Planet Princeton

Letters: The Integrity of the Historic Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood

To the Editor:

When the Planning Board meets tonight to consider Princeton Council’s ordinance proposing that the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood be established as an Historic District, it should honor the authoritative report prepared by Wise Preservation Planning Group LLC and the reports subsequently presented to Princeton Council by the Historic Presentation Commission.

The Planning Board should make every effort to keep intact the firm boundaries set by both Wise and the HPC: no exceptions. It should challenge seriously any individual who wants an exemption and ask for detailed explanations for the request for exemption. A Historic District represents the common good of Princeton as a whole, so the reasons anyone gives for wanting an exemption should really be tested by the Planning Board, as well as Princeton Council.

The integrity of the neighborhood must be maintained for this historic district to represent the true history and culture of the African-American, Irish, Italian and now the Latino experience in Princeton. This is particularly true for Witherspoon Street itself, which has always been the backbone of the neighborhood, an area where businesses thrived despite segregation and where we figured out how to manage in the face of segregation elsewhere.

Some individuals fear the supposed constraints of HD designation. But the Historic Preservation Commission has stated time and again that because of the simpler, small scale style of houses in this proposed historic district, it will be flexible in reviews of any proposed small changes. Normal maintenance does not even require a review. In addition, creation of an historic district has nothing to do with the normal zoning regulations already in place. Princeton Council has already placed review of these other zoning regulations on its list of high priority items for 2016.

Other individuals want to chip away at Witherspoon Street for financial gain. That’s just a little repetition of what happened when Palmer Square was created and Jackson Street was destroyed.

Princeton can’t let this happen again. The Planning Board should recommend to Princeton Council that Council grant no exclusions to the boundaries of the proposed HD set by the HPC.

Henry F. Pannell

Dear Editor:

The closer we get to validating the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as a historic district, the more confusion there seems to be regarding the geographic boundaries for inclusion, and exactly what it means to be a “historic district.”  The Wise Report commissioned by the Princeton Office of Historic Preservation was clear in its evaluation of the streetscape and structures, the rich history and cultural diversity of the people, and also spent a great deal of time talking about the struggle and the pain of the people who lived there.

Not only did the neighborhood survive, but it thrived with businesses like barbershops and beauty salons, flower shops, fraternal organizations, restaurants, meat markets, convenience stores, penny candy stores, ice and coal companies, bars, and churches.  Many of these businesses were located on Witherspoon Street, the proud promenade of the proud people who lived there, which came to be known as “African Alley.”

The neighborhood was self-contained because it had to be.  People who lived there were not welcome on Nassau Street and that necessitated entrepreneurism and ingenuity.  The neighborhood, especially Witherspoon Street, had everything the people needed, it was bustling, and it flourished.

Now as the neighborhood gets closer to reaching its worthy goal of historical acknowledgement, we find developers and others whose primary interest is in personal financial gain asking to have their properties excluded from the district; all are clearly within the boundaries established by the Wise Report, and unanimously approved by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).  We find, and believe municipal leadership should also find these requests to be self-serving and disingenuous.  Witherspoon Jackson’s legacy is not history in a vacuum; it is part of a storied history of an historic town.  It is Princeton’s history.

Let’s be clear, no exclusions from what was recommended by the Wise Report and HPC should be granted.  Not just some but the whole neighborhood and community have historical relevance, and should be so designated.

The HPC has made it clear that given the uniqueness of the neighborhood in both scale and design, they will work with homeowners to assist them when requests are made for changes.  The truth is the neighborhood has always been historic. It is only now receiving a proper designation like nineteen other districts in Princeton.  Any properties that have been removed from the proposed boundaries should be put back in and no others should be excluded.  The neighborhood did not choose the homeowners, the homeowners chose the neighborhood.

The residential boundaries set forth by the Wise Report and the HPC should be honored with no exceptions or compromises, and the eclectic, warm, and cozy neighborhood should be honored in totality.

Leighton Newlin

Community Contributor

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  • Ilpapa16

    The Wise Report like other mechanisms used to evaluate whether a neighborhood, building, or community meets the qualifications for historic designation is a standard process for the most part that does not include or need the residents permission or their blessings. Residents have/had the opportunity to voice their opinion in public forums (Council meetings for those who may not know). If as you say there are a lot of people who don’t want WJ to be an HD they certainly did not come out and say so. Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of those who reside in WJ are for the designation and voiced that opinion in public…WJ was historic without designation before you became an resident/owner and will be so long after you leave.

  • SFB

    When Council considers the final boundaries of any historic neighborhood, I hope they take into consideration the desires and needs of everybody in the community. While it is clear that a lot of people want a historic district, this feeling is not at all universally shared, and some consideration should be given to those who want no part of it. That is called ‘compromise’. If Council is to be seen to be representing everybody, some compromise is desirable. As things stand, the Wise report was generated without resident participation. Forcing its recommendations through unaltered would be a triumph for top-down planning over community consensus.

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