Dense Places I Have Lived


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I’ve lived almost my entire life in New Jersey, which has its effects on my world view; for example, it produces an extreme defensiveness about the state — really, has there been a fresh Jersey Joke since Benjamin Franklin’s quip about it being “a barrel tapped at both ends”, and they’re not even sure it wasn’t James Madison who said that instead, if anyone ever did? — and a feeling that one should refer to Bruce Springsteen as “Bruce”, as if we’d ever knowingly been in the same zip code simultaneously. Add to that not understanding what is wrong with other states that you’re forced to pump your own gas, and not being able to get a cackling laughter and a voice-over announcer wailing “Rrrrrrrrraceway Park!” out of the head, and you’ve got a first sketch of my personality. (I seem to have missed going to Action Park. My father insists he took me there; I grant he may have taken my siblings, but I don’t remember ever getting there, and the fact I have all my limbs suggests I never did go there.) But there are some other impressions that one gets from growing up in New Jersey.

New Jersey has the highest population density of any of the United States. It reached the point somewhere around 1880 of more than half the population living in cities, and it’s gotten only more urbanized since. This is not to say the whole state is urban. Actually, the southern part of the state can be eerily vacant, and the Appalachian mountains in the northwestern section can seem to be almost abandoned to yetis and horse farms and, based on the New Jersey Bell telephone books of my youth, phone service provided by Bell of Pennsylvania. But most of the population lives in high-density areas. And these high-density areas come to feel like the suburbs, because, really, wherever you are in New Jersey is a suburb of Philadelphia or a suburb of New York City. This can produce awkward moments of offending civic pride when someone from New Jersey ventures to a city outside the Northeast Corridor and honestly can’t find the city because it all “looks like suburbs”.

So this got me to thinking about the places that I’ve lived, and what their population densities are like. Population density, people per square mile in this case, seemed like the easiest way to compare how big a city might feel. This is why I took some time to pull (from Wikipedia) current estimates of the population densities of these municipalities, after I spent a little more time taking population estimates and area estimates and not noticing they had that already worked out. I’ve rounded them off, because some of these places I haven’t lived in as much as 25 years and surely the numbers have changed a little bit since then. So at the risk of opening myself to all sorts of identity thieves, here’s the roll call of places I’ve lived, and how many people per square mile are in them:

Municipality Population per Square Mile
South Amboy, NJ 5,100
Old Bridge, NJ 1,700
Marlboro, NJ 1,300
New Brunswick, NJ 9,500
Piscataway, NJ 2,700
Troy, NY 4,500
Jackson, NJ 550
Singapore 18,900

There are a few fine points about the table. One is that the New Brunswick/Piscataway thing reflects that I’m not sure where to say I lived. I was in those towns on opposite sides of the Raritan River when attending Rutgers College, and while my dorm room was in Piscataway, my mailing address (and, I suspect, where I spent the majority of my time) was in New Brunswick. And the Rutgers campus is well-separated from the main of Piscataway in a way it’s not separated from New Brunswick.

Those aren’t all the places I have a good instinctive feel for, though, the sorts of places where I know how crowded they feel. There are several municipalities where I worked. So let me put those into the mix:

Municipality Population per Square Mile
Manalapan, NJ 1,300
Sayreville, NJ 2,300
Albany, NY 5,500
Trenton, NJ 11,100
Toms River, NJ 1,400

These numbers may be charitably described as being all over the place. Some of that is because New Jersey went through a stretch where any group of four or more houses could incorporate into its own municipality, and so there are some very small cities, which allows for high population densities to be achieved with only minor fluctuations in urbanization. South Amboy, for example, reaches nearly fourteen feet side to side, and its population easily quintuples every morning and evening as every vehicle in the world tries to get on the Turnpike and Parkway together.

Of course, New Jersey towns aren’t packed the way the real major cities of the world are — Brooklyn, for example, can boast over 36,000 people per square mile, and I’d be happy to provide estimates for London’s population density if there were any way to tell the city of London apart from the City of London — but they at least get onto the order of magnitude. (I’m surprised for example to see that Los Angeles comes in at 8,100 people per square mile, although since Los Angeles’s city limits extend to about Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that includes some pretty sparse territory around an urban center and I’m not untangling the center from the outskirts.)

But there is something I’m overlooking here: a place that I’ve lived and that isn’t on the list. I’ll explain next why I left it off the list, and what I mean to do about that.

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