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(Photo by M.B. Hersh)

AN EXERCISE IN URBAN RENEWAL: The Princeton Writer's Block will bring together architectural styles and the written word to create a downtown literary haven. Princeton author Peter Benchley's pavilion, or "folly," shown here, was designed by Princeton architect Andrew Outerbridge, and is the first of 10 follies to be built.
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Princeton Writers' Garden Aims to Create An Alternative Downtown Literary Center

Matthew Hersh

Something's being built in the unused space in Palmer Square along Paul Robeson Place ‹ and it's not the planned 97-plus luxury townhouses about which we've been reading so much.

Instead, a project that tips its hat to Princeton's eclectic art and architecture scene is coming soon to the currently vacant lot in the form of Writer's Block.

With the grounds prepared, passers-by can see the semblance of what creators hope will foster a cultural atmosphere for residents of Princeton and surrounding areas, attracting writers, poets, and patrons alike.

It is hoped that it will serve as more than just an authors' agora, or outdoor venue for writers and poets, but that it will actually be an experiment in urban renewal, although not a permanent one, organizers say.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and I abhor a vacant lot," said Peter Soderman, the project coordinator, who is handling most of the landscaping aspects that will occur in the nearly 3,000-square-foot space.

Inspired by the Herban Garden behind Witherspoon Bread Company, and organized by several of the same principals, the Writer's Block is being touted as an "urban library," which hopes to attract the community's artistic demographic through a program of lectures, readings, and musical performan- ces.

It builds on the concept that artistic styles echo each other among various disciplines, and the work of local architects will reflect the work of local writers.

Most notable is that the project teams architects with Princeton literati in the form of ten 10x12-foot pavilions, or "follies," that will be scattered throughout the garden.

Writers like Civil War expert James McPherson, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and author Joyce Carol Oates, have designed and helped inspire their own individual follies with architects including Kevin Wilkes, Ronald Berlin, and Gil Rampy, to create a project that is about as close to unique as they come.

But the project did not come easy, Mr. Soderman said. First, the actual lot needed to be obtained from Palmer Square. Second, the organizers, which include Mr. Soderman, architects Kevin Wilkes and Alan Goodheart, partnership coordinator Dana Lichtstrahl, and events coordinator Hope Van Cleaf had to actively solicit involvement from both the architects and writers.

Mr. Wilkes, the architect, who along with Alan Goodheart and Mr. Soderman, designed the concept of the garden, said he wanted to achieve through the follies what was sought for in old English landscape gardening. Follies were initially constructed as aesthetic objects that sat on the fringes of a garden, but were then regarded as structures of utility and a display of a particular architectural design. The idea was to get people involved in a similar experiment in Palmer Square.

Not all parties jumped at the idea, at first.

"Some were difficult and evasive, and some were incredibly helpful and enthusiastic," Mr. Soderman said. "But I'm not sure any of them at first knew exactly what I was talking about."

That's when the persuasive artillery needed to be brought in, he said.

The landscaper, who runs his own Princeton-based Bohemian Grove landscaping company, was fresh on the heels of hauling in 30 tons of soil, 90 tons of stone, and planting thousands of corn and sunflower seeds, but he was modest in his ability to draw people in.

"Sometimes there was just a dead silence at the other end the line like I was the president of the Flat Earth Society trying to raise money for a trip to the New World," he said with a deadpan affect.

Nevertheless, Ms. Lichtstrahl said, "Peter's a visionary," comparing Mr. Soderman to the "Pied Piper" when it came to getting interested parties on board.

Prof. McPherson said he, too, was incredulous when propositioned to help create a Civil War expert's folly. But he was intrigued as well.

"I knew nothing about it until they got in touch with me," Prof. McPherson said, "but it sounded like a very creative and imaginative idea."

The recently-retired University professor said he would like to see his folly reflect the preservation of the Union in a nod to the Civil War. But he said the design is still in the planning process. He also said he hoped that the project would last longer than through the fall only, and that he would like to have a chance to perform a reading at the garden.

Other authors include Cornell West, Paul Muldoon, Chang-Rae Lee, Peter Singer, Fran Leibowitz, Emily Mann, and Peter Benchley.

Subhead: For the Community

What ultimately got the ball rolling was that the project was designed for the community with the community in mind, Mr. Soderman said.

"It's a totally non-consumerist project. This is about sharing knowledge and information in a peaceful place," he said. "When you first try to convey an idea to people, you gotta hustle it."

Largely funded by donations and Messrs. Wilkes and Soderman's visa cards, the project's organizers and both the architects and the writers are donating their time and materials.

"I'm not trying to separate a fool and his money, I'm doing this for the town," he said.

The actual involvement of the celebrity authors with the day-to-day activity of the garden is limited, both Mr. Soderman and Ms. Lichtstrahl said. Each author agreed to be assigned to an architect and a builder for a folly that conveys the author's work, either through physical material available onsite, or by possibly holding occasional readings in the garden.

But will there be Peter Benchley and Paul Muldoon sightings? "I hope so," Mr. Soderman said. "However, I'm more interested in having a subculture of unknown authors step up and walk in, be pro-active, and leave their egos at the door."

Ms. Lichtstrahl, however, also sees the area as a place where various businesses can organize to hold workshops when looking for an alternative space outside of the workplace. As the partnership coordinator, she said she hopes to bring businesses from outside the "intimate" blocks around Nassau Street into the immediate community."

"Even if [the business] sits out on Route 1, it can be an integral part of this community so long as this initiative lasts," she said. The project, which aims to hold its grand opening on or around July 25, will run through the fall, whereupon the follies will be auctioned off.

Ms. Van Cleaf, the events coordinator, has also spent much of the planning process soliciting for- and not-for-profit groups to come in and hold programming at the garden, such as music and language classes.

And while the garden appears to wear many hats with many meanings, the ultimate goal, Mr. Soderman said, is to call on anyone in the community who might make a contribution to the garden.

"We're trying to break down Princeton's tradition of 'Intellectuals Anonymous,'" he said. "We're going to bring everyone in, it's going to be a melting pot."

To contribute to the Writer's Block, contact Ms. Lichtstrahl at (609) 252-9230.

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