PRINCETON: Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood wants to maintain its heritage, diversity and affordability

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
One of Princeton s oldest neighborhoods is trying to hold on to its history, even as the passage of time reshapes a once thriving black community that has shrunk in the past three decades.
“Many families have been forced to sell their homes they owned for generations in order to accommodate commercialized gentrification” said local historian Shirley Satterfield on Saturday at the Pannell Center during a panel discussion about the Jackson-Witherspoon neighborhood. “This has already brought in irreversible changes in the neighborhood along with increasing fear that even the memory of it will disappear with its lasting, living witnesses.”
The session was one of the community events that have been part of the Joint Effort-Princeton Pete Young Sr. Memorial Safe Streets Weekend organized by former Princeton resident John Bailey.
Ms. Satterfield, a fixture in the community, sat at the same table with former Mayor Jim Floyd, Princeton Housing Authority chairman Leighton Newlin and Council President Bernard P. Miller to have a free-flowing discussion with residents about some of the challenges big and small facing that part of town.
Saturday’s topics ran the gamut from affordable housing to the parking nightmares that the annual Communiversity street festival poses for worshippers of the black churches.
As part of preserving the past, the town will look to designate historic sites within the neighborhood. Ms. Satterfield pointed to the loss of two buildings, including a Masonic temple on Maclean Street.
“I’m really concerned about what we’re losing”, she said.
Yet for a discussion about the Jackson-Witherspoon neighborhood, the faces in the audience and on the panel were either black or white — none Latino. A large influx of immigrants from Central America have moved into what historically was the black section of town.
Through the years, the black population has found itself unable to afford to live in town. The need for affordable housing is one that local officials say they recognize.
“There is no question in my mind that there is a commitment on the part of all of the elected officials to maintain diversity in this community, all kinds of diversity,” Mr. Miller said.
The town mandates that developers set aside 20 percent of new housing as affordable, such that the 280-unit AvalonBay development at the old Princeton Hospital site on Witherspoon Street will have 56 affordable units.
“Now, affordable housing and housing that is affordable are two very different things,” Mr. Newlin said. He said the affordable units at AvalonBay will be priced at a median income of people in Princeton, with the rentals based on that income.
One site identified for affordable housing is a parking lot on Franklin Avenue that Princeton University owns and plans to give to the town. Mr. Newlin said the authority would like to see that lot developed as a mixed-use project with retail and housing units priced to accommodate people of different incomes.
In that way, the authority is interested in putting families now living in its 20-unit Maple/Franklin development there. That would enable the authority to demolish Maple/Franklin and rebuild it to hold 60 units.
Yet on the other hand, some residents whom Mr. Newlin called the Jefferson/Franklin Avenue consortium community want the parking lot to become a park.
“There is going to be a dog fight not only to use part of the parking lot for additional affordable housing but also the fight that we are going to have to wage for greater density,” Mr. Newlin said.
In his remarks, Mr. Floyd said Communiversity should be back to being on Saturdays instead of Sundays. He urged residents to sign a petition to that effect.
“No one will hear you if you don t speak up,” said Mr. Floyd, who has lived in Princeton since the 1940s. “Our churches to us are the places of assemblage, places of discussion. It’s still our place of refuge,” he continued.
The rationale for having the festival on Sunday rather than Saturday was in response to merchants concerns about losing business.
“My thought is that if Communiversity is on a Saturday and all of the stores are open, how do you lose business, how do you lose money when thousands of tons of people (are) in town?” Mr. Bailey asked.