The Next Brooklyn?

Written by Jon Naar

When I sold my co-op apartment in midtown Manhattan ten years ago, one of New  York’s top real-estate agents (Barbara Corcoran) asked me where I was moving to.  When I replied “Trenton,” she queried “Tren-ton?” as if I was heading for a lepers’ colony.  “But, it’s going to be the next Brooklyn!” I insisted.

Like many photographers, writers, artists, musicians, actors, and other handworkers, I was looking for more space than my 400 square-foot studio apartment at a price I could afford and that was simply not available in New York City.  And in what turned out to be a virtual swap I got a two-thousand plus square-foot landmark 19th century townhouse overlooking Mill Hill Park and the historic Assunpinck Creek, half a block from the Passage Theater and Artworks, and a six minute walk to the train station.  Before buying the property I did a ten-day walk-about of the downtown neighborhood for about a mile in all directions. Two features struck me about Trenton that summer – beautiful trees and really friendly people, most of whom were African-American. I was also impressed by a small but growing number of like-minded New Yorkers who were being squeezed out of the big city by Donald-Trumpization and its inexorable rise in the cost of living.

Ten years ago there were not many places in Trenton other than the wonderfully funky Café Ole where you could hang out and meet other birds of a feather.  The Mill Hill Saloon was friendly enough but in those days you had to wash your clothes, your hair, and your lungs of acrid cigarette smoke after every visit.  Gradually the situation improved.  In 2005, “we” acquired Classics Rare and Used  Bookshop located conveniently on South Warren Street, a half block from the newly opened Marriott Hotel, with Gallery 125 next door, and the “mayor” of that thriving neighborhood Joe Festa the Barber across the street. To call Classics a lifesaver is no exaggeration – partners Eric Maywar and Laurice Reynolds not only sell (and buy) books, they host an ever-expanding panorama of events that include Scrabble every Friday evening, book-signings, poetry slams, special readings for children, an urban study group, a knitting club, and many other activities, and, above all, they provide an inviting  place to hang out at no cost.  It was from the Scrabble group that I developed the Saturday Salon at Café Ole, based on my experiences of similar venues in Paris, Vienna, and London, where for the price of a cup of coffee or tea, you could meet interesting people for lively conversation on just about every subject imaginable.  It was at the Salon and across the street at Classics that the idea and the publication of the Trenton Review of the Arts were realized, with its first edition coming out just before Christmas 09.  In its special way South Warren, conveniently located between the train station and the State House, with its superb mural of the Declaration of Independence by Illia Barger, the gemütlich Checkers Restaurant, the newly opened Liquid and Eats, the up-scale Settimo Cielo around one corner, and the Marriott around another has become one of the focal points not only of the hugely successful Second Friday organized by the Trenton Downtown Association but as a shining example of the cultural revival of the city itself.

The crown jewel of Trenton’s cultural realm is almost literally at my front-door step.  Passage Theater in City-supported historic Mill Hill Playhouse has given us an unbroken string of exciting presentations showcasing new work by emerging and established playwrights  — The Afghan Women by William Mastrosimone, The Deacons by Trenton’s Pullizter-price winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, The Devil’s Music, a tour de force recreation of the life of Bessie Smith, and Russell Davis’ Cecelia’s Last Tea Party, to mention but a few of the remarkable hits produced by ex-New Yorker June Ballinger and David White. Passage also features Solo Flights, a highly popular springtime festival of one-person shows running Thursdays through Sundays.

Since 2004, the Trenton Film Society has organized an annual film festival attracting dozens of filmmakers and hundreds of film enthusiasts to downtown Trenton for the screening of works by some of the country’s leading independent film producers. The programs offer a diverse mix of events at several venues around the City, the State Museum Auditorium, the Marriott Hotel, and Passage Teheater.TFS also hosts the more intimate Wednesday Night at the Movies, a showing of selected films at Café Ole, where for $5 you can see the film and enjoy discussing it afterward with other enthusiasts over a great cup of coffee or tea and a snack.

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