Many memories and experiences contribute to why I love our town. Some of the reasons include the sense of community, the people that have lived or do live here, the many services/events/opportunities available and the many amenities here. So let me share some of those memories and experiences with you. For some background, I was born in Princeton and have been here my entire life. I grew up on Erdman Avenue, and still live in that neighborhood.
Growing up in Princeton when I did, you would walk or ride your bike to anywhere in town when visiting friends, going to school, going to the Princeton Shopping Center, the Public Library or the central business district.
The Recreation Department ran a program in a number of neighborhood playgrounds. You could literally spend the day at your neighborhood playground with staff there running different activities to keep you busy and interested. There were organized sporting events, a round robin of sports’ teams from each playground playing each other. There were trips to Yankee Stadium and other designations. We learned how to make a lanyard, different art activities, storytelling, and there were pools at some of the playgrounds. You would spend the morning, break for lunch, and come back for the afternoon. This was a great way to spend time with your neighborhood friends, but also do activities with friends around town.
I clearly remember all the time we spent outside in the evening, parents and children. Most of the neighborhood would be out, sitting on their front porches and we’d be walking between houses to talk to each other. Summers were great for this, there was such a strong sense of neighborhood and community. Spending time with your friends, the whole neighborhood was your yard. In the winter, when we had snow regularly; grabbing a sled and going to one of the streets that the town closed so you could sled without worrying about traffic or going to Province Line Road and sledding at “Little Switzerland.”
I remember going to the movies at the Garden Theater or the Playhouse Theater, meeting or seeing friends and neighbors before the movie, hanging out with them afterwards. Before cable TV and streaming services, you would get good size crowds for many of the movies and the theaters were large and wide open back then. After losing the Playhouse Theater, it is nice to see all the effort put into restoring the Garden Theater years ago, and the really good selection of movies that regularly play there.
Going to Princeton University football games back when Palmer Stadium was still the University stadium. Seeing a stadium with a capacity of about 45,000 people full or very full just for a college football game. Going onto the field after the games and hanging out with your friends. A yearly thrill was the annual Giants vs. Eagles preseason professional football game at Palmer Stadium. Seeing all the players in town for the weekend, the whole town was crowded, traffic was a mess – but it was a fun weekend. It’s hard to imagine now that we used to have an NFL preseason game played here in Princeton for many years.
From fifth grade through high school, I was able to work in a relative’s business on Nassau Street, after school, weekends and summers. Being in the central business district almost every day, the flow of the customers, local people stopping in just to say hello and talk; it was a great experience. Meeting and interacting with so many different people, getting to know so many residents and workers in town. There are many fine businesses in Princeton. One change through the years seems to be that for many of these businesses, more of their customers are from out of town than residents. That is different from many years ago. The mix of businesses has changed also, but hopefully over the next few years we‘ll start to address that and change the mix to help draw our residents to shop more in town.
The common theme so far is really the people. As I share these experiences I think of all the good people that used to, or still do, live and work in Princeton. How easy it has been to find people that cared about their neighbors, people that would take the time to talk to you, to help you if you had a problem; people just being friendly. A real staple in this town.
There are two activities that I got involved in that had a significant impact on my life. The first was joining the Princeton Fire Department as a volunteer in 1974. The Princeton Fire Department is made up of three fire companies: Princeton Hook & Ladder Company, Princeton Engine Company #1 and Mercer Engine Company #3. The fire department’s history and traditions date back to 1788. Joining them exposed me to many new people, created many new friendships and really was the launching pad for my political career. The fire department is a municipal agency, funded by tax dollars. So, once I became an officer in the fire department, I started going to Borough Council meetings (prior to consolidation in 2013 there were two Princeton’s, the Borough of Princeton and Princeton Township). After attending many meetings then Mayor Barbara Sigmund said to me one night, why don’t you run for Council, you’re at all the meetings. So, I did!
A significant change in the fire department is that when I joined the three fire companies had fifty or so volunteer members each; and around half of those were active volunteer firefighters. Today the fire department consists of six paid firefighters plus maybe twenty active volunteer firefighters. Luckily a recent recruiting effort drew in a number of new volunteers that are all now going through their basic firefighting course.
The other activity I got involved in was the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad (PFARS), again joining as a volunteer member. It is an independent nonprofit, not supported by tax dollars. But again, the exposure to a whole new set of people, gaining many new friends and being part of a group that exists just to help others. When I joined in 1975 PFARS was all volunteer, in 1980 they hired two paid staff. Today PFARS has about seventy-five volunteer members, eight full time paid EMT’s and two paid administrative staff. And the cost to run the organization has gone from about $100,000 per year in the 1970’s to about $1.6 million per year today.
These two volunteer experiences provided me with leadership opportunities, practical management and business experience, good will, camaraderie and great experiences. But from a big picture perspective, they represent the many volunteers and nonprofit opportunities available in Princeton. No matter what your cause is, it is hard to imagine a group that does not exist in Princeton. Again, this illustrates that sense of community, where that common theme of the people that live here caring for others comes through. How can you not love a town whose residents give so much of themselves to do good for others?
Once I became involved in local politics I was opened up to more new people and more new friendships. And I became part of finding solutions to problems and challenges of all sizes. While there are always some issues that generate a fair amount of public interest, there are so many cases where you are working with, or helping, people one on one or in small groups. Situations that never make the news but where the result is significant and meaningful to those directly involved. Usually, as an elected official in these cases, you are connecting the dots for people; here is the problem, I think I know the people to help you or I know people that will know who can help you. And in this process you meet and deal with people that are again working to help others. That common theme of the people here, again helping each other. Building that sense of community.
And I have not really yet talked in any detail about many of the stores, restaurants, schools, nonprofits and individuals that make up our town. All those combine to make it a truly special place.
Maybe another time in a longer article!
Mark Freda was born and raised in Princeton and always lived here. His community involvement started at 18, through a variety of local nonprofits and elected office. In addition to being the current mayor of Princeton, Freda served 13 years on the former Princeton Boro Council. He has been involved with Princeton Fire Department and Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad since 1974 and 1975 respectively. He is currently also involved in the Dorothea vanDyke McLane Association and the Spirit of Princeton.