This article was originally published in the August 2017 Princeton Echo.
Many people know William H. Whyte as the author of the 1956 bestseller, “The Organization Man.” But the Fortune magazine editor and writer was also a student of urban planning, and his 1980 book, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” set forth principles still evident in cities around the world. A vibrant city space, Whyte postulated, is a space used by people, even if the “use” is no more than watching other people. An unused space can quickly become an urban blight.
Landscape designer Peter Soderman and architect and builder Kevin Wilkes are putting Whyte’s principles to work in the 11-foot-by-80-foot sliver of open (and until now unused) space between Starbucks coffee and Landau’s clothing store on Nassau Street. As an ignored slice of land, Soderman notes, Dohm Alley would not just be empty space, it would be “negative space.”
The all-volunteer team sees Dohm Alley, named after the family that owns the land and the adjoining building at 102-108 Nassau Street, as a bustling site of formal and informal gatherings, exhibitions, and presentations that showcase Princeton’s intellectual capital.
A patterned bluestone floor has already been installed (for free) by Joe Ruvolo of Livingston Park Nursery in North Brunswick. Artist and sculptor Pete Abrams, sound designer Rob Gorton, architect Richard Chenoweth, and others have been at work. Wooden benches now line either side of the alley. And the arched framework for two canopies that will cover two sections of the alley has been installed. The installation already has electricity and water — courtesy of Starbucks next door.
Noting that the 4 degree slope of the alley down from Nassau Street is just about the same as that of the Garden movie theater down the street, Soderman says that the plan calls for an eight-foot movie screen at the lower end. Art openings, poetry readings, and book signings are all part of the planned mix.
“This is our third act,” says Soderman, referring to Writers’ Block and Quark Park, the thematic sculpture installations that enjoyed temporary homes in the once vacant lot on Paul Robeson Place where the Residences at Palmer Square now stand. “We’re hoping this one can match the others.”
Known as Design @ Dohm Alley (or D@DA, for short, a tribute to the avant garde art movement that began 101 years ago), the alley project could easily match the Paul Robeson Place projects. For one thing there is no major housing project, or any other kind of development, looming in the background for this small urban space. For another, Dohm Alley is located in the very heart of downtown, on the busiest block of Nassau Street, virtually across the street from one of the main entrances to Princeton University. Soderman quotes P.T. Barnum: “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.”
Dohm Alley has already had a soft opening for its first installation, a tribute to the Romantic poets. So what’s left to be done? Soderman and Wilkes mention the movie and podcasting infrastructure, the canopies, a fountain, and soft landscaping. “Our problem,” Soderman says, “is that we are weak in the fundraising area.”
Maybe, but Dohm Alley has partnered with the nonprofit planning group, Princeton Future, headed by Wilkes, whose board endorsed the idea. As a result tax-deductible contributions can be made online, or checks payable to Princeton Future with the memo saying “for Design @ Dohm Alley” can be mailed to PO Box 1172, Princeton 08542. Another $30-$40,000 is needed.
Soderman, Wilkes, & Co. may not exude the buttoned-down efficiency of the “organization men” profiled by Whyte, but they do have “sponsorship packages” ranging from $30,000 down to $100. And a poster now mounted in the alley thanks dozens of town residents and businesses who have already donated to the project.
Wilkes sees Dohm Alley as a continuation of the “Nassau Street retail ligature,” except that “we’re not selling anything.” Soderman puts it another way: “The product in this town is knowledge.” At Dohm Alley, free samples are available.