August 17, 2016

Witherspoon-Jackson Prepares for Future

No neighborhood in historic, tradition-steeped Princeton is changing more rapidly than Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J), and amidst last week’s Joint Effort Safe Streets Summer Program celebrating W-J, the black community and its history, a group of local leaders and developers worked toward a “vision of and for the Witherspoon-Jackson Community,” in a Saturday morning panel discussion at the Hank Pannell Center on Clay Street. 

Discussion moderator John Bailey described the W-J neighborhood, which last April was officially designated as Princeton’s 20th Historical District, extending from Paul Robeson Place to Birch Avenue, as “one of the most valuable pieces of property in the town.” Much of the discussion focused on problems of affordable housing and gentrification in the district, with long-time local residents being forced out because of high expenses, renovation costs and taxes.

Panel members included municipal administrator Marc Deshield, local resident and Princeton Housing Authority Board Chair Leighton Newlin, local historian Shirley Satterfield, architect and developer and Town Topics shareholder Bob Hillier, developer Roman Barsky and architect Josh Zinder.

Later in the program, as the discussion focused on affordable housing, police-community relations and the Mary Moss Pool, affordable housing subcommittee member Dosier Hammond, Ed Truscelli, executive director of Princeton Community Housing, and Alvin McGowen of the Housing Authority Board joined the panel. Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter led the discussion on community policing.

“Princeton is a prosperous town,” said Mr. Newlin, “but we have a neighborhood in crisis.”

Asserting a need to reframe the discussion, Mr. Newlin continued, “We’ve been talking about destruction of buildings and architecture. I’d like to double back and bring the focus on the people.” He compared the changes in W-J to the gentrification and destruction of black neighborhoods in Harlem and warned that the historic designation of W-J is not enough. “The fact that we are now the 20th historic district in Princeton is a magnificent and monumental achievement. It is a wonderful thing to have, but as important as this designation is in regard to the -architectural history and the streetscape, if this designation does not stop or significantly slow down the displacement of brown Latino and black people in this neighborhood, it is not meaningless, but it is not nearly as meaningful as it could and should be. I’m afraid that in 20 years the next generation will have tour busses winding through Green, Quarry, Lytle, Clay, Maclean Streets and Leigh and Birch Avenues — and it will be hard to find people of color on the streets. That’s my fear. We can talk about architecture, with all due respect to the developers, but we have to focus on the people.”

Many in the audience of more than 40 people echoed Mr. Newlin’s concerns, and Ms. Satterfield, who with Mr. Bailey has just founded the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, also emphasized the importance of African American involvement in the district.

“We are the most diverse, the most inclusive, the friendliest community in Princeton,” Ms. Satterfield said. “We are a proud community, but you see no developers of color up here. We need to be more involved. We only get involved at the last minute. That’s why I started the W-J Historical and Cultural society, so that we can get involved.”

Ms. Satterfield continued, “Developers and realtors need to make sure when people go to buy a home they know the history of the community so that when they come into the community they can respect it.”

Mr. Bailey added, “‘We’re involved in the everyday life here, but we’re not involved in the political, educational life. We are either not speaking up, not being assertive enough or not letting people know what our feelings are. We have been taxed out, moved out, died out, and rented out of this area.”

Mr. Bailey went on to discuss the need for financial investment and borrowing power, a bank to help people afford to maintain and purchase properties. “If folks want to buy, there ought to be some way they can do that,” he said. “There are very few blacks here any more.”

Mr. Hillier acknowledged the problems, and suggested possible solutions. He described Princeton as “the best little city in the world,” explaining that it “still feels like a village, but it has urban issues, urban problems,” including the challenges of providing affordable housing.

“Everybody’s asking what Hillier’s going to do. I can tell you Hillier’s still figuring out what Hillier’s going to do,” Mr. Hillier said. He mentioned the beauty of the neighborhood, along with the technical and financial challenges involved in making necessary improvements. Mr. Hillier, who owns a number of properties on Witherspoon Street, described the Catch-22 of building codes requiring ceilings of a certain height and stairways of a certain width clashing with the historic district designation, which may not permit those required changes. He voiced the need for the Historic Preservation Commission in granting approvals to residents and builders to understand these challenges

“So what I want to do,” he said, in comparing Witherspoon to the more attractive Quarry, Green and Lytle Streets, “is facelift Witherspoon Street — make it as pretty as it can be and also make it economically viable.”

Later in the program, in focusing on affordable housing, Mr. Hillier outlined a plan, emphasizing “creativity and careful design,” to make housing more affordable by increasing density.

“Our modus operandi is to involve local residents,” he said, “and I can assure you as we’re figuring out what to do, I will have invitations to all of you to be a part of this.” Mr. Hillier also mentioned his desire to work with investors of color and his current project in conjunction with Ms. Satterfield to install plaques and a signage system throughout the neighborhood that will allow visitors to conduct self-tours through the historic district.

Mr. Zinder, whose architectural firm is doing the design work for renovating properties at 201-205 Witherspoon Street as well as the old Masonic Temple building on MacLean Street, praised the historic district designation of W-J, but urged the adoption of additional building guidelines to help protect the district. “The historic district is a great first step,” he said, “but to think of it as a panacea, something that’s going to maintain the history or protect the history, is a mistake. It can’t do that. I’m concerned that the historic designation is not going to protect the history the way everybody wants it to. It has the potential to hurt financially those that it intends to help the most.”

Ms. Satterfield concluded with a reminder, “Remember history is not the buildings. It is the people. We need to stick together.”

Later in the three-hour program, Mr. Sutter discussed community policing, currently a controversial topic throughout the country. “It’s about trust and legitimacy,” he said. “If you don’t trust us, if you don’t view us as legitimate, we’re destined for failure.”

He went on to explain the department’s initiatives to help build that trust and legitimacy. Citing the PPD annual report, he explained, “My vision is building trust and legitimacy one contact at a time. What that means is I want you to start to know our officers as men and women, so you can trust them as people. We are aggressively pushing our officers as individuals to learn about the community, to get involved in the community, to continue to increase positive relationships where you feel free to approach officers and voice your concerns.”

Mr. Bailey and Mr. Sutter discussed how police had played a key role in the Joint Effort Safe Streets activities of the week, the basketball clinic and elsewhere. “It’s about informal interactions that occur 100 times a week,” Mr. Sutter said, “where kids get to see us in our most basic functions, where they get to talk with the officers and they get to know each other.”

Mr. Bailey commented, “This police force is diverse. Chief Sutter is doing the right thing and he’s competent and committed to deliver impartial and fair policing in this community.”