July 12, 2017

A Neighborhood Grows and Changes But Remains Dedicated to Community

Back in the mid-1950s, a group of citizens became aware that Princeton realtors were not showing houses to people of color. Organized as the Princeton Housing Group, they purchased a tract of land in the Walnut Lane/Dempsey Avenue neighborhoods and arranged to offer private mortgages on 25 newly-built homes.

Some six decades later, the neighborhood originally known as Maplecrest has expanded, stretching from Mount Lucas Road to Ewing Street. More ethnically than racially diverse these days, it remains a welcoming cluster of homes where people make an effort to know each other and get-togethers are a regular occurrence.

Just ask Paul Raeder, who moved from Manhattan with his life partner Bob Holley to Cuyler Avenue in the neighborhood 13 years ago. “We didn’t know what to expect,” said Mr. Raeder, who works at Princeton University’s Office of Annual Giving. “But as soon as we met the neighbors, we were embraced within minutes. I think we added an element of diversity that wasn’t there. People were so pleased to have us there.”

Late last month, the neighborhood held its annual summer picnic — a tradition that dates back nearly 60 years. The party was an unofficial farewell to Judy Koubek and Luke Hilgendorff, who moved to Dempsey Avenue in 1991. The couple, now retired, are moving to Chicago, Ms. Koubek’s home town.

“What’s special here is the connection with the neighbors,” said Ms. Koubek. “Nobody is in each other’s faces, but yet, you get to know the people all around you. It’s a feeling of safety to me — that I could ask for help if I needed it. People know who I am and I know who they are. It’s just a warm feeling. Of course, we’re going to miss that.”

The annual summer picnic is only part of the story. A monthly potluck dinner, a festive winter holiday party, and other events bring neighbors together throughout the year. It was at the first Christmas party they held that Ms. Koubek and Mr. Hilgendorff saw the potential for something more. “We had this party for the neighbors, and people were still sitting in our family room at 3 a.m.,” Ms. Koubek recalled. “So I said, ‘You guys seem great. Why don’t we do a potluck once a month?’ And that’s how that started.”

New residents are always approached about getting involved in neighborhood activities and celebrations. Two families with swimming pools usually hold the dinners during the summer months, Ms. Koubek said.

The original homes in the neighborhood were “all cookie-cutter with three bedrooms, one bath, and a carport,” Mr. Raeder said. “But over the years, most people have added on and only two are exactly the way they were.” The house Mr. Raeder and Mr. Holley bought was built in 1953. A second wave of building in the late 1950s was of split-level houses. “The people who founded the neighborhood were Charles Hunt, an architect who died in January at 92; and Len Newton, who died in 2014. It was their concept, way back in the beginning, that got the neighborhood started,” Mr. Raeder said.

At last count, Mr. Raeder tallied 24 nationalities in the neighborhood — Australia, Peru, Romania, Hungary, Nepal, India, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, China, Japan, and Korea are all represented. That makes for great food at parties.

A lot of young families have recently moved to the neighborhood. “There are a lot of little kids again, so that’s nice,” said Ms. Koubek, who raised her children there. Those children are regular guests at the annual Halloween party, which Mr. Raeder and Mr. Holley hosted for 10 years in a row.

Not everyone in the neighborhood wants to be involved in activities. There are some who don’t come to the door or turn on their lights during Halloween or holiday caroling. But for the most part, people join in.

“Neighbors stop by while you’re outside doing yard work, and you start chatting. So you don’t get your work done,” Mr. Raeder said. “And I say that in the nicest way.”