Senator Turner: Preserve Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood and History

Dear Editor,

I am writing on behalf of a group of concerned citizens who would like the Princeton Council to designate the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as a local historic preservation district.

In New Jersey, there are few places that embody the African-American experience like the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. African Americans were among the first settlers of Princeton, which boasted a higher concentration of black residents than most other towns. However, this community was subjected to racial and discriminatory practices, which essentially created the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. Now, those same discriminatory practices are tearing apart a significant piece of African-American history and Princeton’s history, brick by brick.

The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood exceeds the architectural guidelines for historic preservation. By preserving this neighborhood, we preserve a piece of our nation’s history.


Shirley K. Turner
Senator, 15th District


  1. I agree that we ought to better commemorate and celebrate the history and contributions of Princeton’s African-American residents, but Senator Turner ought to be careful what she wishes for. In many other historic-designated areas, African-Americans have been displaced. Go to Georgetown in Washington DC, for example. A former African-American neighborhood, where the buildings are lovingly preserved, but the African Americans are all gone. In areas where gentrification is in play, historic designation only accelerates price inflation, increased tax assessments, and exclusion. I’m worried that the same will happen here.

    1. Senator Turner is “careful” and thoughtful and studied about what she “wishes” for and advocates for for our community. I agree with her and support the designation and thank Senator Turner for her advocacy on this issue.

    2. Preserving the W-J area as it is today will, thankfully, prevent it from becoming another Georgetown – where only the rich can afford to live. Georgetown is fine for Georgetown, but it won’t happen once the W-J historic district is designated. The whole point and recommendation of the Wise (consultant) report that recommended this historic district, and with which our Historic Preservation Commission agreed, is to keep the houses small and modest, and the streetscape intact with porches near the sidewalk. The mere label “historic district” will not attract people who want to spend $1 million plus and keep these houses small and looking pretty much as they do.

      Unfortunately, gentrification is in play right now because there is no HD. Anyone can tear down whatever they want, and build whatever they like. This HD will finally stop gentrification in its tracks.

      Thank you, Senator Turner, for your support for an area that has long been neglected by Princeton as a whole.

      1. We’ve been through this before John and I pointed out to you that several recent academic studies have shown price inflation of 20%+ in historic designated areas. Your assertion that designation will prevent gentrification is based on your own optimistic opinion.

  2. “Now, those same discriminatory practices are tearing apart a significant piece of African-American history and Princeton’s history, brick by brick.” Huhh?

    If you don’t like what someone else is doing with their own property, call it “discriminatory” I suppose.

    1. There is a residential rental property in the neighborhood that used to be an inn and gathering place for African Americans who weren’t welcome at the Nassau Inn and other similar establishments that served white people. The property has distinct architecture. There are those still alive today who understand the historical and cultural importance & significance of such meeting & gathering places. I would imagine that if you or your parents have had the experience of not being able to have another place to have casual drink & conversation with a colleague or friend safely in your/their own home town or town of business due to one’s “race”, there is understandable sentiment about preserving and remembering that place and that history (and being able to show it to your kids), and understandable concern that such place may be knocked down and replaced by those who see gold (but not history) in downtown Princeton real estate.

      1. I think there is a real opportunity for everybody to come together and work something out about this. Most people recognize that it’s important to preserve neighborhood landmarks. The problem comes when we are talking about designating hundreds and hundreds of homes, where in lots of cases the owners are not interested in having their properties preserved. We can work something out, but we have to listen to each other. We need to be open about the types of racial discrimination that went on in the past, and acknowledge that there are still racial disparities today. On the other hand, allegations of racial discrimination need to be specific. The changes that are happening in the neighborhood are driven by rising land values at least as much as overt racism.

        1. More by market, less by racism.

          The hypocrisy is supporting historic designation to honor the less fortunate from the past, while not supporting policies to accommodate the service workers of today.

          You can’t go to a fancy restaurant in Princeton staffed by dishwashers who live on the shore. They live here. Will we ever want to commemorate Princeton’s support for Latino residents?

          1. If this designation goes through, it will be interesting to see how “honored” the residents of the W-J neighborhood are feeling in a few years. I can think of better ways to honor and preserve this neighborhood’s past than saddling every resident with more government oversight. At least, after they have experienced the cost, in dollars and time, and aggravation of getting their minor changes and repairs approved (Yes, if the front door breaks, repairing it by buying a new one goes to the HPC.), residents can call NJ Senator Shirley K. Turner and thank her for her guidance.

            1. You have no idea what your talking about. You need to get a quest for education…come to the meeting on Monday and listen when the HPC tells you how HD will be administered. And those of us in favor of HD whose families contributed to “all that is Princeton” from the building of the roads you travel on to most if not all of the University’s infrastructure do appreciate Senator Shirley Turner…who by the way represents you whether you appreciate it or not.

              1. You are entitled to your opinion, but If your entire education on Historic Preservation has come from meeting with the HPC, then there is much more you could learn about the Historic Preservation Ordinance and Historic Districts in general. The members of the HPC will come and go, and opinions and objectives can and do change over time. In the end, the ordinance, which is inherently subjective, determines how much control the HPC can take. I am sure that any promises to apply the ordinance in a certain way or with a certain level of lenience are sincere, but they do not carry the weight of law. If a homeowner finds himself in conflict with the HPC, any reference to what was said at the meeting will be superseded by the current HPC members’ interpretation of the ordinance.

                1. Okay, understood, but we are talking about for the most part modest homes, unless of course the ordinance is not passed and tear downs become the norm and the land values continue to escalate unrealistically making the homes inconsequential. As long as the homes remain modest and by the way livable…a front door is a front door and will not cost s million dollars to replace. You like others are exasperating the situation with over-the-top rhetoric and trying to redirect the issues and the situation. W/J is a historic district and should be so designated because it is worthy of the honor, and because it is an AMERICAN STORY. It is time that African Americans and Italian Americans in Princeton are recognized for their unique contributions and one of the most significant things they did was build Princeton’s infrastructure while living under stressful and discriminatory circumstances….it’s your move eduquest…if you feel frogish>>>leap…but I suggest you stay on your lilypad

          2. The W-J Historic District will allow Latino residents who live there to continue living there. Without the HD, those who rent will get kicked out house by house as their homes are torn down to make way for $1+ million structures that only the wealthy can afford.

            As opposed to “Georgetown” that has been mentioned elsewhere, the WJHD will have the benefit of maintaining housing that’s affordable close to schools and jobs.

        2. Thank you for acknowledging that there are racial disparities that still exist today. In the other 19 HD in Princeton there is no “landmark designations”. Either the neighborhood is designated or it is not! The African, Italian, Irish and now Latino Americans do not now and have never lived in the “landmarks” they live and have lived in the neighborhood! The Princeton Historical Preservation Commission under the auspices of the Municipal Governing body commissioned a study by a professional historical architectural assessment company to do a study and the results of the study are clear for anyone taking the time to read and understand it. They did not find that the landmarks make the neighborhood historic…they find that the neighborhood makes the landmarks historic. You and others art artful manipulators and you have the audacity to think people don’t see through your rhetoric and innuendo. Stop underestimating people…and start either using your intellect to make positive and real change or cease your sinister attempt(s) at misdirection.

            1. The hand you held out kind sir is an offer of compromise. African Americans in the U.S. are tired of compromise. Business as usual. If your intention is to help or as you say offer a hand then be honest, recognize and acknowledge that the only real difference between the WJ neighborhood and the other 19 HD in town is the dogfight that must be waged to achieve something that should be done without a battle. Like James Brown says in one of his songs…”I don’t nobody to give me nuthin’…open up the door, I’ll get in myself.” Do you have any idea what it is like to always feel like your swimming upstream…I didn’t think so.

              1. There is historic oppression of African American people but that does not justify trampling somebody else in 2016. Compromise is a reasonable thing. I think there are grounds for a good compromise here, which addresses everybody’s concerns and needs. But making it an ‘us and them’ thing is not helpful. Opposition to historic designation is not just a WJ thing. Historic designation proposals in the Western Section and Littlebrook neighborhoods have also been opposed by neighbors. That’s because there are costs to historic designation, which proponents have not recognized.

                1. The opposition to the proposed Morven Tract HD in the Western Section was solely about the most wealthy residents in the area not wanting any community input on what they can do with their homes. It was all about libertarianism. About “property rights” trumping the interest of the larger community called Princeton in preserving its history and architecture. I’m sure those who opposed an HD can afford the $75 fee when they want to make a substantive change to the front (only) facade of their house.

                  1. So you were worried about gentrification in the Western Section?? –or do you just like telling other people what to do with their houses.

            2. one more thing SFB…if you really hold out your hand I will grab it and not let go. Your comment about Georgetown is true and we certainly don’t want that for Princeton. If things continue on the same course Princeton will end up just like Georgetown. If you really want to be part of positive change while recognizing and acknowledging the “TRUTHFUL HISTORY” of town then work to make others see the benefit of having a culturally diverse place to live and a culturally diverse school system, things that work for the benefit of all and not just a few. Look at some of the comments that have been posted about the neighborhood becoming a HD and tell me you don’t see the bigger picture that is plaguing our country. Look at the debates and tell me you like what you are seeing. We are a county divided, and the main reason for that is either directly or indirectly due to race and race relations. The decisions we make as well as the decisions that are not being made are taking us backwards instead of forward. What is really unfortunate is that we as a country are removing ourselves systematically from the rest of the world…my biggest fear is that we will let exactly the same divisive behavior happen right here in our town. It is not the powerless that effect change it is the powerful…unless of course there is “revolution”…and in effect that is what we are seeing right now! Why don’t you help me be part of positive change? Now its me whose holding out a hand.

              1. We’re totally on the same page. The only difference is that I fear that historic designation will not have the effect of increasing cultural diversity as you hope. The neighborhood I used to live in in DC (not Georgetown, a less famous one, but still historic) was a historic district and gentrification was rampant. Gentrifiers love historic districts. That’s why they tend to see big increases in property values, leading to exclusion. This proposal has risks and costs as well as benefits. That’s why I advocate a cautious approach.

  3. It’s pretty difficult to square the sanctimonious commemoration of a historic African-American neighborhood with the over-the-top personal attacks on a contemporary African-American person just recently.

    Maybe we just like our African Americans in the past.

    Or maybe we just like to use them to score points on our pet issues, whether they’re about development in Witherspoon-Jackson or resentment against the University. Either way, if I were African-American, I’d be suspicious.

    p.s. not saying she was correct to speed or not pay tickets; but AM agreeing with her point that as a habitual practice, making arrests for minor infractions inevitably catches more poor and minorities in the arrest net. AND, nice as Princeton’s police might be, she isn’t just black in Princeton; she gets to be black everywhere — so I personally think the destructive attacks on her were totally disproportionate and out of line.

  4. If one investigates the areas in Princeton which have been declared historic, it becomes very clear that districts were designated within a stone’s throw of the JW community. Senator Turner’s support means so very much. In a town which until consolidation was two, and one of them surrounded what was essentially a third due to the then-prevailing Jim Crow laws, the least the town fathers can do in the 21st century is recognize that it does have historic value. Professor Martin Duberman wrote 700 pages on Paul Robeson alone. The history served his purposes as it did the purposes of the many others who have effusively written both fact and fiction, referencing the nature/characteristic of the neighborhood..

    BTW – Princeton, NJ Real Estate Informaton says the following about demographics: Princeton is a very ethnically-diverse borough. The people who call
    Princeton home describe themselves as belonging to a variety of racial
    and ethnic groups. The greatest number of Princeton residents report
    their race to be White, followed by Asian. Important ancestries of
    people in Princeton include Irish, German, Italian, English, Polish and
    Oops, do they purposely leave out AFRICAN?

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