When you walk through Princeton, you are walking through history. Occasionally there are historical plaques or statues, but just as often the site of a historical event or a significant building goes unmarked and unnoticed. Isabelle “Izzy” Kasdin, the director of the Historical Society of Princeton, has a plan to change that, not by festooning the town with signs, but by using the powerful computers everyone carries in their pockets.
“With smart phones able to geolocate, it knows exactly where you are, and it can tell you exactly what happened in that spot,” Kasdin says. “I think that’s an articulation of why I think local history is so important. It’s what a lot of people call place-based history.”
It turns out that the GPS device and mapping capabilities of cell phones can be used for more than just catching Pokemon. The Historical Society has an extensive archive of documents, maps, photos, and oral history recordings made by local residents. Kasdin is exploring ways to integrate these resources into smartphone apps, bringing history to life all over town. Ideally you could stand in a place and read a bit about it or listen to an audio clip about the history that happened there.
A great place for such a program would be Palmer Square, whose true historical significance lies behind a faux colonial facade. “People believe the Nassau Inn and the Nassau Taproom are from the 18th century, which they’re not,” Kasdin says. “The entirety of Palmer Square was built in the 1930s to look like it was built in the 18th century.”
Before Palmer Square was built, the site of the shopping center was a mostly black neighborhood. The relocation of its residents to make way for the commercial district was an early example of what would become a recurring theme in American cities, especially as “urban renewal” projects began after World War II.
“Usually urban renewal resulted in hyper-modern awful 1960s architecture,” Kasdin says. “But Palmer Square was built to look like Princeton might have looked several hundred years ago. It hides itself well There’s a much more complicated story.”
Imagine walking through Palmer Square while hearing an interview with a resident talking about what the neighborhood was like before the square was built, and how it changed their life to move away from their home. That’s one way that Kasdin hopes she can get more people to engage with history.
The history of Palmer Square is somewhat obscure compared to the Battle of Princeton or the Albert Einstein house at 112 Mercer Street. However, Kasdin says that historians and academics look at the historical society’s documents about Palmer Square more often than any other topic. Kasdin believes the community would benefit from such place-based history being more widely known.
“History is important to building good global citizens who can relate to each other and appreciate people who come from different perspectives than their own,” she says.
Kasdin will speak at a Princeton Chamber of Commerce event on Wednesday, September 21, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club. For more information, call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org. Tickets are $25, $40 for nonmembers.
Kasdin has a personal connection to Princeton history, since she grew up in the town. Her father, Jeremy, is a professor of aerospace engineering at the university, and her mother, Rakefet “Kef” Kasdin, is a venture capitalist who invests in renewable energy and was a partner at Battelle Ventures. Kasdin learned to love history at a young age.
“I was a really avid reader as a kid, to the point where my parents had to create a ‘no reading at the dinner table’ rule and I would have my books under the dinner table. Historical fiction was my favorite genre by far, and I do think that was perhaps my entry point. It informed my perspective about what history could and should be like when interpreted for the general public.
“I got excited about these stories about individual people in their own struggles. I was in the 1990s, and these people were in the 1780s, but still felt like we had something in common. That’s why local history is engaging. It’s an equalizer. You’re looking at events in the same place as you, and there’s something very relatable about that.”
Kasdin studied history at Princeton University, focusing some of her independent work on Princeton’s local history, and graduating with honors and several prestigious prizes in 2014. She earned a master’s in archaeological heritage and museums at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 2015. Armed with degrees from Princeton and Cambridge, Kasdin could likely have made a career almost anywhere.
But when she returned to the U.S., she reconnected with the Historical Society, where she had volunteered starting in high school, and was hired as a curator. “I think I was offered a real tremendous opportunity to come back to Princeton as a curator. I knew the local history, and I was really passionate about how local history functions in the context of introducing people to history, and how important it is for communities,” she says. “It would feel somewhat disingenuous to be interpreting the local history of a town that I moved to two days ago. It feels very special to be interpreting history in a place where I feel like I am a part of that history.”
In May of this year, at the age of 24, Kasdin was appointed executive director of the organization. One of her goals for the group is to make history relevant to the public. Using technology is one means to that end. Another is the society’s new headquarters at Updike Farmstead, where it recently relocated from its old Nassau Street quarters. The new campus has a large barn that is being converted into an event space and research center. She wants residents not only to learn the history of their town, but to contribute to it, especially if they are older residents who saw historical events unfold firsthand.
“Local history museums and organizations are part of this complicated algorithm that is community development,” she says, invoking the sociological concept of a third place: that is, most people have a first place, home, and a second place, work, where they spend their time. But a “third place” is where people gather as equals and where communities are built. She wants the historical society to become an important third place. “Third places are essential to local democracy and social vitality in the community,” she says.