Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 47
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
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Princeton Immigrants’ Past Comes Alive in Historical Society Walking Tour of Town

Dilshanie Perera

A new Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) walking tour launched last week reveals palpable traces of the past in the everyday.

Focusing on the histories of Irish, Italian, South Asian, and Guatemalan immigrants in Princeton, the tour takes area students on a walk around town and has them consider familiar spaces in novel ways.

Encouraging kids to be “history detectives,” HSP Curator of Education Jennifer Jang explained that “history is all around us, but it can be hidden.” Even a street sign like “Vandeventer” indicates a Dutch presence in Princeton.

The walking tour of the town’s immigrant history emerged out of conversations regarding how to incorporate more of Princeton’s present in the HSP’s repertoire of tours.

“People like living in Princeton for so many reasons. It’s an amazingly diverse place, racially and ethnically,” Ms. Jang said. Additionally, area fifth-graders study immigration as part of their curriculum, and the theme of immigration presented itself as a good fit.

The current focus of the tour is four immigrant groups “with a discernible impact and presence in town,” Ms. Jang explained.

The tour departs from Bainbridge House on Nassau Street and begins with emphasis on the Irish immigrants who came to New Jersey from New York, with the greatest numbers arriving in the 19th century. Ms. Jang asks students why they think someone might emigrate to the United States, and discusses economic hardship, religious oppression, and the cholera epidemic of 1831, among other things.

“The Irish played a big role in the creation of the D&R Canal,” Ms. Jang said, adding that the men also worked in masonry, while women worked in laundry services largely for the University. She gets students to see evidence of Irish immigration in people’s surnames, as well as structures like St. Paul’s Church, built in 1850.

Italian immigrants to Princeton began arriving at the latter part of the 1800s, into the 1920s, with many working in the quarries. During a stroll down Humbert Street, Ms. Jang noted that it had previously been called New Street, and was a predominantly Italian area of town. After King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated, residents of New Street campaigned for a name change, which was granted in 1908.

The tour continues through the Princeton Cemetery, and into the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

“How do we learn about difference in this country? It’s often through food,” Ms Jang suggested, pointing out a Guatemalan restaurant across the street from a Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant on Witherspoon.

When discussing Guatemalan immigration with students, Ms. Jang broaches the topic of political and civil unrest as another reason for migration. At John Street, she motioned down to a small sign reading “Juan Street,” describing it as “a more recent version of what you saw in 1908.”

It is not uncommon for groups of people from a particular town abroad to migrate to the same place in the U.S., Ms. Jang observed, particularly since a community would already be in place once one arrived.

As the group walked up Chambers Street, talk turned to how the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act contributed to the increase in South Asian immigration. Students from South Asia began attending Princeton University in greater numbers, for example.

Research for the tour is ongoing and involves a combination of reading histories, piecing together information from various sources, hearing personal narratives, and observing the features of town, Ms. Jang remarked. Since many immigrant groups have been previously marginalized and have faced discrimination, their stories have to be elucidated from many sources.

“Princeton University is where everything is tied together,” Ms. Jang said. She highlighted the stonework of the Nassau Christian Church, built in 1868 by Irish immigrants, and that of Holder Hall, a University building built in 1910 by Italian stone workers and masons.

“We’re excited about this new program because it allows us to talk about present-day Princeton, and to acknowledge the contributions of many different groups to Princeton, especially some groups that have often been ignored or overlooked,” Ms. Jang said.

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