REHABILITATION PROJECT City's history shines in red neon lights

The area has changed, but it has kept the same slogan since 1911.
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Any day now this city will again shine its neon-red message down the Delaware River:
"Trenton Makes, The World Takes."
That catch phrase, dreamed up almost a century ago to characterize this town's manufacturing might, no longer captures Trenton's reality. The majority of Mercer County residents today labor for state or local government, not now-shuttered steel factories, rubber-tire plants or pottery workshops.
But the sign, and the 77-year-old span connecting the capital city with Morrisville, Pa., has undergone a $5.7 million rehab that will be unveiled in mid-July, said Linda Spalinski, spokeswoman for the bridge's operator, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. While much of the project had to do with removing lead paint from the 1,000-foot crossing, the letters also got a half-million dollar upgrade.
While still bright vermilion, Spalinski said, each of the 8-foot neon letters will have its own power unit inside, for better reliability and protection against the weather.
"Yes, at different points, embarrassingly, there has been a letter or two out," conceded Jerome Harcar, the city's historic preservation specialist, when asked about "Trenton akes, The W rld Takes" sightings.
In 1911, city leaders highlighting the region's growing industrial muscle paid for a wooden, sequin-spangled version of the phrase to hang from what is still formally called the Lower Trenton Bridge, state and local historians said.
Located at the midpoint of the Delaware & amp; Raritan Canal connecting New York to Philadelphia, Trenton was a natural locale for such manufacturers as the Roebling Wire Works, which forged the steel cables suspending many of America's great bridges, including the Golden Gate, the Verrazzano Narrows and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Other factories abounded, churning out rubber, wristwatches, parachutes, linoleum and armaments. Craftsman also hewed glassware and pottery, from fine Lenox china to tile to bathroom fixtures (Trenton was once the No. 1 producer of what is politely called sanitary porcelain).
In 1917, the phrase was newly illuminated by 2,400 light bulbs. The old cast-iron crossing was replaced with a trussed-steel span in 1928, and neon replaced the light bulbs seven years later. The neon was upgraded in 1981.
But by then, as in much of the Rust Belt, manufacturing was on the wane. In 1950, about every other working New Jerseyan made his or her living in manufacturing, said Chris Biddle of the state's Business and Industry Association, Today, that number is closer to 1 in 10.
"The days of the huge red brick factories with smoke billowing of the stacks, that's all but gone," Biddle said.
About a year ago, in readying for the bridge's rehab, local newspapers raised the question of whether it was not time for a new slogan.
Some alternatives were suggested -- "rather silly things, if I recall," Harcar said. "Something more 2005, rather than something that has a tradition, would not last, in my opinion."
The slogan has a semi-grammatical whiff of martyrdom to it. Perhaps that's apt in a state so in the shadow of New York City, wary of its image as a land of TV mobsters, a charmless turnpike and pervasive corruption.
Nevertheless, locals seem to love the phrase, even if irony is sometimes mixed in with the pride.
"A slogan like that evolves and takes different meanings over time," Harcar said. "You see Trenton Makes, The World Takes' you really identify with that. I'm just so glad it hasn't gone on its way."

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.