When the area that is now Garfield was first developed in 1873, it was known as East Passaic. In 1881, the community's name was changed to Garfield in honor of President of the United States James Garfield. There are generally two explanations given for the new moniker. According to one, shortly after Garfield was elected to the presidency the founder of East Passaic said, "tell everyone...don’t speak of East Passaic anymore; call it 'Garfield' after the man who will lead this great country to prosperity." Seven months later, President Garfield was assassinated but his name remained with the community. The second theory holds that after Garfield's death in 1881, a new train station was named in his honor, which in turn led to the surrounding area becoming associated with his name as well.
Garfield was originally incorporated as a borough on March 15, 1898, from portions of Saddle River Township and Wallington. At the time, the New Jersey Legislature set Garfield's boundaries as they exist today. On April 19, 1917, the borough became the City of Garfield, based on the results of a referendum held two days earlier.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 2.2 square miles (5.7 km²), of which, 2.1 square miles (5.5 km²) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.2 km²) of it (2.74%) is water.
There were 11,250 households out of which 30.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 46.5% were married couples living together, 13.8% had a female householder with no husband present, and 34.0% were non-families. 27.4% of all households were made up of individuals and 12.2% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.64 and the average family size was 3.26.
In the city the population was spread out with 22.4% under the age of 18, 9.6% from 18 to 24, 33.2% from 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 14.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 95.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.0 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $42,748, and the median income for a family was $51,654. Males had a median income of $35,987 versus $26,896 for females. The per capita income for the city was $19,530. About 6.4% of families and 7.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 9.1% of those under age 18 and 8.1% of those age 65 or over.
Members of the Garfield City Council are:
On the national level, Garfield leans toward the Democratic Party. In the 2004 presidential election, Democrat John Kerry received 58% of the vote here, defeating Republican George W. Bush, who received around 41%.
Schools in the district (with 2005-06 enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics) are Garfield Preschool (364 students, plus 116 at Annex), six K-5 elementary schools — Washington Irving School #4 (279), Woodrow Wilson School #5 (386), Abraham Lincoln Elementary School #6 (349), Roosevelt School #7 (360), Christopher Columbus School #8 (453), and James Madison School #10 (174) — Garfield Middle School, Garfield's brand new middle school for grades 6-8 (640), and Garfield High School (1,205).