Illustration by Janette Lu

Imagine a small East Coast town. A town with such a distinct identity that upon crossing its borders, you will know you are in Princeton. It’s a feeling that permeates the landscape and landmarks of the town. A feeling carefully cultivated as the town tries to exemplify the romanticisms of novelists who have written about it, the spirit of a place that is committed to retaining the past. It’s a town where the seasons pause with the spectacle of the burnt orange melt of fall. With the start of each new day, the narrow tree-lined streets fill themselves with people of every age. Business men and women walk to work or bike to the train station for their daily commute. Parents with strollers and kids trailing behind file themselves into parks, day schools and grocery stores. Students weave between the shops of the town and the University’s lecture halls. Others peruse the streets simply to enjoy the town. As they walk, they are cajoled by the warm aromas of restaurants just opening shop. They weave around bags of donated clothing and household undesirables outside charity organizations, then pass banks of all different names, hotels, post offices and more cafes. The crispness of the morning may be soothed by a cup of fair trade coffee, or perhaps a hot cider, pressed with apples from the nearby orchard. Local businesses claim the ground with apartments and single family homes packed above and between. Thanks to the eclectic community and high energy of the town, people come and go from every direction. They walk with purpose, as the streets often too congested to drive on, as though they were purposely designed to prevent smooth traversal by car.  These people, walking and always thinking up stimulating ideas because they are immersed in an educational, cultural, and commercial flux. This is Princeton, and the feeling you have when you’re here is due to the effects of its carefully cultivated character.

However, Princeton’s character is at risk. The town character has been on the fringe of deterioration for many years, but the public has only come to face this reality in recent years. Public concern over the changing town character manifested itself during the 2016 mayoral election. During the campaign season in the summer of that year, current mayor Liz Lempert and her opponent Peter Marks both felt obliged to address the threats to town’s character and present ideas for preserving it in their campaign platforms. Marks placed the blame on the town’s changing character largely on Princeton University and the malleability of the town’s “master plan.” If he had become mayor, his “top priority [would have been] to rework the master plan, with the goal of […] preserving our small town character.” He claims that flaws in the master plan allowed the University, “whose grandiose expansion plans threaten our community” to truncate the Dinky station, a beloved landmark of the town for its historical value as well as its functional advantages.

The Dinky station is a transport hub that has long been used by local residents and students alike to get to Princeton Junction, and from there, to transfer to trains headed toward New York or Philadelphia. The Dinky has been a major factor in maintaining Princeton’s small town character, putting more people on trains than in cars. In preparation for the opening of its new arts and transit center near the Dinky station, the University requested to move the station 460 feet south of its previous location. 460 feet meant 1.5 football fields away from the center of town. 460 feet meant that people who used to bike or walk would have to drive to the station. 460 feet meant the station that was once used by generations of celebrated Princetonians would be transformed into a restaurant, and a new metallic slant-roofed station. The new station, sterile in its modern design, lacks the history the Dinky used to stand for.  

In addition to his remarks on the Dinky station, Marks argues there has been a precedent in recent years for, “changing the town’s zoning and master plan to suit the privileged, whether its the University, a favored restaurateur, or a favorite group.” He continues on to say, “I do not consider that the University’s expansionist dreams should trump the needs and desires of our existing residents.” Is it possible that the University’s threat to the town character reaches beyond the Dinky, and beyond its expansionist ambitions? It may be the case that the very presence of the University poses a menace to the town character.

For Princeton University freshman, Theo Trevisan, the University is what makes the town’s character so rich. Trevisan, a student who grew up in the town of Princeton has been a member of both of Princeton’s communities. Trevisan lounged on a black leather recliner chair in one of the many University libraries, reminiscing on the days before his time as a Princeton University student. He wore brown khaki trousers with a button down plaid shirt, and thick-rimmed glasses that seemed slightly too mature for his blushing 18-year-old face. This is the only study break he’s taken all day. His tired eyes squint in a way that makes his four months as a member of the University community feel like years away from his time as a member of the town. As a townsperson, Trevisan appreciated the University, “because it brings a lot of interesting people to the town. It brings a lot of talent that makes it a great place to grow up in.” When asked to describe what contributed to Princeton’s character, he sat up straighter and his speaking pace quickened, “The University. It’s definitely the University…the University being there influences so much of the town that it’s pretty tough to not consider it a big influence.” Princeton’s identity, he continues, is also “linked to it being an old town. There’s an aspect of history that gives it character as well. But that’s intertwined very closely with the University.” The town character is largely dependent on its history, but so much of that history is inseparable from the history of the University.

What would the town identity be without the University?  The master plan, a legal document published by the town government, indicates the existence of such a separate identity. The master plan sets forth a vision – a vision of what ought to contribute to the character of the town, and what must be done to preserve it. The plan’s vision statement lists many urban features that contribute to the town’s “special sense of place.” The streets are walkable, small scale and lined with trees. Architecturally diverse residential neighborhoods surround an educational, cultural, and commercial town center. But according to the plan, most of what defines the character of the town is its history. The plan states, “this wealth of historic and cultural resources creates the unique character that is Princeton.”

In New Jersey law, a city or town is required to produce a master plan in order to regulate land development through zoning. Changes to the master plan are performed by the municipality Planning Board during a public hearing process. When making such decisions, the municipality refers itself to the values and suggestions put forth in the master plan. While the master plan does not dictate zoning or development decisions, it heavily influences the future development of the town. Princeton’s first master plan was published in 1938. While the main values remain consistent, changes to the master plan have been adopted every ten years as the town community embraces change.

The town strives to “maintain a ‘sense of place’ and small town quality that are distinctive and evidenced as one can cross into the community through several gateways.” These gateways are what the town considers to be its most historically significant sites, most of which belong to the University. Nassau Hall, FitzRandolph Gate, Bainbridge House, Henry House… all belong to the University. The Einstein House, Woodrow Wilson Houses, and the Eating Clubs on Prospect Avenue…the University claims to be their own by way of association with their past and current residents. The town claims these sites as essential to their identity, forming gateways to enter into their unique area of New Jersey. But the sites belong to Princeton University, whose influence is world renowned, far surpassing that of the town. How can the town genuinely foster these sites into the fabric of its identity, while they contribute more to the University’s character rather than its own?

Julie Capollozi, the chair of the government’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), does her part to maintain the town identity by advocating for the preservation of historic sites and districts in Princeton. Capollozi’s passion and commitment to the work can give the town confidence that their history will not be forgotten. With vitality, she explained, “I’ve always felt a lot of commitment to be involved with my community… a lot of these decisions are difficult. There needs to be somebody to deal with it, and I just felt like I was the kind of person to deal with it.” When Capollozi and her committee find a site they deem historically significant, they typically will write that site into the master plan as a “potential historic site.” “When the groundwork is laid in the master plan, when you really do try to create a historic district or historic site, you have something to back it up.”  When the HPC writes a site into the master plan, it seals the fate of the historicity of that place, as well as the future character of the town.

While the master plan has the power to push forward the town identity by appointing and preserving the historic sites of the town, it fails to dissociate the town’s identity from that of the University. The first line of the master plan starts with, “Princeton is an attractive college town.” Perhaps the only way to seperate the town from the University is by looking at its history. What was the town’s character before Princeton University, and is that character still noticeable in the town today?

The town of Princeton’s history stretches beyond the establishment of the University. The story of this town can be found by revisiting the historical layers of present day Nassau Street. Imagine the town of Princeton before the University was established, 400 years ago. Formally known as the King’s Highway, Nassau Street was part of a 1,300 mile path that once connected travelers from Charleston, South Carolina to Boston, Massachusetts. The HPC is currently working on a project to designate sites along Princeton town’s portion of the King’s Highway as historically significant. Capollozi sees the project as a prime example of the HPC using historic preservation to ensure the integrity of community values. While the highway itself is designated as a national historic district, many of the sites and districts surrounding the highway are not. This highway may be all the town has left of historical significance to call its own. It is not part of the University in any way. “The attempt is to try to preserve the streetscape along that road,” Capollozi explains. “Everyone was putting up these stockade fences along the road, blocking the view of certain houses.” Perhaps in removing these fences the town will regain a part of its individual character, aside from the University.

In the early 1600’s, this street would have been a mere dirt trail. It is said to have been traversed by Native Americans, who served as messengers along the path. Later, Dutch colonists journeyed along the path, but due to the lack of signage they required the assistance of Native American guides to find their way. In 1650 King Charles II of England ordered a road to be built along the trail, known as the King’s Highway. By 1675, with gradual improvements made by King Charles’ order, the road had improved enough for the Quaker minister, William Edmundson, to travel the path on horseback. In 1681, Labadist preachers described the road as “nothing but a footpath for men and horses, between the trees and through the small shrubs.” King Charles’ road was completed by 1735, but still the road was difficult to navigate. In 1756, Anglican missionary Thomas Thompson describes the chaos of the highway, “the roads in most places are very good but then you travel in a maze, having neither mile-stone, nor Mercury for your direction.”

The gradual appearance of small settlements led to more navigational clues along the highway. Signage increased and trees were marked with the initials of towns that were later established out of these settlements. The first recorded dwelling built along the highway within the current town boundaries was constructed in 1683. The owner, Henry Greenland intended for it to be a “house of accommodation,” welcoming all passing along the highway to stay as guests. If you walk through Princeton today, would you witness such a warm-hearted spirit? Or would you run into students, who surely would not have time to “accommodate” you here?  

The early 1700s brought Quaker settlers along the King’s Highway.  They settled in Stony Brook, a farmland area less than a mile west of the Greenland house. In 1724, with the construction of the first house in the area, owned by James Leonard, the town was named Princeton after Prince William of Orange of the House of Nassau. The university’s decision to relocate to the town of Princeton was largely based on the accessibility made possible by the King’s Highway. The University needed a central location amongst its sponsors in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey. The town’s location along the highway proved ideal. The University, originally named “The College of New Jersey” didn’t change its title until 1896. The change of name was a move to distinguish the University. The change took place under the University presidency of James McCosh, who feared if they kept the name as a “college” they wouldn’t be able to compete with other leading academic institutions. The University then became “Princeton University.” At the time, this may have seemed like a respectful nod towards the town. But now, Princeton freshman Trevisan explains, when a person mentions “Princeton,” most will immediately think of the University instead of the town. The town name has been subjugated by that of the University.

The town first felt the history-moving shake of the University in 1756 when the construction of Nassau Hall was complete, and the College of New Jersey relocated from Elizabeth to Princeton. 1756 was thus the year that Princeton became more than just a town. It is worth asking if anyone outside the town remembers what happened in Princeton before 1756. Nassau Hall, built in the Renaissance architectural style, made of brick and stone walls, was originally used as student housing. Nassau Hall has been the center of many important historic events in the town over the years. In 1777, the victory of the Battle of Princeton and the British yielding of Nassau Hall marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War. In 1783, Nassau Hall served as the United States Capitol, hosting the Continental Congress from June to November of that year. Today, Nassau Hall hosts the President of the University and stands firm as a symbol of the University and its rich history. Its stone walls, speckled with dents from revolutionary war cannon balls, and enveloped in decades of ivy growth is one of the most popular photo ops for tourists from around the world.

If you walk out the doors of Nassau Hall, you will see FitzRandolph Gate, the official entrance to Princeton University campus. FitzRandolph Gate serves as one of the distinctive gateways into the town. Four tall columns support wrought iron gates. The gate was erected in 1905 in honor of Nathaniel FitzRandolph, who donated the original four acres of land on which Nassau Hall was built. The gate traditionally was kept closed, only letting traffic through for the annual graduation and commencement ceremonies, isolating the town from the activity of the University. In 1970, the graduating class of students took it upon themselves to better integrate themselves with the town, and adopted “Together for Community,” as their class motto. They had it carved into one of the columns of the gate. The motto, paired with the official desire for the gates to remain open to all, was meant to break down the divide between the town and the University. But did the opening of the gates help to unite the town and the University? Or did University’s influence over the town persist regardless?

If you pass through the gates and turn right, you’ll notice Bainbridge House on the opposite side of the street. The Bainbridge House is presented as completely unique to the town, the original home of the Princeton Historical Society, but is owned by the University. The University leases Bainbridge House to the Princeton Historical Society for $1 a year. There are quite a few buildings that the University leases throughout the town, usually for very low prices. In fact, according to Issy Kasdin, the executive director of the Princeton Historical Society, and a Princeton University alum, “the majority of the people who live in the town of Princeton don’t even know what buildings the University owns.”

The master plan advocates for the “historic sites, landscapes, and structures are integral to the character and ambiance” of the town. It urges the town to retain and enhance these sites at all cost. But citizens of the town of Princeton don’t even know what buildings the University owns. How can people support the town identity, so solely based on the historicity of the buildings that make up the town, if they are unsure which sites belong to the town and which belong to the University?

If you continue past Bainbridge house and turn right at the corner of Nassau Street and Washington Road, closely following the border of the University you’ll pass one historical site after another. On your right, stands Firestone, another terrific photo op. Firestone, the University’s main library, contains 50 miles of shelves. On your left there is Robertson Hall, home of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Turn left on the street below Robertson Hall, and you’ll find yourself walking down Prospect Avenue, famous for hosting the Princeton University Eating Clubs. The clubs were originally founded because the students were unsatisfied with the quality of food from the campus dining halls. “We should be eating like kings!” the students demanded, and set off to organize their own catering services. These clubs soon became much more than places to eat extravagant food. They quickly evolved into social centers where parties were hosted at every time of the day. The clubs haven’t changed much, and students can find a party in one of the Eating Clubs almost any day of the week. The eating clubs remain an enigma to the town. The HPC has listed the clubs in the master plan, campaigning for them to be officially recognized as local historical sites. Many books have been written in attempts to unveil the private practices of the eating clubs to the public eye. The Princeton Historical Society gives a walking tour of the Avenue, providing inside access to several of the clubs. These clubs are all exclusive to some extent. Either excluding students based on elitist rejection mechanisms or barring membership based on economic status (club membership ranges from a hefty $8,000 to $9,000 every year). The clubs are undoubtedly most exclusive towards members of the town, most of whom have never set foot inside them.  The town’s inhabitants uphold the clubs as historical sites which are strongly indicative of their town’s character.

The town of Princeton, 2018. The day is nearing its end, and the setting sun’s oranges and pinks scatter their light through the leaves of the sycamore trees, framing the path from Nassau Hall to FitzRandolph Gate. If you take a right out of the gate you’ll end up walking down Nassau Street. The same pattern of stores will repeat itself again and again. You’ll pass several tudor-style shops, now transformed into places like Starbucks. These historic sites have now become many students’ essential study and caffeine rejuvenation venues. Then there are a few stores dedicated to University memorabilia. Then there’s Labyrinth books, where students flock during the start of each semester, purchasing textbooks for their new courses. 30 Burgers, Panera Bread, Q’doba, PJ’s Pancakes are all delicious venues to visit if students want to eat out with friends. Then there’s the Garden Theatre, where students can see a free movie every weekend.

All the while, let us not forget the University fence on the opposite side of the road. You may forget some of these businesses. You may forget the conversations you have – or don’t have – with local shop owners, or what was said about the town, or that there even is a town that surrounds the University. But what will stick with you is the sight of students, always hurried, always with something important to get done, racing up and down and across Nassau Street to run their errands then get to class. You’ll never forget that these people are students, because the University and its tall concrete fence will always assert its presence. The more you look towards the fence, and the neo-Gothic campus libraries and class buildings and residence halls beyond, the more imprinted it will become in your memory. The University expands, and soon you might even forget the fence. The University begins to create a shadow over the town. In your memory, the University might seem to be all that exists in the town of Princeton. So we must ask ourselves again, what we mean when we say, This is Princeton.