Any story that I would write about Bordentown City needs to begin with a few disclosures: I have lived there for five years, I covered it as a municipal reporter for three, and I ran a business there for one. And considering that a main focus of this story is residential real estate, I should also mention that I rent. I have little interest in owning a house right now and I could not afford one in town anyway.
That said, I am in absolutely no hurry to leave Bordentown. The city is quiet and congenial, historic and easy-going, and every inch my speed. It speaks a lot for any town that a municipal reporter who knows all the dirt would want to live there. Bordentown is no more or less magical than any other place, but it does have a welcome balance of friendliness and live-and-let-live. And not that much dirt. You can walk around and feel safe. More importantly, you can walk around and actually be safe. You stand more chance of harm from the sidewalks (and we’ll come back to that) than from anyone or any area.
Bordentown City’s major advantage is its geography. It is hemmed in by the Delaware River, the minuscule borough of Fieldsboro, and, mainly, by its larger brother, Bordentown Township. Large and suburban, Bordentown Township is what most people know of Bordentown. Two major state highways — routes 130 and 206 — and Interstate 295 cut large paths through the township, and various country roads lead you into the state’s farm belt.
So unlike its big brother (the city houses about 4,000 residents, the township about 16,000), Bordentown City is not a pass-through town. This is something that Maxine Brimmer, a real estate agent for Re/Max TriCounty in Hamilton, cites as a definite plus. The city is not closed off, but you are unlikely to simply stumble across it. To get there, you have to try.
If there is one real estate agent whose name everyone in Bordentown City knows it is Maxine Brimmer. Walk around the one-square-mile city and look at its 1,200-plus homes and you will see Brimmer’s name attached to most of the ones for sale. At any given time, there are about 30 properties for sale downtown and Brimmer’s photo adorns the signs in front of most.
Brimmer is every bit a townie. Now 58, she has lived in Bordentown all her life. In fact, she lives on the other end of Union Street from where she grew up. She got into the Bordentown real estate game a quarter century ago and laments only one thing about the city — that not enough people know about it.
Its relative anonymity, despite the occasional write-up in newspapers (the New York Times did a profile of the city in 2006, as did the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2005), is a major facet of Bordentown’s appeal, however. People who live here like the town the way it is. And we generally respect each others’ space.
Bordentown does go through its occasional resurgences in the public eye. Shortly after my wife and I opened our bookshop on Farnsworth Avenue in 2005, an influx of Philadelphia and New York expats moved in. Real estate prices rose to meet them in a still-blossoming market; houses that had once sold for $150,000 quickly broke the $200,000 mark, and for the first time, the city’s largest houses were selling for more than a half-million dollars.
The interesting thing is that when the residential real estate market turned to effluent in 2008 and 2009, Bordentown’s market did not suffer much. Brimmer says that because housing prices did not go up sharply during the mid-decade gold rush, they did not collapse once the bubble popped.
If you’re looking for a good-size house, one with multiple bathrooms and bedrooms and a piece of yard, Brimmer says, you will likely pay $300,000 to $400,000. Or, as she puts it, “half what you would pay in Princeton.”
The catch is the school system, which though not bad is not the feeder to elite colleges that the Princeton or West Windsor-Plainsboro districts are. However, if you do not have to worry about putting children through high school, there are bargains aplenty for those looking to live large. According to NJ Monthly magazine, the median housing price in the city is $190,000 and median taxes $5,500.
• #b#4 East Union Street#/b#: Built 1900. Victorian. Four bedrooms, 1.5 baths, wrap-around front porch, original woodwork, front and back stair cases, stained glass windows, and third floor office. #b#$398,900#/b#, taxes: $8,734. Listed: Maxine Brimmer, Re/Max Tri County, 609-587-9300.
• #b#96 Park Street#/b#: Built circa 1920. Colonial. Four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, high ceilings, hardwood floors, gas fireplace, and central air. #b#$384,700#/b#, taxes: $11,545. Listed: Brimmer, 609-587-9300.
• #b#112 Prince Street#/b#: Built circa 1835. Federal. Six bedrooms, 2.5 baths, original pumpkin pine floors, Italian marble mantles and hearth, built-in shelving in the kitchen, six panel doors, and original moulding. #b#$385,000#/b#, taxes: $9,332. Listed: ERA Advantage Realty, 609-298-4800.
• #b#78 East Union Street#/b#: Built 1950. Custom. Three bedrooms, 2.5 baths, entry foyer, formal living room with a fireplace flanked by bookcases and windows, bay window overlooking the front gardens, and French doors opening to a sunroom. #b#$487,500#/b#, taxes: $12,218. Listed: Prudential Fox & Roach Hamilton, 609-890-3300.
• #b#101 3rd Street#/b#: Built circa 1850. Farmhouse. Seven bedrooms, 1.5 baths, formerly used as a dormitory for the long-defunct Bordentown Military Institute. Several large rooms. #b#$419,000#/b#, taxes: $7,211. Listed: Auletta Realty, 609-298-8800.
• #b#507 Farnsworth Avenue#/b#, a.k.a. the Donnelley House: Built 1910. Victorian. Five bedrooms, two baths, wrap-around porch, stained glass windows, foyer with a chestnut staircase, butler’s pantry, and kitchen addition with separate breakfast room. Also features a two-room suite with a private entry used as a den and office. #b#$513,000#/b#, taxes $14,729. Listed: Martha Jane Weber, Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty, 609-924-1000.
Few of the waterfront manors — the most high-end homes in town — ever go up for sale. But at the far northwest end of Prince Street, where Thomas Paine’s statue watches over the neighborhood, is the largest cluster of properties with a view of the Delaware River and the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh. None are on the market, but if they were, Brimmer estimates they would probably go for $600,000 to $800,000. Put them in Princeton, she says, and they easily would start at $1 million.
#b#Old (really old) school#/b#. If you want a development-type unit for a house and you want 08505 as your ZIP code, you will have to move to the suburbs of Bordentown Township. Almost all of the city’s 1,900 domiciles are old buildings. Mine, a former large house that has been broken into apartments and retail space, is more than 100 years old, typical of downtown real estate. Many houses have plaques dating back to the Victorian and Civil War eras.
The age of the houses and commercial buildings downtown is one reason housing prices are half those of Princeton. Brimmer says a lot of old houses on the market here need updating, which offsets the relatively low purchase prices. A house that sells for, say, $400,000 might need another $200,000 worth of work put into it. Some can be costlier still. With no city-sponsored historic codes mandating upkeep, a large number of properties in the city go decades without significant maintenance, and the work needed to make them like-new can turn buyers away.
Also, many people do not see the charm of owning a house that two or three (or twenty) other families have lived in before, but Bordentown jealously guards its historic roots.
It is rich in Colonial and early New Jersey history (it was, after all, founded 100 years before the United States was), and the city does not look kindly on tear-downs and re-builds.
#b#Charm, defined#/b#. By the end of the 1990s an interesting parallel between the way towns were starting to rethink their developments and the way baseball teams had rethought their ugly, cereal bowl stadiums had evolved. In baseball, the trend was toward more intimate, stylized parks. Municipal planners quickly followed suit by developing quasi-urban towns with shopping districts, lofts, classical architecture, and everything else you’d find in a gentrified downtown.
But while towns like Robbinsville and Plainsboro have gone to great lengths to make their brand new town center concoctions look welcoming, Bordentown City is the real deal, and not easily replicated. Though the entire city is only a square mile, it has sleepy alleys, baseball parks, bluffs, bars, senior housing, cemeteries, and factories.
As far as what makes it a charming place, Brimmer says it is the sense of community. I have to agree with her. There are, as in any town, a few gossips and busy-bodies, but steer clear of them and everyone else is generally friendly and unintrusive.
“I love my neighbors,”“There’s such a strong sense of community here.” Her neighbors, for example, often mow her lawn and shovel snow for her. And they talk to each other.
For the record, I love my neighbors too. I don’t know their names, but they are perfect neighbors — clean, quiet, and they don’t borrow my stuff. I live in constant fear that any of them will move away.
#b#Must love animals#/b#. Bordentown City belongs to the pets. Particularly near the bluffs overlooking the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh and the marina, and around Thompson Street, cats own the sidewalk. They won’t bother you, but neither will they be impressed.
Dogs, too, are about as common as the people on the streets. On the nicer days, Prince Street, which runs parallel to Farnsworth Avenue’s storefront-heavy strip, is awash with people walking in lockstep with their dogs. It often is tough to tell who’s in charge.
#b#The music of the night#/b#. Depending on your proximity to the restaurants and bars on and around Farnsworth Avenue, you are likely to be treated to badly warbled showtunes as sung by (let’s call them well-spirited) revelers after last call. Bordentown City has one pure bar, the HOB (Heart of Bordentown), and a few restaurants that have liquor licenses and bars within. On a weekend night it is not uncommon for those walking home at 2-ish to catch the singing bug and let fly. What they lack in talent is made up for in boisterousness, but they usually just keep walking and make it out of earshot fairly quickly. Interestingly enough, the American Idol set doesn’t usually come out on worknights. Knock on wood.
I should mention also the music of the dawn, i.e., the street sweeper. If you are going to live anywhere in Bordentown City you will have to get adept at playing musical chairs with where you park your car. There is very little off-street parking in the city and the sweeper runs every weekday from spring to winter. Where you park your car on which days and at which times will mean the difference between you sleeping in a little and you racing to your Subaru in your shorts, hoping to avoid paying the $17 fine.
Doesn’t sound like a lot? Trust me, carelessness adds up fast, and unless you leave before it comes, you absolutely will get a ticket at least once. The sweeper starts at about 7:30 a.m. and it will make sure you wake up for work one day a week.
In fairness, however, Brimmer points out this: “At least they’re keeping the streets clean.” And the streets in Bordentown are, by and large, immaculate.
#b#Hair of the dog#/b#. I mentioned the bars, but I should fill you in further. The HOB is the townie bar. Marcello’s and Toscano, two very good Italian restaurants on Farnsworth Avenue, are for people who like a drink with dinner. Jester’s also is a restaurant with a bar, and tends to be more casual. The Farnsworth House is the city’s most storied restaurant. It’s been there for years and is the only building in town with a gigantic face of the town’s founder, Thomas Farnsworth, painted on it. Very cool owners and a good bar selection draw people in for a chat and a nosh. The Farnsworth House parking lot also hosts the summer’s farmer’s market every Wednesday night.
If, however, you’d rather forego the restaurants and pick up a six-pack (and up your meds), you’re in luck. Boyd’s Pharmacy, across the street from the Farnsworth House, is part drug store, part liquor store. It has a good selection of designer beers and a not-bad selection for the table wine drinker.
#b#Amen#/b#. If you are Christian, Bordentown City has you covered. In a city that measures one square mile, you can attend services as a Catholic, a Methodist, a Baptist, an Episcopalian, an African Methodist Episcopalian, or Presbyterian. You can also meet up with Unitarians and Quakers, but if you are Lutheran, you’ll have to head across Route 130/206 and drive about a half-mile into Bordentown Township.
If you’re Jewish, you can still worship downtown — the Temple B’Nai Abraham is right on Crosswicks Street. Overall, there are 10 houses of worship in Bordentown City.
#b#Watch your step#/b#. I told you I would get back to the sidewalks. Bordentown is built to stroll, particularly along Farnsworth Avenue or Prince Street.
But for God’s sake, look down! Bordentown is an old, old town and it makes for adventurous stepping, particularly if you’re outside the range of the streetlights. Many of the sidewalks near the Park Street area are made of bricks and their topography could not be more irregular if Frank Gehry designed them.
#b#Rock on#/b#. The Record Collector on the east end of Farnsworth Avenue moved into an abandoned bowling alley about four years ago and gave the city something it never had — night life. On most weekends and quite a few weeknights, the Record Collector hosts concerts by indie bands, up-and-comers, and bands famous for songs you would probably know if you heard. Peter Tork of the Monkees is a regular visitor, and names like Angela Bowie (wife of David) and comedian Gallagher have stopped by. Plus, if you’re into vinyl or Weird NJ magazine, this is the only place in town you’ll find either.
Beanwood Coffee, a cafe heavy on green living and fair trade, sits at the other end of Farnsworth avenue. It, like the Record Collector, offers live music, though Beanwood’s entertainment is decidedly more low-key and conducive to a small setting.
#b#Ah, fair city#/b#. Downtown Bordentown is occasionally descended upon by great numbers of people coming to one of three annual street fair events — Iris Fest and Street Fair in May and the Cranberry Festival in October. Get used to it, and either leave for the day or plan not to drive on certain days because it’s hard to get out of town and near-impossible to get back in.
The city has several minor annual events: the Halloween Ghost Walk that showcases Bordentown’s startling number of haunted abodes; the Little League baseball parade; the St. Patrick’s Day 5K run But the Street Fair and Cranberry Festival (the latter in recognition of the city’s largest employer, Ocean Spray Inc.) dwarf all other events combined. These two all-weekend events carry city stores through the rough patches. At our bookshop, my wife and I sold more in these two weekends than during any one month otherwise.
#b#Who is Tommy J. Sauce#/b#? If you have ever passed through Bordentown, heading south on Route 206, you have passed beneath Burlington County’s most legendary graffito — and one of Bordentown’s enduring mysteries. Sometime, 25, maybe 30 years ago or more, someone climbed onto the edge of the rail bridge at the end of Park Street and sprayed “Tommy J.” on one half and “Sauce” on the other. Over the years the spray paint faded with the tarnishing of the bridge beams. A few years ago Harris Auto Group placed an ad over the Tommy J. part and blacked out the Sauce part. Fans of Mr. Sauce immediately came to his defense, spraying “Sauce” and a heart in green and white, bolder and bigger than it was before.
Contemplating the identity of Tommy J. Sauce is somewhat of a pastime in Bordentown. Indeed, no one is really sure if Tommy J. and Sauce are the same person, though the scripts matched. We would all like to know, but at the same time, none of us really wants to know. Tommy, however, may no longer be with us. If you walk along Burlington Street, out of Bordentown and into Fieldsboro, you will pass beneath the I-295 overpass. Scrawled on the incline, in far less-ceremonious fashion, is the somber phrase, “Sauce R.I.P.”
But like the mystery man’s identity, the message is ambiguous. Does it mean that Tommy J. has shuffled off his mortal coil, or that someone publicly lamented the covering-over of his name before it was replaced with a vengeance? Bordentown hopes to never really know for sure.
#b#Facts and Figures#/b#
#b#People#/b#. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Bordentown City has 3,969 residents, 1,884 housing units, and a median per-capita income of $26,000. Median household income is listed at $47,279. Numbers from the 2010 Census will not be available until at least April.
#b#Education#/b#. The K-12 Bordentown Regional School District serves the city, township, and Fieldsboro (population, about 600). Bordentown Regional High School, which houses roughly 700 students, finished 218th in a field of 322 on NJ Monthly’s 2010 high school rankings. NJ Monthly does annual rankings of all high schools in the state and placed BRHS in the lower third based on such factors as average SAT score (1454 out of 2400), student-to-teacher ratio (12 to 1), and the number of graduates who go onto college. According to the magazine, 29 percent go on to a four-year college, while 53 percent go on to a two-year college.
The city hosts the Clara Barton Elementary School (grades K-3) and MacFarland Intermediate School (grades 4 and 5). The schools face each other across Crosswicks Street. The district also has Peter Muschal School (grades K-3 and pre-school handicapped programs), Bordentown Regional Middle School (grades 6-8), and Bordentown Regional High School (grades 9-12), all in the township, and all within two miles of the city border. Each of the lower schools houses 300-400 students.
The city also hosts St. Mary’s Elementary School, a K-8 Catholic school on Crosswicks Street, attached to St. Mary’s Church.
#b#Business#/b#. The largest company in Bordentown — and largest employer by a mile — is Ocean Spray, which employs about 275 people at its Park Street processing facility. Your reward for a well-timed drive-by is the sweet scent of cranberry, the plant’s staple product.
Other than Ocean Spray and a Beneficial Bank branch, Bordentown City’s business sector is entirely comprised of small enterprises and almost all of them are located on Farnsworth Avenue. There are no chain stores, but rather a grab bag of small medical practices, restaurants, retail shops, and a few service companies, such as insurance.
Nearly all businesses are mom-and-pop, so don’t look for a mall. The nearest indoor one of those is Quakerbridge. The closest major shopping center is Hamilton Plaza, up Route 130, near Robbinsville, though there is an Acme Plaza in Fieldsboro.
#b#Transportation#/b#. By far, Bordentown is the nicest place to stop if you travel the River Line light rail train, though that isn’t saying much in itself. Any train that begins in Trenton and ends in Camden is bound to have rough spots. But Bordentown’s station stop offers a nice little view of the city beach and marina, and whichever way you take the train out of town, it is a fine ride to the next station. Heading south to Roebling is the most scenic stretch of the line, but heading north to Trenton, along the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh, is a close second.
Bordentown is two stops to Trenton Transit Station, where you have to transfer to the Northeast Corridor (NEC) connection to Hamilton or Princeton. A monthly NJ Transit rail pass ($133 if traveling from Trenton to Princeton Junction) covers unlimited rides on the RiverLine and NEC line, so you don’t need a second pass once you get to Trenton.
The RiverLine leaves for Trenton every 15 minutes on weekday mornings and comes back to Bordentown at 15-minute intervals weekday evenings. In most cases it arrives in Trenton five minutes before the NEC takes off for Princeton Junction. If you can get to the next outbound NEC train, overall travel time from Bordentown Station to Princeton Junction is about 35 minutes.
What makes taking the train a nice option is the alternative — taking I-295 and Route 1, which is often hideous. Without question, the worst thing about my job is getting to it.
Getting out of Bordentown is easy enough by car, but the city is bordered partly by routes 130 and 206, and there is no way to drive to Princeton without taking one of these roads. The good news is, there is almost never any kind of back-up or traffic snarl on either.
The bad news is that anyone driving out of Bordentown to points north will have to contend with I-195 and I-295, where tie-ups can slowly suck the life from your bones. Bordentown, being largely uncongested and easily traversed, gives the driver no warning what is to come on the interstate, and sometimes — particularly on rainy or inclement mornings — traffic at the off-ramp of Route 206 getting onto I-195 goes totally dead.
Were you to drive from Farnsworth Avenue to Alexander Road on a sunny Sunday, mid-day, it would take you less than 20 minutes to make the trip. Catch a back-up at I-195 on a drizzly Tuesday and you could easily spend a half-hour just getting to the backed-up line waiting to get onto Route 1. It is best to estimate your morning drive at anywhere from 25 minutes to 45.
Getting home is usually no problem, but getting off I-295 onto I-195 (which is less than a mile to Route 206) can get ugly. An accident in this exit area can leave you on the road for a half-hour or more. But remember, once you get to Route 206, you’re at most two miles from your door and the traffic isn’t a problem.
#b#Government and politics#/b#. Though it has very little crime, Bordentown City does have its own police department, with about 15 officers. The City Commission is the non-partisan three-person governing body, and the city houses the offices of the 30th Legislative District, Senator Robert Singer and Assemblymen Joe Malone and Ron Dancer.
Also worth mentioning is that if you move to Bordentown, you will be a resident of Burlington County, the largest geographic county in the state. As such, the freeholders try to be as fair as possible by putting as much as they can as close to the center of the county, and Bordentown City is the northernmost municipality in Burlington County. The county seat is Mount Holly, which means that if you are called for jury duty, you face a long drive. If you need county services, a somewhat shorter drive will lead you to the Moorestown Mall, where the Burlington County Corner is located. This, like the Mercer County Connection in Hamilton, is an outpost for governmental affairs. You can apply for your passport, file a business name, or take care of any other county business during mall hours.
#b#Honorable mention#/b#. Similar to its school rankings, NJ Monthly ranks municipalities and placed Bordentown City at No. 135 (out of 520) in 2010.
Bordentown City has its own Post Office branch, which is great if you live close enough to walk to it. If you drive, you will have to contend with parking on or near Walnut Street and it can get a little dicey
Last but not least, Bordentown’s branch of the Burlington County Library System is a neat little spot that, if a little short on books, has a surprisingly good DVD collection that gets updated on a regular basis. If you like movies, it is worth a visit, and I am still surprised by the gems I have found. No foreign stuff, but you can find King Kong around the corner from Avatar.
More than any place else I’ve lived, I have adjusted to Bordentown’s rhythms. Having grown up in Trenton, it is a welcome change of pace, and always nice to not worry about leaving your car on the street, even with the sweeper coming. You could certainly do worse than Bordentown. And I say that from a lot of experience.