Princeton celebrates history with 'know your town' day

If you want to teach children and adults alike more about the old or historic town in which they live, you might want to follow the successful example of Princeton, N.J.

The Arts Council of Princeton recently sponsored a "Celebrate Princeton, People, Spaces" Saturday with a festive "getting to know you" theme that attracted thousands of residents. With almost no budget the council and volunteer planners staged an all-day celebration that made residents proud of their town and its architectural heritage.

Ann Reeves, who headed the event, explains, "Our town square is up for sale, and a lot of people have found that fact upsetting. They fear change. But we wanted to show them that Princeton has been changing and growing for well over 200 years, and so there was nothing to be apprehensive about."

The street history project was aimed at helping children look up their own street on city maps, learn how it was named, and then write a colorful biography about it. Well ahead of the celebration day, the project chairman was working with fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes in public schools and was presenting a program at the library and to after-school classes at the YMCA.

In the programs, she distributed photo copies of city maps made in the years 1776, 1912, 1950, and 1978 so the children could trace the growth of the town as well as determine when their own streets came into being. If their street was named after a famous Princeton resident, such as Woodrow Wilson or Albert Einstein, the children were given thumbnail sketches of the person.

The youngsters learned that streets in one area were named after soldiers who died in World War I and famous World War II generals. Children who lived on streets named after trees and brooks and springs had to be reassured that names of natural phenomena were very nice, too.

One project helped people identify houses that have been move once or twice in their history. At least 60 houses in town are known to have changed locations. Residents who wanted to trace the history of their own homes were shown how to look up legal records, to go to the engineering department of Borough Hall to look at old maps, and how to conduct interviews with people who could fill in gaps of background. Those interested were given scrolls on which they could inscribe their findings.

Local architects' drawings of present and future Princeton were displayed, and local architects and university architectural students gave bus tours of Princeton. Each architect planned his own route and pointed out the sights he liked most. These tours were such a hit with young families especially, that demand far exceeded capacity.

A downtown church showed the movie "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," written by William H. Whyte, which was alternated with a slide show of Princeton landmarks.

To help children learn to observe the details of buildings, two local planners devised an architectural treasure hunt in which youngsters and their parents, could search a three block area for such items as the tallest building on Nassau Street, the tallest door, the window shaped like a heart, the building decorated with two eagles, and the house that Shakespeare might have liked. Children were quick on this game.

One booth with Paper and magic markers invited children to draw their own buildings, and yet another invited children and adults to knock together a fanciful construction from old refrigerator crates.

The local League of Women Voters sold its own "Know Your Town" booklets and maps of Princeton, and Scout troops and other civic organizations offered food, plants, balloons, and tote bags for sale.

Musicians, dancers, jugglers, choirs, and barbershop quarters performed throughout the day.

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