On June 11, the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race presented an updated demographics report, ultimately sounding a call to action that the towns must act to maintain their signature diversity with this conclusion: “Although SOMA remains a racially integrated suburb at this time, that is not guaranteed in the future. We will need new and creative solutions to resist relapsing into the suburban segregation patterns that have persisted in New Jersey for nearly a century.”
The new report, an update to the Coalition’s original 2016 demographics report, offered additional insight into the schools — including teacher diversity — as well as a new section on affordable housing.
Overall, the presentation identified certain trends: the percentage of white students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District is increasing; housing prices are going up while low-income housing is not as available; and the success of racial integration varies by neighborhood.
Some attendees asked that the Coalition be careful not to conflate integration and the availability of affordable housing — saying that people of color were certainly able to afford median-priced housing, and expressing the view that successful integration requires more than housing data. They asked that the Coalition look at more anecdotal information on why black families of means were choosing towns like Union or West Orange over South Orange and Maplewood.
But first, Coalition Executive Director Nancy Gagnier presented the findings. She prefaced the presentation by explaining that the Coalition had wanted to see data about the changing community demographics, prompting the report. The final report asked:
- What have the demographics of Maplewood and South Orange looked like over the past 23 years?
- What events have impacted those demographics?
- Where are the towns now?
- Are there observable trends that forecast South Orange-Maplewood’s future demographic profile?
Data was obtained from the U.S. Census, home mortgage assessments, American Community Survey data, and school enrollment data, among other sources.
Gagnier explained that the overall trends observed in the Coalition’s report revealed swift demographic changes in South Orange and Maplewood in the 1990s, which eventually stabilized during 2000-2010 (2020 Census data will show whether those changes have remained stable since 2010).
The racial integration breakdown showed that South Orange-Maplewood has a higher percentage of black residents than comparable communities. The community also has a comparably higher percentage of foreign-born residents; 18.4% of residents were born outside of the U.S., nearly three quarters of whom are people of color. Asian Hispanic and Multiracial populations are also increasing in the SOMA population.
However, neighborhood integration still varies: 3 sections of Maplewood show concentrations of either white or black residents, and some neighborhoods which were already predominantly black or white became more so.
It was also apparent that the housing price rates rose rapidly, and the community saw a growing income gap between white and black residents. Leila Gonzalez presented housing facts and figures, including the fact that average community house prices do not reflect wide income gaps between potential residents. Gonzalez shared that house prices increasing by even 1-2%, as they have been in SOMA in recent years, “can make a big difference in who can actually buy.”
“I think many of us see our towns as very affluent,” Gonzalez stated. “But the reality is that a quarter of our population doesn’t have a whole lot of money for housing.” Both towns needed to implement an affordable housing plan in response to a 2015 NJ Supreme Court direction. Maplewood’s was approved in 2018; South Orange is still drafting its plan.
The presentation’s Housing and Income summary stated that South Orange-Maplewood housing prices rose more rapidly than in neighboring Midtown Direct towns, and reviewed the South Orange-Maplewood housing market post-recession. However, Gonzalez once again pointed out that a quarter of the two towns continues to struggle financially.
Gagnier then took over for the schools report, explaining that in the school district overall, “white enrollment has increased for ten consecutive years.” The black share of students in the school district has been dropping gradually since 2004. “This was part of the anecdotal information right from the start,” said Gagnier.
“We [the Coalition] kept hearing stories – ‘the schools are getting whiter’…and we wanted to see: what does that mean? Is it borne in data?”
Notably, the white population at Columbia High School exceeded the number of black students in the 2016-17 school year.
Gagnier also showed graphs depicting steep drops in the percentage of black students at every elementary school except for one: the opposite trend has taken place at Seth Boyden, which was established as a demonstration school for racial integration in the community, but “has not lived out that promise.”
The imbalance at the elementary schools continues despite efforts to integrate district schools since the 1970s, the most recent being the Board of Education’s long-range facilities improvement plan, projected to get underway this summer and reach completion in 2021.
“The good news is that we’ve been paying attention for a long time as a community,” said Gagnier. “Sometimes it takes a long time, but we’re always tweaking things to address what we’re faced with.”
The General Observations section of the presentation concluded that several factors have had an effect on who moves to South Orange-Maplewood. These include the establishment of the Midtown Direct train line, the Community Coalition on Race, progressive elected leadership, the rise in housing prices and the Great Recession. The community also has a lack of lower-income housing. SOMA also has a higher percentage of black residents than neighboring communities to the west despite the increasing white share. However, nearby communities like West Orange and Union are becoming increasingly attractive to people of color thanks to the economic and racial diversity, lower property taxes, strong schools and low-income housing options they offer.
The Community Coalition on Race finished its presentation by stating, “We will need new and creative solutions to resist relapsing into the suburban segregation patterns that have persisted in New Jersey for nearly a century.”
Many attendees raised important questions after the presentation had finished. Several criticized that while the black/white income gap does exist, the presentation ran the risk of assuming that people of color are low income or cannot afford to live here, whereas many people of color who can afford to live in South Orange and Maplewood are making conscious decisions not to. Commenters felt that this trend deserved more attention.
One resident commented that, if in-movers are attracted to SOMA’s diversity and inclusion, the two towns must live up to that value and creed. “We need to look at what we want this community to look like in the future,” he pointed out. “This report is a warning to the community. … I would like to see some urgency around what we’re showing here and how we’re going to respond to it, because it could have an impact on what these two towns look like.”
Another attendee, Coalition Board member Rhea Beck, pointed out that integration is not all about data. She explained that young black families take a more agnostic approach to integration and want to know things like police interaction and student racial breakdown in high-level classes. “The question of integration is much less about who can afford to live here, and the black grapevine lets potential incoming black people know that this is actually no nirvana. That’s the thing we have to get language around.”
The underlying question, according to Executive Director Gagnier, is “where are people going if they’re not going here?” — and consequently, “which issues might be keeping them away?”
Another attendee, Peter Shapiro, told the audience that he is a former South Orange-Maplewood elected official [Shapiro was the youngest person ever elected to the NJ Assembly and helped create the position of Essex County Executive, which he then won] and is now teaching a course at Fairleigh Dickinson University on residential segregation. His course focuses on the lack of integrated suburbs, and he has done research on every town in New Jersey. Shapiro pointed out that although South Orange and Maplewood are better internally integrated than some neighboring towns, NJ is already one of the most segregated states in the nation. “The bigger question we’re dealing with,” he explained, “is ‘What is the good? What is the definition of a well-integrated town? What are we aspiring towards?’ And that’s the truth of it.”