to revive disinvested sections of the city. Art All Night seems to be a strong approach, with an emphasis on strengthening community and sense of place while bringing Trenton some welcome positive publicity.
Art by itself might not save Trenton, but using it to reknit community bonds is a feasible goal. No one will doubt that Trenton’s heady, halcyon days exist in the past — for now. But as that doesn’t mean the city is dead or worthless. In many other former industrial cities, there remains not only a vast wealth of infrastructure and architecture, but also communities of people who shouldn’t be overshadowed by tales of faded glory. By drawing together various parts of the city that might not normally mingle, events like Art All Night could strengthen the sense that Trenton is an actual community, one with people who can work together to fight for what is needed.