Soon after my arrival in Princeton as an Atlas Corps fellow at Community Options, I was told that this town is super safe (as I mentioned in my previous blog “Princeton”) and there is only one part of it which might be a little dangerous at nights – upper part of Witherspoon Street. One of the three Community Options offices in Princeton where I serve is located at the same Witherspoon street, and I walk it every day having the chance to observe surroundings including houses and people who live or work here. The first week I noticed there were a lot of Hispanics and thought they might have a community in the area. A few weeks later I was told that in this part of the town you can find the cheapest housing.
In December, 2015 a colleague of mine mentioned that decades back servants of rich people used to live on this particular street. The more information I was getting about this street, the more it created curiosity and got my interest to dig out more information and studies on this street. Luckily, I got a recently published (November, 2015) report analyzing the historical significance of the area around Witherspoon by presenting how it has grown and developed.
The street is named after John Witherspoon, Scottish-American Presbyterian minister, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the sixth President of College of New Jersey (nowadays Princeton University). History of Witherspoon highlights how segregated communities lived through the years and also how their life reflected on the architecture and overall landscape. A few excerpts of this survey will not tell you the whole story but will bring you thoughts of how history is shaped and how “used to” hasn’t changed much.
Experts examined all buildings and their architecture to give answers of why and how buildings on Witherspoon street differs from other parts of the town. The survey makes review of the years of struggle for equal rights and its influence on settlement in the area including information about development planning in past, properties, demographic statistics, schools, social structures, trade on the street etc. It started with dominantly African Americans and through the years a few “white”, Italian households and Irish families also joined them. After 90ies Hispanic groups came and started forming new appearance.
In the beginning of 19th century Witherspoon street was called “African Lane”. African American community gradually expanded in the area. Later: “For most African Americans in Princeton, Witherspoon-Jackson was one of the very few places they could purchase a house and/or afford to live, reflecting both discrimination and economic disparity by the surrounding white community. The neighborhood contains a significant number of houses of worship, social organizations and service club. Preserved, these buildings will outlast the people who can still recall this time such that their story will never be forgotten”, excerpts from this report.
“Discrimination based on race created a dichotomy between the white and black communities that only in the last few decades has thankfully started to become undone. But it is also a story of incredible perseverance on the part of the Princeton’s African American community”. The survey itself doesn’t give the answer why in the past 20 years African American community left this area.
In past and now this part of town remains with most affordable residential buildings and low-income people / families may prefer to live in the community – forming surroundings and traditions. I am pretty sure we can find this process in many other bigger towns and cities which are telling us similar stories. After all things haven’t changed so much. Of course, we can choose between building on what we have, on past or changing, sometimes destroy and start over.
While describing the current situation the authors said, “This largely residential section has served as cradle to several emerging ethnic groups, including the Italian and Hispanic communities. But its dominant character was created and remains that of the African American community.” The experts recommend the examined area to be determined as historical district (including the Witherspoon street). Survey and District Evaluation, Witherspoon-Jackson Community Municipality of Princeton, NJ November 19, 2015.