Here’s some free advice (for whatever that’s worth) to the Princeton Borough Council (soon to be the Princeton Council, once the borough and township forms of government have merged). The advice is about those two octagonal-shaped information kiosks on Nassau Street, one at the corner of Witherspoon Street, across from Nassau Hall, the other at Vandeventer, in front of the Garden movie theater.
If you ever walk down Nassau Street and take a quick look at the kiosks you might think they are a grade school papier-mache project run amok. The word “plastered” is used in most every news reference to kiosks, as in “plastered with paper,” in all shapes and sizes, colors and grades, announcing all sorts of news and views. Lots of these postings come with handy pre-cut tabs at one end of the sheet, so that you can pull off a little reference note.
I stopped by the other day and grabbed contact information for a kids’ music program, a room for rent, a math and chemistry tutor, an opportunity to be a volunteer for a psychology experiment at $12 an hour, a new website (yet another) for Princeton-based Nintendo gaming enthusiasts, Sunday evening meetings of Zen devotees, and a job opening for an administrative assistant for the owner of an “art investment company.”
When viewed at a distance of about eight feet or more, all of it appears to be a mess — an inchoate jumble of paper flapping in the wind. But, up close, depending on your interests, there might be some snippet of useful information. Moreover, most of the postings are current. I saw notices for garage sales happening in the next day or so. I saw nothing that seemed out of date on a mid-September day.
But some of the politicians on Borough Council, encouraged by the Chamber of Commerce, see a different opportunity for the kiosks: A 21st century upgrade with interactive touch screen computer displays that would bring a dazzling array of information (possibly in several languages) to visitors, some other snappy presentations highlighting the cultural and educational resources in town, and, oh yes, some paid advertising. The chamber and the municipality have talked about splitting that revenue once the chamber’s initial investment in the technology was paid off. The most recent proposal has been tabled for further discussion, but it’s not off the table.
We can all imagine the arguments in favor of this move. Revenue for the town government. Revenue for the chamber. A content management system that will eliminate clutter. A sleek, high tech kiosk design that will dazzle a teenager from Japan.
We can also imagine how the inevitable objections can be dismissed. People need places to advertise or publicize spur-of-the-moment enterprises. Craig’s List can handle that, and no one uses classified ads anymore, either. People want to proclaim a political opinion. They can stand on the corner and hand out flyers. Of course, it would be preferable if they just posted their opinions online.
As neat as this idea sounds, my free advice is simple: Don’t do it. Leave the kiosks where they are, and allow them to function as they have been functioning. If you want an interactive electronic kiosk put it somewhere else.
Like it or not, the kiosks represent something very healthy about Nassau Street in Princeton that cannot be said about the main drag of many cities in America today. There’s a street life to Nassau — and the kiosks are only one manifestation of it. Labyrinth Books and Landau’s clothing store both place merchandise on display on the sidewalk. People stop and browse. Buskers play their guitars, cases open awaiting contributions. Panera Bread and PJ’s Pancake House now have tables on the sidewalk — at PJ’s the Saturday or Sunday line waiting to get in sometimes begin to block the flow of pedestrians. At that point a restaurant manager appears, herding people back into line.
While some restaurants reach out to the street, another one now allows the street to reach in. The newly opened Cheeburger Cheeburger has sliding windows that in nice weather allow diners inside to sit on the edge of an al fresco dining experience. Walk by and you can smell the artery-clogging beef sizzling on the plate. Yum.
That’s the beauty of a vibrant street life. The taxpayers have to pay for a street cleaner to come through once in a while.
Thorny issues like free speech get taken care of in the open market. If some nut wants to proclaim that the Holocaust never really happened or that the CIA planned the 9/11 attacks, he can be ignored, or shouted down. If he adds his wacky musings to the kiosks they can be torn down. And torn down again if they reappear.
So that’s my free advice on kiosks and on free speech (for what that is worth).