This is Cherry Hill. It is by far the most desirable suburb in this part of southern New Jersey as measured by all the usual metrics. Property values are high. Public schools are great. The municipal government is lean and responsive. This is as good as the American Dream gets.
The families who live here are overwhelmingly well educated professionals, often first and second generation immigrants who have discovered the high quality of life on offer. What was once a nearly 100% white enclave is now a diverse multi-cultural community. You’re just as likely to live next door to Hindus, Jews, Greek Orthodox, or Muslims, as the main line Protestants that dominated the area in previous decades. When proponents of suburban living talk about the success of the suburban development pattern this is the kind of place they often refer to.
If you’re raising children you really can’t ask for a better environment. It’s safe, clean, and (most importantly) your kids will rub shoulders with the kids of equally successful families – which is what exclusive suburbs and premium school districts are really all about. Cherry Hill has successfully filtered out the riffraff.
Cherry Hill has a middle-of-the-road population when it comes to social issues, but it’s decidedly conservative when it comes to money. It has embraced all the usual cost savings techniques to keep the budget tight and taxes as low as possible. Traditional in-house departments have been dissolved in favor of contract services with low cost private firms for things like waste management, school buses, and landscaping. Sales tax revenue has been boosted by cultivating the most successful regional shopping mall in the area. Class A suburban office parks deliver commercial property taxes to help subsidize the shortfall from residential taxes.
And yet… there are problems. The average homeowner in Cherry Hill pays about $8,000 a year in property tax. Some of the larger homes pictured above pay on the order of $23,000 a year. You can blame teachers and cops and their “extravagant” salaries and pensions, but schools and public safety are the primary attractions to living in Cherry Hill. Outsourcing to low wage alternatives for these public services may not really work over the long term – although Cherry Hill keeps pushing that envelope. And the cost of maintaining a huge amount of very expensive attenuated public infrastructure like roads, sewers, and water pipes is rapidly getting out of control.
Here’s another problem with Cherry Hill. This is what passes for the public realm. All the emphasis has been placed on private space. The homes, the tree lined subdivisions, the quality retail establishments, and the hermetically sealed professional centers are pristine. But in between there’s nothing that even comes close to a pleasant commons. Route 70 is “Main Street.” That’s all you get. Of course, the people who self select in to Cherry Hill don’t care. They’re inside their homes, shops, offices, and cars 100% of the time. There’s simply no need for a public realm. It’s a fully private pay-per-view environment.
Unless you’re one of these poor bastards standing on the side of the highway waiting for a bus that may or may not arrive sometime within the next hour. These people can’t afford to live in Cherry Hill or own private vehicles so they commute on crappy inadequate public transit to and from neighboring low income suburbs.
Cherry Hill is a giant wealth sponge. It soaks up the segment of the population that can afford to live the best version of a suburban life. That means there are many other suburbs – the vast majority – that become the also-ran towns of fair-to-middling suburbs with just-okay schools and mediocre shops. And then there are the lower income suburbs farther out that can’t quite manage to bootstrap themselves up above the poverty line.
The dominant conversation in America today centers on the bleakness of inner city ghettos and the extravagance of newly gentrified urban elite neighborhoods. The reality is that most Americans live in the suburbs. A small number of people live in a few great places like Cherry Hill. The overwhelming bulk of the population, including the poor and large downwardly mobile middle class, now live in failing cheap anonymous declining suburbs that no one talks about – until they erupt Ferguson style.
I’m just sayin.