An Open Letter to the Princeton Mayor and Council Regarding the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has recommended that the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood be designated and formed as a historic district, the 20th in the town of Princeton. The Wise report clearly underscores that the unfair and discriminatory circumstances in Princeton’s past actually created the neighborhood, but the pending decision is really not about reparations (40 acres and a mule), a public apology, or even paying off a long-term debt.

The decision to designate Witherspoon-Jackson a historic district is appropriate because it is one of the first neighborhoods in one of our country’s most historic towns; it represents the immigrant makeup of the American blueprint, it has maintained its streetscape to a large degree for over 200 years, and its people, past and present, are key contributors to the town’s rich history and historical infrastructure.

There will certainly be opposition to its historic designation. In all likelihood it will come from those interested in development, or more recent purchasers of homes, who whether they admit it or not, did so because of the neighborhood’s affordability, warmth, rich history, cultural and ethnic diversity. These characteristics are all reasons why the neighborhood is being considered for this historic honor. Simply stated, Princeton would not be Princeton without the many facets of entrepreneurial, social, religious, economic, and cultural investments and sacrifices made by people who built and lived in the neighborhood.

There are those who suggest that simply identifying designated structures with accompanying museum, pictures, signage and artifacts would be a more appropriate way to distinguish the neighborhoods significance. However, the Wise Report clearly indicates that it is the neighborhood that illuminates several key contributing structures like the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, Paul Robeson’s home, and Dorothea’s House…not that these structures individually or collectively are responsible for making the neighborhood historic. In addition, the HPC voted unanimously to accept the recommendations of the Wise Report, which acknowledges that the streetscape includes the visual elements of a street, including the porches, road, adjoining buildings, street furniture, trees and open space that combine to form the street’s character.

The mayor and council should not allow the contents of the Wise Report to be manipulated. It should be read carefully and considered on merit.

Lastly, I believe the most compelling reason to make the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood the 20th historic district in our town is because it is deserving on so many fronts. It is the “right and the moral thing to do.”

Furthermore it should be approved without any guidelines beyond what already exist in the historic preservation ordinance, as no other historic district in Princeton is beset with such stipulations.

The council will have the opportunity to create what I believe will be a healing; one of the most meaningful, wide ranging, and far reaching decisions ever to come before the presiding body.
This responsibility requires that voices on both sides be heard; however the voices that cannot be heard are the African, Italian, and Irish American voices that created a living legacy through their everyday lives, giving little if any thought to their pioneering venture, and who have now taken their rest.

I and others speak for them and it is my hope that Mayor and Council through our advocacy hear their voices. The right decision will say to their living relatives, the town’s constituents, visitors and others that Princeton is a town of inclusion, one that recognizes the significance and importance of all people, regardless of race, creed, or color. It will ensure that our towns compelling history is unedited and complete.

Leighton Newlin
Birch Avenue


  1. I guess I would be more enthusiastic about the historic designation if I felt that the impulses supporting the designation would be replicated in the town’s approach to current-day housing issues.

    The historic designation recognizes the historic value of a lower-wage, socially-disadvantaged community that was accommodated within the Boro, i.e., as “part” of the broader community — a community that supported many of the basic services that needed doing in the community at the time.

    A century from today, will our successors look back on us and applaud the right and moral policies we’re adopting to incorporate as “part” of our broader community the people who today provide the basic services that need doing in our community?

  2. Don’t worry, Leighton. The opportunity to preserve the W-J hood will be approved. Your desire aligns with influencers & the powerful in every camp here. Preservation will make a great national headline for ambitious Council members. Residents like Alexa A. who want to stop development in W-J, support you. Your cause is embraced John Heilner & other righteous, prominent community members. Even those in the Mayor’s crib with doubts, like Nat B., are lending support. When Council votes “Yes”, the restriction of rights in WJ will continue in the name of “preservation”. Will that really be the “right & and the moral thing to do”? Or will it be the history of repression in W-J repeating itself? Truth is: the ONLY people have the right to vote on this matter are the W-J homeowners. W-J residents should consider establishing a homeowners association dedicated to their hood. This will spare Princeton taxpayers the governance costs & legal fees for any disputes in this matter going forward, & give residents full authority. You will get a lot of financial support from preservation societies, national non-profits, celebrities, & private citizens to fund your cause. Plaques & grants are a slam dunk…W-J preservationists have already won. But, the HOA model should govern your preservation matters, not the municipality. The FREEDOM to self-govern your hood seems more fitting than any other status going forward. A dependence on powerful Whites & politicians to approve the destiny of your hood is not the best model.

    1. I wouldn’t say I expressed support. What I said was: I’d trust the preservation push a lot more if I felt we were supporting contemporary moral issues, instead of just putting a blue ribbon on something achieved well in our past. I DON’T think we’re supporting contemporary moral issues (which are not just moral, they’re also civic and self-interested), so I DON’T trust the preservation push. And I’m pretty sure that also means I’m not “in the Mayor’s crib.” Comment made using my name.

      1. Sorry, Nat. I did read your doubts about preservation in your post, but clearly misunderstood your words “…designation recognizes historic value…” as an expression that you saw some good in designation. I removed the 3 words “like Nat B.” from my post. Anyone appointed to a committee during this Mayor’s tenure is in her crib. If you weren’t appointed during her reign, please share word here & I’ll revise my thinking as well.

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