New Brunswick New Jersey's Fast-Growing Hub

New Brunswick

The fastest growing small city in New Jersey may also be one of the most livable. The decades-old cooperation of government, academia, and the private sector have made New Brunswick a cultural, industrial, and educational hub for New Jersey.

According to Glenn Patterson, director of planning, community and economic development for New Brunswick, the city's population is now as large as it's ever been. He adds that growth in last decade has averaged 17 percent—making the metropolis the fastest-growing city in the state.

And, Patterson adds, the city is building new housing, has a number of aggressive revitalization programs, and for the last 20-plus years, supported a tremendous amount of new development. "We've got about six cranes sticking up in the air at various different projects right now. For a small city of 50,000 people, there's a lot of stuff going on here".

New Brunswick is not only growing—it may also be the most diverse in the state. Residents of this 5.2 square-mile city trace their ancestries to all parts of Europe, South and Central America, Asia, and Africa. During the last census, residents claimed over 75 distinct ancestries.

One Town, Many Names

Long before New Brunswick was the growing city it is today, it was home to Lenni-Lenape Native Americans, Dutch settlers, English proprietors, and an influx of pre-revolutionary European immigrants. Located on the Raritan River, it has had many names; the first was Hollander Dorp in the 1626 when it was settled by 31 Dutch settlers intent on trading with the Lenni-Lenapes. The English became the majority during the 1670's when the 180 residents called Prigmore's Swamp home.

Prigmore's Swamp was—mercifully—renamed Indian's Ferry in 1681 after a British entrepreneur of the same name purchased the land and started a ferry service. The river was the area's transportation route for centuries; its waters took traders and goods, along the Raritan Valley and beyond. The area's present name, New Brunswick, (in honor of King George I's Royal House of Brunswick), came into use after the town received a royal charter in 1730. By 1784, the population had soared to almost 3,000 and New Brunswick was the largest community in Middlesex County.

From Shipping to Shampoo

Positioned as it was on the Raritan River—which was the principal trade highway of the region throughout the early part of the 19th century—New Brunswick soon became a busy trade terminal. One of the factors that made New Brunswick attractive to larger industry and trade was the Delaware and Raritan Canal (or "D&R"), which was built in 1834 and quickly became a boon to local industry.

New Brunswick made its first fortune during the Industrial Revolution with shipping, warehouses, and mills, and got an even bigger boost when two brothers by the name of Johnson moved their gauze and adhesive tape business to town in 1885 and stayed, growing their business into an empire. Today, Johnson & Johnson is the world's leading manufacturer of health care products and is still headquartered in downtown New Brunswick.

After the Civil War, the rise of rail travel and freight industry marked a steep decline in river and canal traffic, and forced changes in the water-based economy of New Brunswick. With the passing of the area's big shipping industry, the town was forced to find other economic pillars not so dependent on river traffic.

The foundation laid by the Johnson brothers provided just such a pillar. Instead of manufacturing and shipping, New Brunswick began to produce health care products and services to put food on citizens' tables. A steady expansion of medical facilities and specialties—which has accelerated into a boom during the last few decades—has fueled New Brunswick's reputation as a hub for health care and research.

The Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the Child Health Institute, and the Bristol Myers-Squibb Children's Hospital are based in the city, and serve not just New Brunswick, but the entire region. In the next few years, the Children's Specialization Hospital devoted to the rehabilitation needs of children is set to open, and the city's board of education is also building the new Health Sciences Technical High School—the state's only high school specializing in healthcare training.

The economic shift hasn't left the old waterways without purpose—the D&R has become a real asset again. The canal was declared a state park in 1974, and is now a valuable community resource used for canoeing, fishing and kayaking, with paths along the waterway to serve hikers, joggers, horseback riders and cyclists.

A Real Academic Hub

While trade and industry fueled New Brunswick's initial expansion, education and academics have also played a vital role in the city's growth and development. Rutgers University, the oldest state university in America and the eighth college founded in the Colonies, was chartered in1766 and originally called Queens College. The first classes were held in 1771, and the "campus" consisted primarily of The Sign of the Red Lion tavern. Students attending classes that first year at Rutgers had one teacher—the 18-year-old stepson of the college's president—and just a handful of classmates. The name change to Rutgers in 1825 was in honor of a Continental Army colonel, Henry Rutgers.

The influence of Rutgers University on the city of New Brunswick is profound. "It is the venue for a lot of the cultural activities and opportunities," according to Steve Manas, a spokesperson in the university's media relations office. Around 36,000 full- and part-time students attend the New Brunswick/Piscataway Campus, which according to Manas, "makes New Brunswick a very interesting, small city."

Corporate Cooperation

Like any growing community, New Brunswick is faced with housing issues, zoning, and how to draw new businesses to serve people settling in the area. In housing alone, there are almost 900 new and planned units of affordable, market priced, and luxury housing currently being built or finished in the New Brunswick area. The city and Rutgers University are also working together to add new housing units for 671 college students.

Condo prices in New Brunswick reflect the community's diversity and various income levels. According to Patterson, older one-bedroom units start at around $60,000, while newer or more expansive one-bedroom spaces range from $100,000 to $120,000. In the two-bedroom market, an array of properties are available, depending on the buyer's budget and taste, and are generally priced between $92,000 and $250,000.

New Brunswick has its share of luxury as well. In the Boraie Development Corporation's new luxury condos at One Spring Street Plaza, one- two- and three-bedroom units will be priced between $250,000 and $500,000. The 25-story tower will be the city's tallest building when finished.

Aside from condo developments and single-family homes, a healthy rental market exists in New Brunswick. According to Patterson, "The student population and their buying power drives the rental market rates." One-bedroom apartments start renting at around $800, and can run as high as $1,560 per month. Townhomes and apartments with two bedrooms begin at $975 and top out at approximately $2,065 a month.

Cosmopolitan Culture

As Patterson points out, there is plenty to do in New Brunswick; there are museums and art galleries, like the Zimmerli Art Museum, the Gallery at Crossroads and Koryo Gallery. Historic house museums track the history of the city; the birthplace of the poet Joyce Kilmer, Buccleuch Mansion and Park, built in 1739, was a recurrent stop for George Washington during the war, and The Henry Guest House, circa 1760, became the hideout of Revolutionary War activist Thomas Paine during the same time. The American Hungarian Heritage Center presents the cultural and immigration story of American Hungarians. Even the New Brunswick Firefighters Museum—located in an original-working firehouse—traces 200 years of the city's fire department.

Professional theatre is the pride of New Brunswick. The restored 1921 State Theatre, once a vaudeville and silent movie palace, will be presenting big name musical acts starting this fall, the George Street Playhouse features award winning professional theatre, the famous African-American dance company, the American Repertory Ballet, calls the Crossroads Theatre home, while Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts presents exhibitions and performances almost every night of the week

Outdoor recreation opportunities flourish. The D&R Canal is just the first of the many venues. The city has over 140 acres of parkland; there is a new Youth Sports Complex with activities for adults and kids sponsored by the city recreation department; Rutgers has beautiful gardens and the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture on campus. The city holds lunchtime summer concerts in Kilmer Park and the Raritan River Festival in September.

According to Patterson, New Brunswick also boasts an energetic, pub and restaurant scene with countless ethnic establishments, casual and college-oriented restaurants, coffee shops, and gourmet coffee houses. "For a city of 50,000, we're very cosmopolitan," says Patterson. "New Brunswick has more New York Times rated, four-star restaurants than any other city in the state."

And best of all, says Manas, "It's possible to live here without a car. New Jersey Transit runs local buses, Coach USA has commuter service to New York City, and in addition to all that, there are about 90 trains per day that serve the city. You don't even have to be a student to use the University buses. With six million riders per year, the Rutgers bus system is the second largest system in New Jersey. And it's a free system—anyone can step on the bus and ride." The city offers two free shuttle busses that circulate the city as well.

According to Patterson—a 13-year resident of New Brunswick himself—the city keeps track of how the population feels about their town. "For the last 25 years, every two years we run a survey asking residents their perceptions of New Brunswick; is it getting better? Do you feel safe here, and so forth. The trend line shows that people are always feeling that New Brunswick just keeps getting better."

Annette Hall is a freelance writer living in Massachusetts.