This (Small) Downtown Life

The sound of laughter hangs in the air as you approach the town square. Getting closer, the village green comes into view, playing host to kids chasing each other; dogs chase after them or look on nervously. Community members are crisscrossing the square, clutching shopping bags from the local stores, some taking a break to bask in the unseasonably mild weather and eat some ice cream while taking in the surroundings.

This isn't a scene from a 1950's television show, or some politician's idealized reminiscence of the good old days. It was the atmosphere I encountered this past weekend while living my new life in Princeton, New Jersey.

I moved to this historic university town 18 months ago, to head RPA's New Jersey office. Previously I lived in Manhattan, while mostly working on suburban Long Island, running RPA's program there. I certainly had some qualms about leaving Manhattan, but overall I jumped at the chance to try out a new environment. I found a charming apartment over an office on Princeton's main street, just two blocks from the heart of downtown, and settled in to what was, compared with Manhattan, small town living. I didn't even consider buying a car.

Since then, I have been able to experience the virtues of transit-oriented downtown life. I walk a lot, and bike more than drive. I am healthier. I see my neighbors more. I shop locally, supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs and help to feed a local economy. Princeton, which is after all an affluent community surrounding one of world's best universities, is hardly a typical small town, but it does provide at least a reference point. What it shows is that there are a variety of urban lifestyles available in our region, beyond the classic Manhattan one known through movies and television.

The town is well-served by transit with a number of NJ Transit bus routes and a private bus line directly to Manhattan passing through the center of town. It also has a train link to the Northeast Corridor via a spur line — the Dinky — about a ½ mile from town.

It's fairly atypical in Princeton, except for the college students, not to own a car. But I haven't found it a problem. Between my feet, bike, NJ Transit and a car-share service (Zipcar), plus a weekend car rental here and there, I have been able to attend all of my professional meetings from New York to Philadelphia and everything in between. I visit family in the Poconos and upstate New York, explore other destinations in the region and run the chores and errands of everyday life. All this is much less expensive than the expense of owning a car, with its monthly car payments, repairs, insurance charges and gas. And it makes for a smaller carbon footprint.

Do I sacrifice some conveniences? Sure. Take, for instance, the night I was at an emergency vet appointment for our new sick puppy. We reserved a Zipcar for what we thought would be an appropriate amount of time. But the appointment was taking longer than expected, and we found we could not extend the reservation, because someone else had already reserved the car. I raced back to drop-off the car in time for the next customer, then jumped onto my bicycle and rode, uphill, while reserving a different car at another location. It was a cold winter's night, and at that moment I questioned my car-free life. But incidents like these are, thankfully, few and far between.

What's nicest about Princeton is the sense of community you have there, particularly downtown. It is comprised of a couple of true "main streets" with a classic village square centered around a common green. The streets are lined with a variety of retail shops, services, restaurants, offices and an increasing number of residential units. Princeton University blends nicely into downtown and offers lectures, cultural events and numerous other community benefits.

This stable sense of community, with holiday fairs and friends running into one another on the sidewalk, operates against a backdrop of constant flux. Parking lots are converted into new residential units, to meet the increasing demand to live downtown. The local photo shop moves into a new location up the street, making way for a new pizza restaurant to come into town. Still, with success emerges the troubling trend of higher lease rates slowly pushing out mom-and-pop stores for the more affluent national chains.

Regardless, it's exciting to watch the convergence of stability and change happen right outside of my window. While I sometimes miss living in the big city, smaller downtowns are rich in their own rewards.