This past weekend I was walking down the boardwalk of Seaside Heights, New Jersey – the honky-tonk setting for the dubious reality series “Jersey Shore” – when a young man walked toward me buff enough to have been a member of that cast.
That was no big deal. Guys like that have been walking this boardwalk since I was kid. What caught my eye was that he was wearing a “Trump 2020” muscle shirt. I had seen a lot of Trump paraphernalia in this part of the world but never a muscle shirt.
The house next to where we are staying proudly flies a large “Let’s Go Brandon” flag right under the American flag. So does a store on the town’s main street. A lady at church on Sunday carried a Trump tote bag. In 2020, as in 2016, one shop on the boardwalk sold nothing but Trump accoutrements.
As I was walking back from church, management announced the opening of the beaches with a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. All the people I could see stopped, doffed their caps and faced the massive American flag flying over the boardwalk. That’s the kind of place Seaside is.
In researching my book in progress, “Dispossessed: The Untold Story of the Great American Diaspora,” I checked to see if my suspicions about Seaside were correct. They were. Ocean County, home to Seaside Heights, is the reddest county in a reliably blue state. Both in 2020 and 2016, Trump carried the county by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Why this is so is the subject of my book. In brief, during the 1960s and 1970s in particular, hundreds of thousands of white ethnics were driven from their neighborhoods in New Jersey’s quickly collapsing urban centers. None was collapsing more dramatically than my hometown, Newark.
At one public forum, Michelle Obama explained why these people left neighborhoods they loved. Pointing to herself and to her mild-mannered brother Craig, she said, “I wanna remind white folks that y’all were running from us, and y’all still runnin’.” Among the things that unnerved white people, said Michelle, were “the color of our skin” and the “texture of our hair.”
Friends from my old neighborhood have a slightly different take on “white flight.” I asked one lifelong friend, a loyal Democrat, why he and his widowed mother finally left our block in the early 1970s, 20 years after the first African American families moved in.
He searched a minute for the right set of words and then simply said, “It became untenable.” When I asked what “untenable” meant, he answered, “When your mother gets mugged for the second time, that’s untenable. When your home gets broken into for the second time, that’s untenable.”
Although there were exceptions, and this fellow was one, the great ethnic diaspora reshaped party alignments. Although I did not ask about politics, many of the dispossessed with whom I spoke volunteered their opinions.
Said Phyllis, who grew up across the street from me, “Everyone from Newark ends up a Republican.” In her close group of St. Rose alumni, my grade school, she counts two Democrats out of “dozens.” Phyllis went on to become the Republican mayor of an exurban town 30 miles from Newark.
When people left my working-class neighborhood, few could afford to buy a home anywhere close to Newark. Many found refuge in the sandy scrublands of Ocean County, ten or so miles inland from the beaches.
Several of my friends moved to Brick. Despite its unglamorous name, the town grew from 4.000 people in 1950 to 76,000 in the year 2000.
In spite of the emotional cost of removal, more St. Rose of Lima alumni from the 1960s – the decade most catastrophic for my neighborhood – ended up living in the Shore counties of Ocean and Monmouth than ended up in Essex, Newark’s county. Only a handful from that decade remained in Newark.
They made this move despite the need to commute 50 or so miles back to their jobs in the Newark area. If the motivating issue was crime, the Newark refugees who ended up in Brick chose wisely.
In 2006, for instance, Brick beat out 370 other cities in the annual Morgan Quitno survey to earn the title “America’s Safest City.” In 2021, a Newark resident was 13 times more likely to be murdered than a resident of Brick and eight times more likely to have a car stolen. Brick is perennially the state’s safest city of size.
Leah Boustan. a professor of economics at Princeton University, is something of an authority on white flight. In 2017, Boustan wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that concluded with this unwittingly comic gem, “To complicate the picture few of [the dispossessed] left personal accounts, and they may not have been able to articulate exactly why they moved.”
I had to laugh when I read this. If classism were as taboo as racism at Princeton, Boustan would have been busted down to teacher’s aide. Everyone with whom I spoke knew exactly why they left. It’s just that no one bothered to ask them.
Note: Jack Cashill newest book, “Dispossessed: The Untold Story of the Great American Diaspora,” will be available in the not too distant future.
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