To the Editor:
Designation of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as a historic district needs to happen. Time is of the essence, as we know there are many steps in this process since properties are being purchased and houses torn down as we speak. There are 19 other historic districts in Princeton . With the Witherspoon-Jackson community’s unique and significant history there should be no question.
We all understand the importance of the structures that define the living and lived history of the Witherspoon-Jackson community. But it’s not individual structures alone. It’s their interlinkage with people and culture. The Wise Report states that their survey “found the neighborhood to be a cohesive and intact expression of Princeton’s largest African-American community, whose appearance and setting is a result of years of social, economic and educational disparity brought about by discrimination and segregation. The buildings and streetscape here, opposed to elsewhere in Princeton, tell this story; the district designation should help preserve it” (Wise, p. 1). Everyone should note: still “cohesive and intact.”
The Wise report notes one of the chief reasons for that cohesion: “One prevalent feature found throughout the community were front porches, most of which are not enclosed. The massing of houses, though close to most sidewalks, is by default scaled to the community streetscapes” (Wise, p. 24). The linkage between architecture and people is evident: the many porches the architectural connection, out-doors, between the buildings and the people on the street. The closeness of the porches to the street has helped all of us survive and maintain our community throughout the decades.
The Report indicates that systemic patterns of segregation created an area based on race, ethnicity and economics. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was not just their neighborhood of choice; it was set apart for them — their only choice. African-American settlers in this community have always been here to serve wealthy Princetonians and Princeton University. To dismiss the neighborhood’s character and relationship to the history of Princeton would also be inaccurate.
Over time, as opportunity grew, some Italian and Irish families arrived — and then were able and allowed to move on to other neighborhoods in Princeton (Wise, p. 54). Some Italian families still remain (census graphs in the Wise Report show this evolution). Witherspoon-Jackson has always been a neighborhood of inclusion, a community of many languages where all have been welcome. Its early historic make-up was African American — then Irish and Italian.
The African American community was not afforded similar opportunities. But there was no bitterness. Instead and largely due to discriminatory practices and common necessity the neighborhood established many successful businesses, schools, and churches, and always with a spirit of welcome and neighborliness.
Princeton Council must continue to highlight Princeton as a town of inclusion. It should designate the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood a historic district, and acknowledge that this community’s past represents a significant part of the town’s history. Princeton Council must recognize Princeton’s significance in the state, national, and international mind.