This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
Forty years ago, on a lovely spring morning, I put my three-year-old daughter into a stroller and walked four blocks to the playground at the Harrison Street Park, located just below Nassau Street. At the time, this was one of four no-parking parks in Princeton, small areas without dedicated public parking. Today there are six and all, to some degree, are anachronisms, vestiges of the social thinking of a century ago.
Public playgrounds came into being in response to industrialization and urban density. “Inasmuch as play under proper conditions is essential to the health and the physical, social, and moral wellbeing of the child, playgrounds are a necessity for all children as much as schools,” the Playground Association of America declared at its founding in 1906. Crowded cities throughout the country began to set aside small play areas for children at a time when cars had yet to become ubiquitous. While there are no found records of the first playgrounds here in Princeton, our town did have active summer playground programs in the 1930s.
Since we were not crowded and there was no industry, I find that rather admirable. And the playgrounds were situated in locations — such as the John Street area and the eastern side of town — where the lots are small and the houses close together. I am, however, a little suspicious of the goals — they were, as a community paper reported in 1938, to develop “good habits and fine character.” And this being Princeton in the 1930s, there was a playground for “the colored children” and two others for the rest of the younger population.
None of these points — segregation, character building — were evident as I entered the Harrison Street Park four decades ago. As I recall, it consisted of some swings, a slide, and a bench or two. There was a wading pool, but it was empty and enclosed by a high metal fence with a sturdy lock. There was nothing, I believe, that was conducive to building either good habits or fine characters. What the 3.5-acre park did offer, in spite of its somewhat run-down setting, was a place for both me and Katherine to get out of the house. And with its many trees and peacefulness, it was rather bucolic.
As Planning Board Chairwoman Wanda Gunning recently explained to me, the property was left to Princeton University in 1940 and destined to become a 49-unit housing development. That fell through during the war years and then in 1948 the Borough turned down another garden apartment plan because of needed zoning variances (parking surely had to be one of them). Finally the Borough purchased the property in 1952 and made it part of its playground programs — a setting without any public parking.
Slowly but surely the equipment and setting deteriorated each year, with flooding during heavy rainstorms a major problem. Part of this neglect was due to the construction of the Community Park complex in 1966. It featured the first outdoor, 50 meter deck-level pool in the country. Even more to the point, there was an abundance of parking for residents to participate in the wide range of programs and sport activities. Indeed, both my daughters (Anne followed Katherine) participated in their superb summer swimming programs in the early 1980s.
There were also other demands for public spending. Because of their limited access, the no-parking parks, often referred to as pocket parks, have always had a hard time attracting financial notice.
In 1973, for example, it took several neighborhood mothers — among them Regine Hirsch and Sharon Powell — to convince the Borough to rehabilitate the small park at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Chestnut Street. In a July 5, 1973, letter to the editor in which she thanked everyone involved, Borough Council member Barbara Sigmund noted that “this lesson in parent power should not be missed.”
It would appear that this appeal was taken to heart by those living near the last large piece of undeveloped property in the Borough. This 4.2-acre property, located at the dead end of Spruce Street, was an abandoned quarry that had evolved into a free garbage dump. For more than 20 years, condominium developers had been eying the land — at one point a 150-car underground garage was part of the plan. In 1974 neighbors in the area formed the Quarry Park Association, which was instrumental in seeing that the property was preserved, with an infusion of Green Acres funds, in 1977.
In 1983 Sigmund, then a candidate for mayor, floated the idea of an “Adopt-A-Park” program, one in which banks or corporations would maintain parks. That sunk and continued to do so in succeeding years. In 1990, as part of her last mayoral address, Sigmund once again put forward the idea. This time there was a $5,000 response from David Sengstack, the publisher who owned the copyright to the song “Happy Birthday,” who designated the money for the Hamilton Avenue Park.
The search for financial support has not been the only hurdle facing no-parking parks. At times they have been in the crossfire of those seeking land for public housing and those wishing to preserve small spaces for nearby residents. Affordable housing advocates thought the Hamilton Avenue Park would be perfect for their goals. This being Princeton, there were lots of newspaper headlines and meetings on this issue. In 1987 part of Hamilton Avenue Park was eliminated so that affordable housing could be built. Four years later, in 1991, the remainder of the park was dedicated to Sigmund, who had died the year before and who had so eloquently championed Princeton parks.
The following year, 1992, the John Street Playground was renamed the Mary B. Moss Playground. Mrs. Moss, a teacher at the Princeton Nursery School, was an administrator for the summer programs for “the colored children” in the 1930s and 1940s. And just two years ago, in a somewhat ironic turn, the municipality bought the house next to the playground to substantially increase its area and make it more inviting for neighborhood children — and eliminating a potential affordable housing site in the process.
The early 1990s appear to be the era of renaming small parks without receiving corporate financial contributions. The Erdman Avenue park was renamed the Theodore R. Potts Park in honor of the man who was instrumental in developing the Princeton Shopping Center and much of the surrounding area (the name Tee-Ar Place contains the phonetic spelling of his first two initials).
While Quarry Park has yet to be named in honor of an individual, there is a very special corner designated as Maggie’s Playground, and I find it a touching example of how much Princeton’s small parks mean to surrounding neighborhoods. The playground is in memory of Maggie McCormick, who was 19 months old when she died in 1998. Her parents, Susan Lenz and Dean McCormick, called the park her favorite place in Princeton. They had spent many happy hours with Maggie there and in recognition of that they raised money to create the enclosed playground so that others could also have such memories.
With the maintenance of parks both large and small so important to the Princeton community, a task force chaired by Larry Parsons was established in 2001 to survey the subject. After noting that Princeton has more than 1,000 acres of parks, Parsons cited the recent overwhelming approval of the open space tax as an indication of the community’s interest in open space management and urged the creation of a new parks management position. Such a position and an administrative assistant, he said, was estimated to have an annual cost of $100,000. “These are minimal costs versus the $154 million land value [of the parks],” Parsons noted. The request was referred to a committee, a hallowed burying place for all sorts of ideas.
Fortunately, as far as small parks are concerned, our current Freeholder Andrew Koontz was elected to Borough Council the following year. Koontz and his wife had relocated from Brooklyn, where they lived near Prospect Park and saw how important a park could be to a community. As they walked around town, they came across Harrison Street Park. “It was so tired looking,” he says, “with nothing having been done for years. It definitely needed some TLC.”
It took more than a decade and a seat on Borough Council to see that TLC come to fruition. Koontz’s baptism under fire, so to speak, came with the rehabilitation of Bradford Park. This little park, formerly known as Pine Street Park, is so small that it is not even listed on today’s municipal web site though I have been assured that it is indeed maintained by the Recreation Department. It is named for David Bradford, an economics professor at Princeton who had lived on the street and died in a tragic accident in 2005 when he attempted to remove a burning Christmas tree from his home.
As Koontz recalls, the little park was “hard to envision as there was no grass and it was so run down.” He was instrumental in convincing the Borough to contribute $25,000 to redo the park and to have all the work carried out by its Department of Public Works. A consultant drew up a plan, which included a lawn area, benches, and a picnic table, and a new whirl toy. The last is similar to a tiny carousel that tots can hold onto and be turned around.
All was fine until spring, 2006, when the whirl was installed. The Pine Street neighbors, as Queen Victoria was wont to comment, were not amused. The whirl was loudly banished to the Public Works garage on Harrison Street. While it sat ingloriously and unloved, taking up much room in a dark spot, Koontz had been busy spearheading campaigns to raise money for other Princeton parks, among them Potts Park.
With grant money in hand, Koontz turned to fellow Council member Mark Freda and asked if there was any chance that Potts Park might like a whirl. Potts Park would, Freda assured him. That’s why, should you visit the park today, you can see a spiffy whirl in one corner and, should children be there, hear their cries of glee as they are spun around.
Koontz next tackled the renovation of Harrison Street Park. This was a multi-year effort and figuratively served as a goodbye present when he left Borough Council in 2010 to serve as a Mercer County Freeholder. The park had long needed a champion. In 1993 a Town Topics letter suggested (to no avail) that the university should play a major role in its upkeep. Three years later, some thought it would be an ideal location for affordable housing. By 2002 the Borough’s Engineering Department had said that it would welcome suggestions for upgrading the park. And in Marvin Reed’s mayor’s address in January, 2003, he declared that “we’re working on Harrison Street Park.”
As Koontz explained in a recent interview, “I sought to professionalize and bring a more governmental approach to parks. Volunteers are crucial but you need legal entities to write proposals, ensure legal requirements, and guarantee results.”
Volunteers, as it turned out in the seven-year odyssey from 2003 to 2010, were not only crucial but vocal. There was much for neighbors to not only discuss but to argue about: resurfacing the basketball court (especially its color), replacing dilapidated playground equipment, thinning overgrown trees, improving drainage, and removing the wading pool. Others joined the discussions — there were many back-and-forth letters to the editor among Council members as to the necessity and cost of the upgrade.
Finally, work on the Harrison Street Park was completed in 2010. My husband and I visited it recently and can attest to its vast improvement. What I found particularly neat are the toys that are scattered about. I don’t know who has left them but they are there for children to play with. In fact, they can be found at all the little no-parking parks (our grandson has enjoyed them at the Barbara Sigmund Park).
For a while, it looked like the Mary Moss Park was in competition with Harrison Street as to how long it would take to be refurbished. After about three years of suggestions (including the creation of an artificial turf field), arguments (the land should become an affordable housing site) and negotiations (grant money had been received), the park was expanded and design concepts submitted and approved in 2016. Work on the new park was scheduled to start this spring but when I drove by in mid-June, it remained a fenced-in green lot.
But when it is completed, it will be a wonderful local resource. All these parks are special gems within their Princeton neighborhoods. As our no-parking parks champion Andrew Koontz says, “These parks allow those without large backyards the opportunity to get outside and gather in a safe environment. Not only that, it’s great to give children a place to have unstructured play.”
Koontz also echoes a 1961 directive issued when the summer playground program opened: “It is requested that dogs be kept at home.”
Park in the spotlight
When you visit the Harrison Street Park today you will see a mecca for toddlers. But back in the late 1950s through around 1972, it was known as a Camelot for sports — and even the subject of a 1967 Sports Illustrated article celebrating its players.
The catalysts for the sports activity were Bob Smyth and Bob James (yes, the Princeton High School track was named for him in 2013), two youngsters whose homes bordered the property. “They built the Harrison Street Playground right behind my house; we watched it go up before our eyes,” Smyth told Town Topics in 2010. The park soon became the hub where kids played sports throughout the year. In 1960 that activity became a bit more formal when Smyth and James founded the Harrison Athletic Club (HAC), which fielded teams in flag football, basketball, and softball.
The chronicler of the Harrison Athletic Club who wrote the account that appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1967 was one of the club’s members, George Packard, chairman of the English department at Princeton Day School.
Packard’s story, “It Was Only a Game of Touch,” was introduced to readers by the Sports Illustrated publisher. “To keep the dramatis personae straight, Tree is a tentacled tight end, Ham is a red-dogger who sounds like a locomotive going over a bridge and Buffalo is a con-artist coach who refers to a passer as a ‘t’rower.’ They and the rest of the Harrison Street Athletic Club are a decidedly earthy lot for a bunch of Princetonians. So is the game they play, which is not the kind of touch football Ethel Kennedy plays at Hyannisport.”
Packard’s fictionalized account set the team’s antics in a town he called North Paterson. “I changed the name to North Paterson,” he told the Sports Illustrated editors, “because Princeton doesn’t seem like it would produce people like Tree, Ham and Buffalo.”
HAC was deemed more than impressive due to the diversity of its members. “The guys in it were from all walks of life,” Smyth told Town Topics. “We had policemen, lawyers, a professor of mathematics, state workers, electricians, house painters, roofers, and post office workers.” The bonds were so tight that the Harrison Athletic Club has had decade reunions, the most recent its 50th in 2010 when members returned from around the country to celebrate. As one member said, the days with Harrison Athletic Club were magical.