you take a walk through the five sprawling campuses of Rutgers
University-New Brunswick, you’ll see much of what you’d expect from a
world class learning institution—state-of-the-art labs and historic
campus building, student centers filed with cafes and student lounges,
and busy students bustling from class to class, laptops and smartphones
in hand. New Brunswick looks like the quintessential college
town. That is, until, the moment you step off the campus borders.
The City of New Brunswick is one of the 20 lowest income cities in New Jersey, out of a total of 702 cities in the state. It has an average personal income of less than $15,000 and is designated as one of the fourteen high-need communities in
New Jersey under the NJ Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.
And yet, New Brunswick is the home of Rutgers University, an
internationally ranked and fairly wealthy research institution.
first time I traveled to the areas of New Brunswick beyond the Rutgers
campus, past even George Street—the well-known, trendily urban downtown
district—I was completely stunned by just how sharp
the contrast between the university and the surrounding community was.
The state-of-the-art buildings and luxurious student apartments
suddenly gave way to rundown houses, and unkempt streets. Down on
Jersey Avenue, I saw tired looking black and Latino men lined up on the
street, waiting to be picked up for temporary construction jobs.
Standing on the corner of Jersey Avenue, the enclosed campus of Rutgers
University felt less like a school a few streets away, and more like
another world altogether.
Temporary workers waiting to be picked up for work on French Street.
Photo credit: Melanie Buford
phenomenon of top universities residing in low income cities and
neighborhoods is not unique to Rutgers-New Brunswick. Rutgers’ other
two main campuses, Rutgers- Newark and Rutgers-Camden are also in two
very low income communities, with Camden being the lowest income city
in the state of New Jersey. Moving outside of New Jersey, the
University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, New York University and
even Columbia and Yale all also reside in low income areas.
the idea of prestigious universities being in the middle of extremely
low income communities may not seem like a necessarily bad—though
certainly questionable—thing, the larger issues become apparent when you look at the relationships between many of these universities and their home cities.
University takes up a little less than half of the City of New
Brunswick. Despite the wealth that it has, as a higher education
institution in New Jersey, Rutgers is exempt from paying property taxes
to the city. According to New Brunswick City Administrator, Tom
Loughlin, this makes it difficult for the city council to keep taxes
low for city residents from year to year.
know in many ways it can be hard for residents to live here,” Loughlin
told me, at a meeting discussing the city’s 2015 budget earlier this
year. “Fifty percent of this town is tax exempt. Only fifty percent of
this town is eventually holding up the whole city.”
The Gateway Transit Village on Somerset Street,
which includes the luxury Vue Apartments,
was built by DEVCO in 2012.
Rutgers continues to expand through the city, creating more untaxed
property, private companies such as DEVCO are also brought in to build
more shops and more student housing and apartments. As a result, more
and more of the city is also taken up by housing that the majority of
the low income residents of the city can’t afford. When Rutgers takes
up such an integral part of the city, it’s hard not to wonder why the
university cannot do more for the residents that it shares space with
with the economic issues, the stark divide between the university and
the surrounding community also creates a sharp, cultural, and social
people looking at New Brunswick (or Philadelphia or New Haven), simply
see the university. Incoming students focus on the status of Rutgers as
a higher education institution, and often don’t even know about the
struggles of the surrounding community. Likewise, students attending
Rutgers spend most of their time within the campus, problematically
regarding the rest of the city as the “ghetto,” and not thinking much
else of it, unless they’re worried about their safety.
reality of New Brunswick becomes a shadowy underbelly, a sort of open
secret that nobody really talks about. Instead of asking why the
community around us is so starkly different, we simply pretend it
doesn’t truly exist.
This commentary was originally published on NJ Spark