Here’s an opportunity that most urban centers would die for: The community arts group wants to modernize and expand its facility. The arts people are committed to doing it in the heart of the downtown, despite all the attendant problems of parking and congestion. They have found a world famous architect to donate a design for a striking new facility that would be a prominent part of the downtown skyline. And, perhaps best of all, the arts group has raised the money for the project all by itself — no cost to taxpayers.
That’s the enviable deck of cards dealt to Princeton Borough five years ago. Since then the project has been kicked around by neighbors and planning board officials. It has been designed and redesigned by architect Michael Graves, down-sized, kicked around by planners and neighbors, and then kicked some more. In this same period of time the public library kitty-corner from the Arts Council has been torn down and is now within a few months of reopening. A controversial public parking garage looms on the horizon, also almost ready for traffic.
Some of the whispered commentary suggests a conflict of class and race: The mostly white, mostly privileged art establishment facing off against the mostly black neighbors living in a community that is modest by Princeton standards — not a pretty conflict for a town like Princeton in the 21st century.
So, as the Arts Council renovation proposal wends its way back toward another Planning Board review, you might wonder: Is this project jinxed or what? Maybe it is, and jinxed with a capital J at that.
I got a first hand look at both the pro and con last summer, when my boys were enrolled in a one-week summer drama camp at the Arts Council. It was a lively little program that managed to capture the attention of both my pre-teen boys, who otherwise might have been vegetating in the cool of our basement, experiencing the high drama of Nintendo and Cartoon Network.
Instead they were part of an ensemble working up a little adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” It was an effort made more daunting by the venue itself: Fans attempting to move the hot and humid summer air made the young actors’ lines almost inaudible just a few feet away; actors moving to their places through narrow hallways jostled past other children carrying cans of paint and buckets of clay to other arts and crafts classes.
Shake, spear, kick in the rear, I thought. This kind of building might serve the arts in Princeton, Illinois, but in Princeton, New Jersey? In a town that prides itself on its first rate music and math programs, the arts scene seems a distant poor cousin.
So what could be the real problem with the renovation and expansion?
One afternoon during that drama camp I drove down Green Street toward Witherspoon, intending to turn into the Arts Council’s tiny parking lot to pick up the kids at the end of their session. But I ended up stuck behind a garbage truck on the one-way street, and when the truck got to the Arts Council it was clear that I would have to wait awhile. One by one the garbage men hauled cans of trash from the arts building to the truck idling in the road. Soon it became clear that I would have time to turn off the engine and visit with the Arts Council’s immediate neighbor, and vocal opponent, a man whose name you might have seen in the newspaper: Robert Williams.
Robert Williams turns out to be Jinx, an old friend from Rosso’s Cafe, the now defunct workingman’s bar on Spring Street. During the 30 years when Jinx was a waiter at the Nassau Inn, he and his colleagues used to visit Rosso’s between shifts, where they would run into young guys like me, attracted to the least expensive place in town for a beer and a hamburger.
I chatted with him then and later called him back to see if his position is any different. It’s not. “It’s like putting a 10-gallon hat on a one-pint head,” Jinx says. “The lot just can’t handle it.” Jinx, whose living room is about a yard away from the Arts Council’s driveway, says he might think differently if the zoning required 30 spaces and the lot only allowed 27. “But this is just so far out of whack.”
Jinx, now 77, was born and raised in Princeton. He has owned the house on Green Street for 45 years. He recalls the Arts Council building when it was the facility for the black YMCA. Later, after the Borough had used it for office space and wanted to sell it, he supported the Arts Council’s request at a time when a black community organization also wanted it. “I thought it was too large for the community group,” he explains.
But now he thinks the Arts Council is asking for too much. “It’s no black-white thing,” he says. “It’s just too crowded, too much.”
In a way it’s a nice problem to have: People want to work downtown, park downtown, gather to pursue the arts downtown, and even live downtown. But it would also be a nice problem to solve.