Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
According to David Brinkley and a supercomputer, Salem, New Jersey, was the most typical place in America leading up to Lyndon Johnson’s reelection.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
In 1964, David Brinkley wanted to know where Averagetown, U.S.A. was and what was on the minds of its residents. So the U.S. Census Bureau fired up their gigantic computers to find the answer, calculating which place had “exactly” the same kinds of people, income, employment, social structure, and voting habits as the national average. The answer: Salem, New Jersey.
The famed TV newsman described Salem on an episode of “David Brinkley’s Journal” as “Southernish and Northernish, pretty and ugly, agricultural and industrial, Republican and Democratic… 20 percent of its people are poor, 15 make over $10,000 a year—the national income figures are precisely the same… In its good qualities and bad, Salem is every American small town you ever saw.”
Anchored by a ketchup factory and a glass bottle factory next door from each other, Salem does indeed appears strenuously unremarkable, right down to its housing patterns—Georgians in the center, Victorians and bungalows beyond. “Farthest out, the postwar suburbs,” Brinkley intones. “Salem’s newest suburbs are average and the average is ugly. But ugliest of all are the slums—mainly Negro.” He notes that Salem, with a 29 percent black population (“not average but not unusual”) has exactly four slumlords (“about average for an average town”) who charge high rents for miserable housing because federal and local tax laws help make such housing profitable.
The average white Salem resident, meanwhile, seemed more consumed with the threat of Communism and nuclear annihilation. NBC commissioned a Gallup survey for the show, asking hundreds of people all over the town for their opinions on foreign and domestic affairs. An elderly white worker with various jobs around town said racial integration was being pushed “too fast and too hard,” and that, when it comes to the Cold War, “we’ve lost that critter.” A white male newspaper editor wanted to see racial integration move forward more rapidly but felt that public welfare weakened the average person’s incentive to find work. The white mom of a solider killed in Vietnam said that civil rights “can take care of itself.” But when asked if she was in favor of atomic war, she responded, “Definitely. Get it over with. Blow them right off the map.”
Countering these locals, a white housewife and Lyndon Johnson supporter said instead of donating foreign aid, the U.S. should put that money into fixing Salem’s slums and the lives of those who live in them. A black woman who worked at the bottle factory hoped to see LBJ get elected in order to build off the foundation laid by John F. Kennedy and “get the civil rights over with.” An elderly black man who also worked at the bottle factory noted that, while he could get served at a restaurant in 1960s Salem, it was still made clear he wasn’t always welcome.
As the show prepares to leave town, a montage of Salem’s streetscapes are shown while a collection of local voices are heard suggesting blacks wait more patiently for civil rights to arrive. After a warm scene inside a black church during a crowded mass, viewers are brought back to the supercomputer, where Brinkley is standing by and ready to close the book on Averagetown:
It has nothing good or bad that can’t be matched elsewhere. Its 9,000 people go to church, love their neighbors—only if they are white—worry about money, debt, children, plan to vote for Johnson, have no interest in the radical right or the radical left, but a great interest in making money, making ketchup, and the bottles to put it in. That is the society we have built, and like it or not, on the average, that’s what it is.
Salem’s population has dropped by almost half since 1960, and its economic lifeline, the ketchup factory, was shut down by Heinz in 1978. The town voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Donald Trump won the county.