Taneshia Laird bought a house in the West Windsor neighborhood of Windsor Haven in 1999 so that she and her husband, New York City commuters, would be close to the Princeton Junction train station. At the time Laird was working on commercial real estate development projects, including residential buildings in Harlem. But when she took a job as director of Trenton’s division of economic development, she was obliged, under the terms of her employment, to move to the city.
Looking for a house in Trenton in 2005, Laird centered her search on the train station. Her husband, Roland Laird, vice president of technology for a Swiss American Securities, a Credit Suisse subsidiary, works in Manhattan, and he wanted the same easy commute that he enjoyed from Windsor Haven. Laird was thinking of her husband’s convenience, but she also had her eye on the family’s bottom line.
“Our Windsor Haven house doubled in value because of the train station,” she says. She is convinced that she and her husband will reap the same appreciation in their new South Clinton Avenue home, which is a stone’s throw away from the new train station, where an ambitious rebuild is nearing completion. Her bet on appreciation is based in some part on her experience in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where she saw apartments in projects she marketed in once sketchy sections soar in value. As much as people want an easy commute, she says, they also increasingly want downtown living.
When Laird chose the house she wanted, she met with skepticism. Troy Vincent, the former pro football player and Trenton resident, who is now a commercial real estate developer, has worked on projects with Laird. Told of her impending move, she reports that he said “You’re paying $250,000 for a house on South Clinton Avenue?” Her husband was even less enthusiastic. Shown the rundown house his wife wanted to purchase, his reaction was disbelief. He said “We’re moving here?”
Yes, she told one and all.
“Look,” she says, “it’s 3,000 square feet. It’s my dream house. I was able to finish it any way I wanted to. This would be $1 million in Manhattan.”
Laird, who left her demanding job in the division of economic development after the birth of her daughter, Imani, two years ago, is now executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association, and is, she says, “involved in the train station development in at least three different ways.”
Her involvement began as she worked to push through plans to rebuild the station and to attract development to it during her time in the office of economic development. She is involved as a home owner living near the station, and as head of the city’s Downtown Association. And she is also involved in a new role. Along with Roland Pott, real estate broker and principal in the Urban Word, she has been asked by Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer to communicate with residents in the community around the train station. She and Pott are to listen to their concerns and keep them up to date on what is happening with development around the train station, where three major office complexes and a number of residential projects are on the drawing board.
Laird grew up in White Plains, “poor in an advantaged environment.” Her mother worked for Head Start, and she received her early education in a magnet school in the city. Watching the development of the city itself was also an education, teaching her about urban trends. Laird says that she and her mother watched White Plains go from a place where “you could do cartwheels down the street” to a bustling city. Parts of Trenton have gone in the opposite direction. Once a thriving city with a busy downtown, the city’s core is now struggling to attract private businesses, restaurants, and stores. It is trying to become more than a place where state workers toil from 9 to 5, before heading home to the suburbs.
Trenton has a good chance of cashing in on the same commuter weariness and suburban burn-out that she sees among her friends and neighbors, says Laird. The city is better positioned than many, she says, giving White Plains as an example. “Mass transit from White Plains isn’t nearly as good as it is from Trenton,” she says. The city’s train station is really a transportation hub. A stop for far more Amtrak trains than any other station in New Jersey, with the exception of Newark, it also hosts New Jersey Transit trains, SEPTA trains, the River Line to Camden and intermediate points, and a number of bus routes.
Laird thinks that living near the station is a good plan, and will become a solid investment. Part of her mission in communicating with residents living near the train station is to assure them that the office buildings waiting to make the leap from the drawing pad to lots around the station will not squeeze them out. The city has plans to enhance neighborhoods abutting the new office developments, in part through offering grants and loans for home improvements.
A graduate of Baruch (Class of 1995), where she studied marketing, Laird says that she enjoys city living. When she went hunting for a house in Trenton she rejected Hiltonia, a gracious neighborhood whose curving, tree-lined streets boast large, impeccably maintained Tudor and Colonial homes surrounded by large lawns. “It’s too suburban,” she says.
Laird’s first experience in suburban living in New Jersey did not end well. “Remember that gasline explosion in Edison?” she asks. “The one where the apartments blew up?”
“We lived there!”
Laird and her husband survived, but most of their work did not make it out of the flames.
In addition to Roland Laird’s day job in the finance industry — he was working at Dow Jones at the time of the explosion — and Taneshia Laird’s work in marketing commercial real estate projects, the pair have a long-standing partnership in the writing, publishing, and marketing of comic books.
Roland Laird, a graduate of Brown University, has written a number of comic books, most focusing on black history and culture. One of his most famous, “Still I Rise,” was originally published by W.W. Norton and is being re-issued in February by Sterling. The comic, a history of African Americans, has been updated “through Barack Obama,” says Laird, speaking a month or so before the election. “We have two endings,” she says.
The book was sold in an eight-publisher auction in 2004. “It got an A- from Entertainment Weekly. It was named a ‘Best Book’ by the New York Review of Books.’ It’s used as a reference book from grammar school all the way up to college,” says Laird. Nell Irvin Painter, a retired professor at Princeton University, was a consultant on the comic book project. “It was her job to make sure that we didn’t make history up,” jokes Laird.
While this comic easily found a home with a large publishing house, the Lairds began by self-publishing their comics — which, says Laird, really are comics, and not graphic novels, a similar, and newly mainstream, genre. Roland Laird did the writing, and sought out talented inner city youngsters to draw the illustrations. “We would work in their cramped apartments,” Taneshia Laird recalls. Every one of the couple’s early artistic collaborators has gone on to success in the commercial art world, she says.
In addition to the comic books, Roland Laird was writing comic strips at that time. One, Greiots, took its inspiration from traditional African story tellers, who were known by that name. His comics do not feature superheros, but rather they star ordinary folks. One series is about a barber and another is about a family in which the parents own an independent newspaper that addresses issues in the African American community. The kids in the stories, which have a hip hop sensibility, “are just kids,” says Laird. They are concerned about their day-to-day lives and are not worried about larger issues.
At this time, in the early 1990s, Roland Laird also wrote a contemporary comic book into which he wove the history of the Negro Baseball League. “It is the only contemporary comic archived in Cooperstown,” says Laird.
The call from Cooperstown requesting a copy of the comic book came just before the Edison explosion. The comic strips and the other comic books were doing well. Life was good. Then it all blew up. Literally. The couple, in shock, went out to their car, and there by sheer chance found that they had left a box of comic books on the back seat, and that the book the Baseball Hall of Fame wanted was among them.
It was a huge save, but it was the only save. Discouraged, Roland Laird gave up his avocation and devoted himself full time to the finance industry. Taneshia Laird, who had been immersed in developing and marketing comic books for the couple’s company, Posro (www.posro.com), concentrated on her marketing career.
Laird’s first job in the industry was with a firm whose clients were athletes and musicians, and the companies that represent them. “We were hired by Artista to do new offices for Puffy,” she says, referring to Sean “Puffy” Combs, the hip hop star turned entrepreneur. “And then we did his house.” It was projects like this that sparked her interest in residential marketing.
Among her first projects was the marketing of an upscale mixed-income green development in a marginal neighborhood in Harlem. “Even the city was skeptical,” she recalls. But the apartments sold out quickly — and now have a waiting list of 10,000 people.
In 2004 she joined in a partnership with Keith Brown. The company was called NLB Development, and it worked on projects in Brooklyn, and then in Trenton. One of its initiatives was Back Home, which worked with professional athletes and musicians to develop housing in depressed or marginal areas in their home towns.
One of Laird’s Trenton projects involved Troy Vincent, the former professional football player, who grew up in Trenton and was working on a development on South Clinton Avenue. That project did not work out, but it did increase her interest in the city in general, and in the development of its downtown in particular. She saw potential, but she also saw problems. She shot off a somewhat critical letter to the Trenton Downtowner newspaper, suggesting that downtown development could be handled better. Shortly thereafter she received a phone call from Mayor Palmer. “‘I agree with 70 percent of what you wrote,’” he said. “‘My wife says I should hire you.’”
That is the short story of how Laird came to be the city’s director of economic development. Now the mother of a toddler, she finds the job of executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association, a somewhat less stressful position, a better fit. But she does keep accepting assignments. She is just getting into her role as community liaison on the development of several sections of the city abutting the train station. She insists that the new development — no fewer than four office skyscrapers have been proposed — must include “at least some sort of neighborhood revitalization component.” If this does not occur, she points out, “you’ll end up with an island.” But she is confident that the city will not neglect residential development. “I know that the mayor has expressed his desire for significant redevelopment near the train station,” she says.
One intent of the train station development is to increase ridership, but the Laird family itself will be down to zero commuters in a month or so. Roland Laird has been offered a buy-out package by Credit Suisse, and his wife has encouraged him to take it. It appears that Posro’s comics are poised to rise again in tandem with the re-release of “Still I Rise.”
Laird sees this as his chance to slip out of “the golden handcuffs.” He has an agent, and is going to devote himself full time to writing and speaking. In a way, this opportunity was delivered by the house on South Clinton Avenue that Laird just had to have. “Our cost of living is so much less in Trenton,” says Laird. “If there is a perfect time for him to go out on his own, this is it.”
#b#Trenton Downtown Association#/b#, 23 East State Street, Trenton 08608; 609-393-8998; fax, 609-396-4329. Taneshia Nash Laird, executive director. www.trenton-downtown.com.