Hidden Trenton, presented March 28, 2018 by Michael Goldstein

Firkin’s Tavern, 1400 Parkway, Ewing

Guest:  Michael Goldstein, creator HiddenTrenton.com

We were happy to welcome Joe Teti back to the helm, and to thank Firkins Tavern again for welcoming our group.   We began with another terrific lunch and Joe called us to order at 12:39.

George, our Treasurer, reported a balance of $1635.49.

Shan offered minutes from the Feb meeting that she had constructed using notes Mike Zuckerman took at the time.  A few errors were quickly sorted out with help from Steve Fitzpatrick who had arranged the speaker, Karen Andrade-Mims.

Joe asked Mike to introduce our guest, Ned Kolpan, whom he identified as a staff member at the Public Library, a board member at the Trenton Film Society, and a member of our extended family as our daughter, Elizabeth’s, boyfriend.  Ned had asked to attend a Symposium meeting after hearing about it from us and from Patricia Hall, who spoke to us several months ago as operations manager at the Library.

Shan then introduced the speaker, Michael Goldstein.  Michael, as part of his work developing and promoting residential real estate in Trenton with HHG Development Associates, some years ago created the website HiddenTrenton.org.  About half the people in attendance had heard of the site, and some 5-8 folks had used it to find local resources.  Michael explained that the site is unapologetically biased in favor of living in Trenton, and advertises itself as a “highly-opinionated guide to worthwhile places.”   Though it is a review site, it only reviews great stuff, choosing to ignore anything that it can be enthusiastic about.  Michael tried to offer newcomers or strangers to Trenton the benefit of insider knowledge developed over many years of “city-positive” living here.  For people who aren’t raised with the skills and knowledge to live well in cities, HiddenTrenton is a big boost up the learning curve.  It offers tantalizing places and experiences, great foods, and a reliable guide to what not to miss.

Originally, HiddenTrenton.org focused on the city of Trenton itself, but has recently branched out to include highlights of “greater Trenton.”  Michael particularly noted all the great “dude stuff” there is to do nearby, and proposed that that is one of the real perqs of choosing a Trenton address.

HiddenTrenton addresses directly the perception of a lot of old-timers that all the good local restaurants are gone.  Many of the old immigrant restaurants have given way, as things do, to new immigrant restaurants.  HiddenTrenton features great Guatemalan, Mexican, and barbecue places that richly reward patronage well beyond the local neighborhoods.

HiddenTrenton also offers reviews of activities, offering ways of living a very full life in this community.  From the Capital Philharmonic and Passage Theatre to hiking at Baldpate and the Sourlands, to enjoying historical experiences at Washington Crossing and Princeton battlefield, HiddenTrenton opens up a world of indoor and outdoor excitement within very easy reach of the city.  HiddenTrenton supports these listing with “the best hiking guide for central Jersey on the web,” its own GPS linked app with downloadable maps and directions.  You can follow it to a wide range of outdoor adventures.

HiddenTrenton promotes local entertainment, such as the jazz performances at the Candlelight Lounge on Passaic St.  Saturday afternoons from 3-7, Candlelight features some great players who perform here while they are in the area for gigs in NYC and Philadelphia.

Shopping tips promoting local business are also part of the HiddenTrenton service to the city.  The Trenton Coffee House and Roasters has grown from a cart to a shop, supported in part by promotion through HiddenTrenton, as has Artefacts Framing, the Sign shop, and the State Barber Shop on Warren St.

Historic sites are easy to find using HiddenTrenton’s tours, which include self-guided excursions on the Trenton and Princeton battlefields of the American Revolution.  Michael emphasized that these tours were not for kids, but are available in a downloadable book with a driving tour included.  The tour incorporates details of the area that George Washington himself used to move through the area and evade the British Army.

Michael promotes HiddenTrenton through Facebook and other social media platforms, and by word of mouth.  The site currently has 287 reviews, and 48 pages of other content.  It first went live in 2007, has been redesigned 3 times, most recently in 2013.  Adam Immerwahr, an intern and then staff at the McCarter theatre, helped hugely with the most recent redesign.  The team reenvisioned HiddenTrenton as a voice for an “alternative narrative” about the city from the mainstream media canards.    The standard narrative has become that “all the restaurants are closing,” that the city is riddled with crime, drugs, gang violence, etc, and, in short, DON’T GO, DON’T VISIT.

The alternative narrative championed by HiddenTrenton is that Trenton is renewing itself, millennials are coming, restaurants are re-opening and providing memorable food experiences that make Trenton well worth checking out.  Places like Champs Sports Bar and Grill (which Michael notes has no sports and no grill) does have an artistic chill night on Mondays, and he finds it very welcoming.  There’s no discernible prejudice against him because he’s older than the standard crowd.

A lot of the renewing energy in Trenton is coming from Latino immigrant communities.  They have, almost single-handedly, stabilized the city’s population, quadrupling in the last 4 decades while every other group continued to decline.  Guatemalans are the largest segment of the immigrant group, with significant Mexican and Puerto Rican components as well.  Many are evangelical Christians and their congregations are now preserving some of the city’s great older houses of worship with large memberships.

He also took a moment to present one of his favorite Mexican places, called Chencha y Chole.  HiddenTrenton was there to review it just as it opened.  It gratified Michael a great deal to find that, that weekend, the HT review drove six tables in the restaurant.  That, along with comments on the site, help him know that the site is accomplishing its mission.  He finds that the site can also compensate for a lack of marketing sophistication in new businesses by giving them a presence on the web that they don’t invest in building for themselves.  He showed the unclaimed Yelp listing of Chencha y Chole, and focused our attention on how much they could make of their positioning if they knew and wanted to.

He also noted that HiddenTrenton is strictly private, and does not get or seek city money to operate, though its goal is to support the city.  Taking city money would, he feels, compromise the trustworthiness and integrity that are key to making HT an “insider” knowledge base.  On his own, he need only list cool stuff, and can freely express his opinions and insights, so there’s no drive to get public funds to work on the site.

Michael took questions, and he encouraged us to tell friends about HT.  David suggested that it might be worth helping some of the restaurants take charge of their Yelp sites, and Carol told the group about a film From ‘Burg to the Barrio, which can be found on YouTube, that chronicles the change from one generation of striving immigrants to another.

We adjourned at 1:33pm

Trenton Free Public Library, presented Sep 25, 2017 by Patricia Hall, Director of Operations

Trenton Symposium, Sept 25, 2017

Freddie’s Tavern, Railroad Ave., Ewing

Guest, Patricia Hall, Director of Operations, Trenton Free Public Library

Joe Teti called the meeting to order at 12:10.

Joe asked for a treasurer’s report, and George reported that we had $1045 in the bank.  The report was accepted by voice vote.

Joe introduced Dr. Jane Rohlf, an internist, joining us for the first time.

After lunch, Joe called upon Shan Holt to introduce Patricia Hall, who was our speaker.  Patricia noted several connections to the Symposium, including Lolly and Richard O’Brien, neighbors on Fisher Place who were attending today.  She introduced her assistant who had come along to the talk.

She quickly and kindly corrected my error in introducing her as director of the library, noting that she was operations manager of the library, currently studying for her Masters in Library Science so that she could become the library director by civil service rules.  We all felt, by the end of her talk, that it was a crime not to give her the full position.  More on that below …

Patricia was born and raised in Trenton, and lives on Fisher Place with her husband Patrick.  In addition to her professional work at the Library, she is an ordained minister on the staff at TrueLove Ministries, works with Men, Women, Youth for Hope, and serves on the board of the Trenton Literacy Movement.  She had her first library card at age 4, and had to be admonished not to read and walk at the same time! At 19, she joined the library staff as a junior library assistant. 

The Trenton Free Public Library has a fascinating history, which alone justifies preserving it as a living institution.  It opened as a subscription library in 1750, the oldest in New Jersey and the 2nd oldest in the nation.  The first investment was $200 from Benjamin Franklin, and the library still has 3 of the books bought with that gift.  The Hessians who occupied the city in 1776 burned the building.  The collection was entirely lost, except for 10 volumes that were circulating and so in other locations.  Library staff recently has been able to identify 3 of those remaining original volumes and preserve them.

As an adult staff member, Patricia lived through terribly hard times for the Library.  The 2008 budget or $8 million was cut by Mayor Tony Mack to $4 million, forcing the layoff of more than half the staff and the closing of all the branches.  Patricia retired from the Library in 2013, as an administrator at the Main Library on Academy Street.  After 18 months of building up her other professional and personal interests, the Library called her back 2 years ago.  Her sense is that the library needs leadership with love, compassion, and dedication to the people of Trenton, and this she works hard to provide.

Her earlier experience at several branches cemented her commitment to helping children learn to read.  She recently heard from a young man whom she had met when he was a lost, lonely, non-reading 5 year old.  She had spent a summer with him, teaching him to read, and to love reading.  She saw it as giving him his chance to grow, and he credits her with saving his life.  That branch closed in 2010 when the budget was again cut to $2.2 million.

She is trying to create a 21st century library for Trenton on a budget now at $2 million.  The biggest circulating item today is DVDs, but Trenton’s library is not like others.  It needs not just library-related services, but basic foundational services like repairs to the building.  That morning the air conditioning unit had broken, so with the temperature at 90 degrees outdoors, the library had to close altogether and won’t reopen until the weather moderates.  Replacing the defective chiller could cost as much at $40,000, and it’s unlikely that the city of Trenton will contribute that much.

Meanwhile, Patricia is trying to reopen the branches, so that all of Trenton’s children can access the library in their neighborhoods.  She’s hoping to start with the branch in South Trenton, which had the largest circulation before the closure.  That Skelton branch once provided 30 computers for public use, as well as community space for meetings, tutoring, and other services.  There were branches in East Trenton, Cadwalader, and Briggs, the loss of which catastrophically diminished opportunities for success, organization, and strengthening in those neighborhoods.  She refuses to act like nothing happened or nothing was lost, drawing on her own experiences in the branches to argue for how important they are.

She’s been reaching out to neighborhoods to find out what people want in the way of library service, and hearing that kids from around the city can’t get all the way to Academy Street.  Some of the initiatives she is developing at the Main Library are:

Live, Work, Learn program to offer library cards more widely for free.

Serving the Homeless, especially after the Salvation Army closed.  Homeless can get food, but can’t find a safe, warm (or cool) place to eat it.  The library has space and allows homeless to bring in bags and food, and to eat inside on cold or wet days.

She brought armed officers into the library, somewhat reluctantly.  She noticed that local drug dealers were using the library as a drop/pick-up spot for drug delivery. Dealers had hollowed out books, filled the hollows with drugs and told buyers where to find the stash.  Patricia decided that the officers were needed to protect legitimate users. 

Overall, she has increased programming 200% and see attendance go up sharply.  She has built partnerships with Mercer County Community College, Labyrinth books, Classics Books, Lightbridge tech, Isles, and others to provide programs for Trenton youth and kids.  Noticing that families used the library as  “free summer camp” for kids, she partnered with Trenton day care summer feeding program to make sure those kids got a nutritious meal during the day.  She has also built relationships with Trenton Digital Initiative, Trenton Makes Words (PNC Bank), Amazon, and Senator Shirley Turner.  These partnerships have helped develop computer classes, resume preparation, STE(A)M learning opportunities, Lego clubs, and Trenton history events, several hosted by the late Jack Washington during Patriots Week.

She’ll keep going, and has secured funding to get a South Trenton branch in place in a new building with fewer architectural challenges than the former location.  Funder not willing to build it, though, until the city can commit to maintaining it.   Meanwhile, she hopes to finish her MLS and assume full leadership of the Library.

Questions included several inquiries about what we can do to encourage Mayor Jackson to fund the branch, and to give Patricia the director position.

We adjourned at 1:30, with announcement that we will meet again on Monday, October 23.