Rejuvenating Cultural Trenton by Strengthening Its Partnerships

Karen Carson

Downtown Trenton can be restored to its placed as a vibrant hub of art, culture and historical importance by strengthening and expanding on partnerships with its government and educational institutions.

Residents Nostalgic for “Old Trenton”

Bus drivers are constantly amused by my habit of hailing them down from the curb, a hold-over from my New York City years and a dead giveaway that I am not native to Trenton. (My Mid Atlantic/New York/Boston hybrid accent is the real tip-off!)

Inevitably a graying passenger will wax nostalgic.

“When I was a kid, my mother would think nothing of dropping me off downtown on a Saturday morning and handing me a few dollars, knowing that I’d spend all afternoon at the movies or just walking around. You had your pick of theatres. There was always something going on!”

Lifelong residents of Trenton are always telling me stories about the city’s heyday when Trenton was “the place to be” for shopping downtown at Dunham’s, Gimbel’s, and Stacy’s Department Stores, going to the movies, visiting the zoo in sprawling Cadwalder Park and even riding by luxurious mansions along Stuyvesant Avenue. Retired State workers sigh nostalgically as they stand in front of an office building that was once a popular hotel, a synagogue, or a busy music hall.

Trenton’s History is Everywhere

Trenton’s rich history and heritage are evident even to me as I wait for the bus downtown across the street from Wachovia Bank. I love to gaze up at its roof to read the inscription that reveals that the bank was once a tavern!

I have caught glimpses of Revolutionary War reenactors maneuvering the downtown streets of Trenton, enjoyed the sound of children giggling as they stood at attention for costumed soldiers at the Old Barracks, and listened to my boss’s engrossing accounts of witnessing the reenactment of George Washington crossing the Delaware River each winter. Coming out of the post office at Montgomery Street, I glimpse the tidy, white restored Douglass House and remind myself that the Mill Hill Playhouse is a landmark former 19th-century Lutheran church.

Nearly twenty years ago, the Passage Theatre used a former Roebling manufacturing plant to stage a production of the original play “Roebling Steel” which was based on the oral histories of actual factory workers of its plant. Due, no doubt, to their love and appreciation of Trenton’s manufacturing heritage, union workers rewired the building at no cost. Tickets to the play were stamped by a time clock.

How Trenton Has “Gotten it Right”: Partnerships

There are many ways that Trenton has “gotten it right” over the years when it comes to showcasing its rich historical heritage, art and culture. These efforts to revive the city are successfully implemented by nurturing partnerships with its existing institutions.

The not-for-profit Trenton Downtown Association, originally initiated by the State Legislative and the City of Trenton as a management entity for the downtown Special Improvement District (SID), has already developed partnerships between people in the arts, business, government and community sectors, the City of Trenton, the State of New Jersey, the Department of Community Affairs, Isles, Inc., the State Council on the Arts, community relations and employee orientation departments of major corporations, colleges, and other groups in Trenton.

Those who are curious about the early days of Trenton may visit the Trentoniana collection housed in the Trenton Public Library to view (without cost) deeds to historical landmark buildings, examine old tax records and genealogical documents and even photographs of the downtown section from a century ago! There you will learn that Trenton was the home of the first mill in America to roll wrought iron beams fro fireproof buildings and that the Taylor Opera building, built in the 1800s, hosted local and touring theatre companies until the 1960s.

The 1719 William Trent House Museum, the oldest building in Trenton, offers hands-on experiences of 16th century living like this month’s candy-making demonstrations. The Trent House is funded by the Department of the State, the New Jersey Historical Commission, and the Trent House Association.

A kiosk at the Trenton Transportation Center supplies visitors and commuters with information about local cultural, artistic and historical events before they even leave the train station.

Trenton’s educational and nonprofit institutions have also been partners in bringing enrichment to the city.

Students of The College of New Jersey’s Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement volunteer and do research for a variety of city-based projects that benefit the community through groups like Habitat for Humanity and also through he public school system.

Apprentice construction workers from non-profit Isles, Inc. have worked on renovating the Trenton Pops building, a vacant theatre, for Mercer County Community College rehearsal and art studio space. Isles, Inc. also helped renovate an office building at 219 East Hanover Street into an artist’s housing complex.

The Provost of Mercer County Community College herself is a board member of Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) which offers Trenton2Nite, the second Friday of each month,  poetry open mike nights at Gallery 125 and the Classics Used and Rare Book Store, jazz at Café International, and Wednesdays on Warren (WOW) for outdoor lunchtime entertainment.

The annual Heritage Days Festival, sponsored this year by Bank of America, uses the motto “Trenton Makes Heritage Unique” offering live gospel and jazz music, tours of historical sites, family activities, and gives artists and vendors an opportunity to exhibit and sell hand-made crafts, and a variety of  delicious ethnic dishes.

The downtown Kerney Campus of Mercer County Community College provides office space for the New Jersey Department of Labor Employment Services as well as multipurpose activity space for community events. I attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event held in this space on January 18th. The event included a multimedia presentation on civil rights, a visiting dance performance, and excellent jazz instrumentalists.

As a film buff, I look forward to The Newark Black Film Festival, brought to Trenton each summer by the New Jersey State Museum and the Friends of the State Museum through the Department of State. For several Thursday nights after work, I view, at no cost, a variety of independent and commercial films, attend an opening night reception, and even take part in a question and answer period with the actual filmmakers!

The Trenton Film Society and Film festival uses space at Café Ole and the Mill Hill Playhouse as venues for presenting independent films, many of which, like Fred Zara’s documentary “Average Community”, are about life in Trenton, and are written by a native Trentonian.

The concept of using film to showcase the City of Trenton was employed in 2003 when Tower Productions of New York filmed a five-minute promotional video of the city to be broadcast on NJN public television, with a ten-minute version to be used by officials to promote the city. Although this project was produced with city involvement, it was not funded by taxpayer dollars but rather by the former First Union Bank, and the Economic Development Corporation for Trenton. The video was expected to air also through the spotlight on American Cities Project.

Strengthening Current Partnerships

These examples of successful partnerships and collaborations between the city and its institutions could be strengthened and expanded upon in several ways:

  • The College of New Jersey’s Bonner Center could add landmarks renewal research projects to its policy options component. Students who already work with, for example, Habitat for Humanity could research landmark buildings in need of restoration, and refurbish them for use as artistic work and performance space. These students could also counsel artists on the use of web and wiki technology. In keeping with the purpose of the national policy options component, the specific needs of each artistic space could be determined and integrated into the student curriculum.
  • Landmark renewal research could be extended to The College of New Jersey’s MUSE (Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience) eight week residential program, a faculty-student scholarly and creative collaboration.
  • Mercer County Community College’s “How to Make a Short Documentary Video” continuing education  course could include an historical feature specific to Trenton to become an incubator for amateur independent filmmakers who are committed to developing films about Trenton or with Trenton locales. The Trenton Society and Film Festival could partner with MCCC to showcase these films.
  • Satellite productions of The Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College’s West Windsor campus could be performed regularly at the Kerney Campus on weekends for the local community.
  • Local college students, actors and musicians could write and perform short cultural and historical skits on a rotating basis in the lobby of the Trenton Transportation Center that could spotlight the Battle Monument, William Trent House and historical themes and sites specific to Trenton. Performed at key times of heavy commuter and weekend traffic, these skits would provide a sampling of Trenton culture to encourage and promote patronage at local museums, theatres and other sites. A variety of downtown restaurants serving diverse cuisine could provide samples of food as well.
  • The Ellarsie Trenton Museum’s Face Book page could be available on a monitor in the lobby of the Thomas Edison State College.
  • Downtown cultural mini-tours could be developed for all new government and private sector employees as part of their company orientation. NJ Transit Park and Ride “shuttle” buses could stop at key historical and cultural sites then at a predetermined local deli or restaurant. Local restaurants could be designated “Restaurant of the Month” on a rotating basis.

Each of Us an Ambassador

An acquaintance of mine, who lives in a house on the Cadwalder Park neighborhood house tour, looks forward every year to welcoming visitors to his home where they enjoy samples from local restaurants and learn more about the area and its history. Visiting my office, Joe always has a recommendation to the latest restaurant or local event that he’s recently embraced.

Strengthening existing partnerships with its business, educational, artistic, cultural and historical institutions is vital to the reestablishment of a thriving Trenton where even more residents will become enthusiastic participants and “ambassadors”. Just like Joe.

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