Home to both modern-day commuters and the namesake of one of the greatest inventors in U.S. history, Edison, New Jersey is a growing mini-city a stone's throw of both Manhattan's gilded skyscrapers and the rural areas of the Garden State.
With access to nearly every major highway in central New Jersey, the township of Edison is one of the state's most populous and thriving municipalities. Although the 2000 census reports a population of 98,000, officials now estimate it at about 100,000, and growing. The town is located in Middlesex County, along Highway 27 on the banks of the Raritan River near Raritan Bay. Formerly known as Raritan Township (one of several New Jersey towns named after the Raritan River), the area was first settled in the late 1600s, with its first families including the Dunhams, Martins, Bonhams, Hulls and FitzRandolphs, to whom land grants were bestowed. These names live on in the town in the form of street and section names. Edison came of age in the mid-to-late 1800s, as the attractiveness of the rural landscape became more accessible with the opening of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Easton and Amboy line. To this day Edison is referred to as the "crossroads of New Jersey," with many of its residents commuting to work and recreation via rail and bus links to New York City, the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and I-287.
Off to See the Wizard
One of Edison's most famous commuters was the "Wizard of Menlo Park," Thomas Edison. Edison moved with his wife to the Menlo Park section of town in 1876 to take himself further away from New York, but not too far. He sought a work environment free from interruption, which the then small but bustling town provided.
Edison selected the Menlo Park area of town for his laboratories because it was the highest point along the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Philadelphia. According to biographers, he could see the skyline of Manhattan, which motivated him to create the "next big thing" to sell to businessmen in the city. While in Menlo Park, Edison invented more than 400 patented items, including the phonograph, the electric railway, and the incandescent lamp. The establishment of Edison's industrial research laboratory—he preferred to call it his "invention factory"—brought world fame to the township, as it became the site for some of the most innovative research and production of the 19th century. In 1954 the town was renamed to honor this great inventor.
From a rural-residential community in the 1920s, Edison has grown into a major population, commercial and industrial center, serving as a hub of air, rail and highway networks for the distribution of numerous goods and services. Raritan Center, located in the southeast section of Edison, is the largest industrial park east of the Mississippi River. The daytime population of Raritan Center is approximately 45,000, rivaling the population of many nearby towns. Among the notable companies with Edison campuses are Ford Motor Co., The New York Times and United Parcel Service, Wakefern Foods, Etienne Aigner shoes, and Revlon cosmetics.
The ongoing relocation of new firms to Edison will bring more jobs and people to the town, contributing to the population and housing increase, according to William Hanley, president of the Middlesex County Association of Realtors. Hanley says he is impressed by the cultural diversity of his clients and community partners. "This town is a model for New Jersey—everyone is moving here. This is a culturally diverse town; we have singles, married and unmarried couples, and it's because Edison is great for any family—any way you want to define family."
Hanley says Edison's population is projected to increase to nearly 102,825 by the year 2010. As the population grows, so does the need for housing stock, as evidenced by the 9.7 percent increase in housing units since 1990—which includes new homes and apartments. According to the U.S. Census, the average size of a household in 2000 was 2.72, for 35,136 total households. Of Edison's 12,807 family households with children under age 18, 84.2 percent contained married couples,12.2 percent contained single mothers, and 3.6 percent contained single dads.
Approximately 25 percent of the residents of Edison are Asian or of Asian descent; in fact, the town boasts two daily newspapers published in Chinese. Other well-represented ethnic groups include Italians, Hungarians, Irish and English. Edison Township compares favorably with the county, state, and nation at large in terms of mean, median, and per capita income, with unemployment in Edison Township (3.2 percent) continuing to be lower than that of both Middlesex County and the state as a whole, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor in January 2002.
Edison's strong economic base, large and diverse population, high per-capita income and accessibility to major transportation arteries has created many opportunities for development and redevelopment throughout the community over the past 25 years, with the late 1980s and early 1990s seeing a particularly notable period of growth. "It has been the past five years, however, that development has skyrocketed," says Hanley. "And things are only continuing to grow." Two-bedroom townhouses average between $200,000 and $300,000, with condos ranging from $175,000 to $450,000 and co-ops going for around $50,000 to $100,000—depending on variables such as basements and garages—and prices continue to escalate.
In addition to actual values, progression in the community has led to new trends in development. A lack of open land and a concern for sprawl has forced both the state of New Jersey and Middlesex County developers to adopt a policy of "spot building." This trend rejects the traditional "development community" for a redevelopment of a unit or area, such as a gut rehabilitation of an existing or historic house, or the renovation of a non-traditional living space like an old school building or warehouse into residential property. Spot building, when well planned and carefully guided, takes into account the promotion of mass transit and preservation of the ecology, and provides buyers with interesting, updated living options while combatting sprawl and preserving historic buildings and neighborhoods.
The 35-Square-Mile Donut
The current—seemingly endless—growth of Edison stands in stark contrast to its early history in the late 19th century, when Raritan Township was merely a loosely connected cluster of neighborhoods. When one of the neighbourhoods, Metuchen, seceded from the center of Raritan Township in 1900, the municipality was left looking like a 35-square mile donut. Metuchen now divides North Edison and South Edison. Although there are a number of heavily-traveled shopping streets in town, Edison doesn't have its own downtown center, so Metuchen often serves that purpose. The township was once home to two large military bases—The Raritan Arsenal and Camp Kilmer—which were phased out in the 1960s. Today Raritan Center and Middlesex County College stand on the Raritan Arsenal land. Camp Kilmer became Rutgers University's Livingston College and the Sutton Industrial Campus.
According to Hanley, Edison's citizens have something in common with their town's famous namesake. They are drawn to the charm of the town and its proximity to other happenings. "You can drive to work," says Hanley. "You can hop on a train and you're in Manhattan. Everything you want is here—it's all in Edison."
William Nedved is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.