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.