By James Steward
When considering the long history of Princeton, most of us probably think about the major events — revolution, scientific innovation, social movements — that comprise our town’s place in the context of our region, nation, and world. However, I think it equally important to appreciate the role of community as a constant force propelling our town through centuries of change and challenge.
Just a few weeks ago, the power of community was on display at the opening celebration of Art@Bainbridge, a gallery project of the Princeton University Art Museum inside Nassau Street’s historic Bainbridge House. The house, dating back to 1766, has a rich history in relation to revolution and community engagement, having served variously as a place of lodging for members of the Continental Congress and much later as home to the Princeton Public Library and later the Historical Society of Princeton.
At the ceremony marking the latest incarnation of this historic home as a visual arts venue, the speakers — including Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, University President Chris Eisgruber, and Princeton Merchants Association President Jack Morrison — spoke to themes of partnership. But the true demonstration of community came when the front door swung open and thousands of our neighbors joined in a celebration of Princeton’s history and future.
The spirit of cooperation and recommitting ourselves to our town’s vitality will be important as our community faces an upcoming challenge that, while small in comparison to others in our history, will require our collective spirit of collaboration — and patience.
On Wednesday, Nov. 6, Alexander Road is scheduled to close between Faculty Road and Canal Pointe Boulevard to allow for the replacement of two bridges and a culvert. Construction on this major thoroughfare is currently anticipated to continue until March, 2020.
This closure will affect virtually all of us who live, work, attend school, shop, dine, or attend events in downtown Princeton. Led by the efforts of the municipality, the Princeton Merchants Association (PMA), and other businesses and organizations, planning is underway to help all of us weather the disruption and thrive as a community.
In the weeks leading up to the closure, information about the details of the construction project, recommended alternative routes, and suggested strategies to minimize congestion and continue to bring visitors downtown will be rolled out. The PMA has prepared a toolkit with recommendations and resources to help employers anticipate and manage potential issues for both staff and customers, including tips and templates that should be helpful for retailers who need to motivate and inform consumers through the critical holiday shopping season. For PMA members and other interested parties, a special information session has been scheduled for Thursday, October 10, at 8:30 a.m. in the Community Room at Princeton Public Library.
The PMA and local organizations are also planning special events to continue attracting into Princeton the visitors who are a vital part of our community and economy. These efforts will focus especially on the upcoming holiday season, as we build on Princeton’s tradition of providing festive, family-friendly experiences that speak to the unique appeal of downtown Princeton. Final plans will be made in the coming weeks, but speaking for a moment only to events emanating from the Princeton University Art Museum, the season will be highlighted by new works of public art by artists including Maya Lin and Yinke Shonibare, a vibrant season of exhibitions, and the first season of exhibitions at Art@Bainbridge.
Other organizations and businesses are working diligently to create similarly compelling reasons to draw visitors to downtown during the period of the Alexander Road construction, augmenting their traditionally exciting programming. Think, for example of, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” coming up at McCarter Theatre, or a season of programming at the Princeton Public Library, the Arts Council of Princeton, Historic Morven, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra — to name but a few.
We have by no means forgotten the recent challenges surrounding parking in downtown Princeton. Our collective pledge to the wider communities around us — and indeed to downtown’s merchants and other businesses — is that historic downtown Princeton remains vibrant and open for businesses.
Much as we shall work to minimize the problems and frustrations created by the short-term closure of Alexander Road, we shall also work to convey the message that downtown Princeton continues to be a unique destination and that it is worth the effort to discover it. Much of Princeton’s longevity is rooted in a history of community spirit, coming together to face obstacles. We look forward to bringing that same spirit to the upcoming months of traffic challenge.
James Steward is Director of the Princeton University Art Museum and a board member of the Princeton Merchants Association.