Trenton More Than Just a Capital City


When someone mentions Trenton, most people probably just think of the city of just under half a million souls as the seat of New Jersey's state government—maybe as a former industrial hub of the Northeast, if they know their history—and not much more. But like a lot of towns in central New Jersey and all over the tri-state area, Trenton is steeped in rich colonial history, loaded with cultural reminders of two revolutions: the Revolutionary War, and the Industrial Revolution. This month, we take a closer look at Trenton and its historic Old Mill Hill district, a community-within-a-community with a commitment to preserve and protect its history and architectural beauty.

Ye Olde Trent-Towne

In 1680, a group of ambitious Quakers built a gristmill at the falls of the Delaware River and set up camp. The city was named The Falls—it wasn't called Trenton for another 35 years, until William Trent bought the mill and started "Trent-towne" on its path to being a major American city.

Nearly a century later, when George Washington crossed the Delaware River on that cold, Christmas night in 1776, he was looking to defeat the Hessian troops occupying the countryside surrounding Trenton. After a hard-fought victory over the British in the Second Battle of Trenton, the new American army had laid another piece of the groundwork for an emerging country.

From the 1800s to the 1900s, Trenton went along as most American cities did, weathering the Civil War, expanding both socially and economically. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Delaware and Raritan Canal opened, as well as the Camden, Amboy and Philadelphia Railroads, which served as major catalysts for continued urban growth. The city was developing at a rapid pace. By the 1920s, Trenton's famous slogan, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes" was a fair call—Trenton was indeed supplying a good deal of the world with steel, rubber, wire, rope, linoleum and ceramic products.

Up in Smoke

Interestingly, throughout the first half of the 20th century, Trenton was also a source of fine cigars. For many years, female factory workers hand-rolled cigars using the deluxe tobacco leaves brought into the area from Cuba. According to local lore, Trenton cigars were among the finest available anywhere—so good, in fact, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stocked his humidor with Trenton-made cigars. Trenton's cigar industry kept many hundreds of people afloat during the Great Depression in the 1920s, but by the 1960s, automation put most of the cigar-rollers out of work, and the industry shifted inland toward Philadelphia.

Despite the boost from the cigar industry, the Great Depression did to Trenton what it did to cities all over the country: it decimated the job market, and the town's citizens were forced to leave to eke out a livelihood elsewhere.

Particularly hard-hit was the picturesque neighborhood of Old Mill Hill, named after the Quaker gristmill that had once stood on the site. The area had been home to middle-class merchants and families, and was home to dozens of handsome classic Victorian and Gothic Revival townhouses of brick and wood. As the Depression took a deeper hold on the town, those who opted to stay in Trenton had a hard enough time trying to find something to eat, much less building or even maintaining their formerly gracious homes. Many of the charming row houses that had been built on Old Mill Hill years before were abandoned, vandalized, and left to crumble by owners who could no longer afford to live in them.

The dilapidation and neglect the Old Mill Hill area suffered for decades caused it to be pointedly avoided by homebuyers and businesses. In addition, large parts of the area were "redlined" in accordance with the somewhat suspect tenets of the Housing Act of 1949. Trenton and its environs were deemed "in decline," and federal officials wouldn't give loans to people who wanted to move to a place they deemed to be a "bad investment." Potential homesteaders were able to get government mortgage loans for designated "greenlined" spots, which usually meant suburban or more rural areas. Old Mill Hill and the rest of Trenton languished under such regulations for years.

The New Old Mill Hill

It wasn't until the 1960s that a few savvy folks began to take interest once again in the neighborhood's historic value and charm potential. With the help of federal funding and a truly inspiring level of community involvement, Old Mill Hill began to live and breathe once again and after years of work and growth stands today as a desirable destination for businesses and families alike.

So why is that? Why has Mill Hill been experiencing such a renaissance? Well, according to David Henderson, co-founder of Atlantis Historic Properties, a company working to restore the area's faded glory, there are many reasons, some purely physical.

"Mill Hill has always had quality Victorian masonry," says Henderson. "The row homes' architecture is very good and in the regional market, even today homes in Mill Hill are relatively inexpensive. Besides, downtown Trenton is a walking city. You get a real sense of community, since it's a fairly small area. You can walk to the theatre, to restaurants and shops. Being able to have that in a city of over 88,000 people is rare—the fact that the city still has that intimate feeling is a desirable quality."

Henderson would know—his company, Atlantic Historic Properties has been dedicated to the major facelift that Old Mill Hill has undergone in the past few years. While interest in the area began to pick up in the '60s (lots of "free" money from the government came into the area at that time) and started heating up in the '70s and '80s, it wasn't until Henderson's group formed in 1994 that Mill Hill began to truly look like its former self. The plan was simple: Atlantis would buy old houses in the neighborhood that needed TLC, restore them, and then sell them to hopeful future residents. So far, they've restored 18 houses and are currently at work on number 19.

Since they came on the scene, Henderson says he's seen many changes in the area—changes for the better.

"I got here in 1989, when we renovated our own house. Since then, I'd say the neighborhood has gone from a neighborhood in transition to one that's truly established itself. The momentum that has been building has settled into solid stability, in real estate terms."

"I think you'll continue to see Mill Hill buff itself up, and just get stronger and stronger. The houses here used to sell for $100,000. Now they're going for upwards of $300,000."

If statistics are any indication, the housing boom in Trenton may just be heating up; according to the National Association of Realtors, the Trenton market gained 24 percentage points between the first quarter of 2002 and first quarter 2003.

"Things are definitely changing," says Maury Tome of Keller Williams Realtors in Trenton. "There are bidding wars in Mill Hill now, and didn't see that before. In the past, it was a slower market."

According to Rosalie Daniels, owner of RE/MAX Tri County in Trenton, "Talk of rising interest rates has pushed a lot of fence sitters off the fence," and housing inventory of all kinds has become more and more scarce. Because of Trenton's position between New York City and Philadelphia, the town is a bedroom community for residents commuting to either metropolitan area.

According to a recent report published in Realtor Magazine Online, listing prices in Trenton, which seemed to level off around $110,000 toward the end of 2003, are now in the $120,000 to $140,000 range. Condos that sold just three years ago for $60,000 are now bringing as much as $140,000.

Tome says that the rental options in Mill Hill are changing, too.

Times Are a'Changing

"A lot of people are turning old apartment buildings back into homes, restoring them to their original state." That might mean fewer apartments open to newbies, but it's not stopping them from coming. They've most likely got the energy to hunt for the perfect apartment, since the large majority of future "Hillers" are young professionals and a good number of artists.

It's not surprising—Mill Hill and downtown Trenton have an incredible amount to offer the resident and visitor alike. The town is more than just a place to go see relics of the Revolution—though the sites of battles fought and won are now registered National Historical Landmarks; from old battlegrounds to the William Trent House and the Old Barracks Museum, you can't take two steps in Trenton without getting an American history lesson - but a place for art, music, nightlife and family activities, too.

The arts in Trenton are thriving in all capacities; theatre, music, dance and visual arts all thrive in the vibrant downtown area. If shopping and art is your pleasure, a wealth of small, independently run art and crafts galleries have sprung up in and around Old Mill Hill. In addition to the little galleries and shops that dot the area, an old factory in the area has recently been rehabbed and turned into the lovely Roebling Market, a 55,000 square-foot structure with lots to see and do.

After perusing the art and shopping till you drop, you might head over to the Mill Hill Playhouse and see the Passage Theater Company, Trenton's resident professional theatre, perform one of their often award-winning shows. The Passage not only gives a prominent theatrical profile to Trenton, it gives back to the community as well with community outreach. The "State Street Project" is an educational program for youngsters that provides kids the chance to write and perform their own original plays under the guidance of an "artist-mentor."

There are also a healthy number of music clubs that host all kinds of acts on any given night, from the rock-n-roll of the Smithereens to jazz bands and soul singers—and if you want to really feel urbane, you can spend an evening watching slam poets strut their verbal stuff at The Sidestage once a week

There's so much going on in Mill Hill and the surrounding areas, it's hard to know what to highlight. Between the Old Barracks Museum, Mill Hill Park, Cadwalader Park, the annual Christmas Tree Tour and the Mill Hill Garden Tours, you'll never lack for things to see and do in Old Mill Hill or Trenton itself.

Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer living in New York City.