Maybe you were at the Communiversity celebration last month in downtown Princeton, and maybe you saw the Balloon Man plying his trade on the crowded sidewalk. With children packed around him, the Balloon Man created animals, space ships, superheroes, and all sorts of complex creatures in response to his imaginative constituency. All he asked in return was a $1 donation — a free will offering, no doubt worded to avoid some sort of bureaucratic rule or regulation.
Students of urban planning will advise that you should celebrate sidewalk vendors such as the Balloon Man. Like the people selling hotdogs from push carts and "Rolex" watches on the sidewalks of Manhattan, these vendors are the capstone of a successful marketplace. It’s as old a tradition as the first open air markets of medieval times, and the origin of the word "mall," which derives from its name of the game of "pall-mall" played in those markets. Would you want to shop in a store that never had any other customers? Would you want to park on a street with no other cars? Would you — or could you — find work in a city with no rush hour traffic?
And as Barbara Fox reports in this week’s cover story (page 43), the founders of Princeton Future were drawn to their cause by the unused expanse of land on Paul Robeson Place on the edge of Princeton’s central business district. Their goal was to preserve some of the town’s heterogeneity with the inclusion of low-income housing in that area. Imagine: Affluent people rubbing shoulders with working class folk on the same sidewalks where children are being entertained by a balloon man. Let’s go there.
Of course, in a town like Princeton, a few people will be skeptical about any organization, no matter how noble its motives. Princeton Future has raised eyebrows. Some wonder if architect Robert Geddes, one of the founders of Princeton Future, resents fellow architect Michael Graves, whose design for a new Arts Council building on the edge of the central business district has been roundly criticized throughout the planning process. Others worry that Princeton Future has made itself a "shadow government," influencing public events without subjecting itself to the public electorate.
Someone from outside of Princeton Borough might also wonder why a private organization is even needed to help determine the future of Princeton’s downtown? Where is the Princeton Borough Council — supposedly representing the people, after all — in all this planning?
Here we go back to the Balloon Man. The sad fact is that, in recent years, Borough Council has not distinguished itself as an agent of change in Princeton Borough. It has dithered about on crucial questions such as the renovation of the public library (library trustees actually considered moving the library out of the downtown and into the encircling Princeton Township), the Arts Council (which has also threatened to move out), and affordable housing and parking in the central business district.
Members of Council, of course, will argue otherwise. Not only are they looking out for the longterm public interest, they are fulfilling the public interest. Hence their reelection — year after year — by landslide margins. What even they may not consider, however, is that they are all Democrats, and they are running against a Republican Party that seems to lack the critical mass to mount a serious challenge.
I had a chance to see Borough Council in action a few years ago, when that august body decided to write an ordinance to take away a tiny parking space that had existed for at least 30 years on an alley beside my house. Since the borough was simultaneously raising parking meter rates and extending meter hours on the street in front of my house, and since overnight parking in Princeton is essential, I believe, to the preservation of single-family homes in town, I put up a futile fight that lasted several years and a half dozen public meetings and several attorney reviews (the borough’s attorney, not mine).
Along the way I met Arnie Brownell, the Balloon Man, who at that same time was being harassed by borough authorities for his sidewalk entertainment. At one point the Council directed a plain-clothed police officer to provide surveillance of the Balloon Man in action.
One evening at Borough Council, Arnie and I chatted while the governing body pontificated for more than two hours about his balloons and my parking space. Brownell described himself as an alcoholic who had fallen into balloon-making. As the town fathers (and mothers) droned on about how they might fine-tune an ordinance to keep people of his ilk off the sidewalks, the Balloon Man turned to me and said, "I can’t believe this. I’m just an old drunk and here they are spending all this time on me."
But I could believe it, and maybe the founders of Princeton Future could believe it as well. They have taken the planning challenge into their own hands. I wish them more luck than I had with my parking space.