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Best Of Jersey
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Best Downtowns

Posted December 20, 2007 by Eric Levin, Janice Perrone, Terry Golway, Jen A. Miller, Liz George, Paul Drexel, Allen St John, Jason Schwartz, Jennifer Weiss, Merrell Noden, John T. Ward, Carol Weeg, Jennifer Melick

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Petula Clark had it right when she sang, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares....” It was 1964, and everyone understood the allure of that one-word title, “Downtown.” It was a glamorous, skyscraping, urban beehive where “all the noise and the hurry seems to help.”

Newark had that kind of buzz, and there are encouraging signs that it still does (see page 69). But in New Jersey, as elsewhere, a tectonic shift to the suburbs was taking place. Small, older towns fringing the cities (academics call them First Suburbs) experienced growing pains—and sometimes decline, as leafier, more outlying suburbs sprang up. Malls threatened to suck the commercial life from villages that never quite had a downtown. Highways fattened and fanned out. The word “sprawl” went from playful to pejorative.

Yet the longing for the thrill of downtown never waned. In the last decade or so, imagination, investment, and determination—often spurred by baby boomers who vaguely remember the way it used to be—have redefined the concept for a suburban age. Some downtowns have been brought back from dilapidation; some never lost their villagey charm; some embraced upscale chains as magnets; and some, seeking a nostalgic ideal, bulldozed and started over. Join us for a tour of those special places, from the established to the up-and-coming, where, “Everything’s waiting for you. Downtown.”—Eric Levin

Boonton

A lot more fun than an hour on the StairMaster.

In Boonton, topography shapes destiny. Main Street meanders up a hill. If you start at the bottom—at Division Street, near the train station and the Route 287 bridge—by the time you reach the corner of Church Street, four blocks later, you will have climbed the equivalent of 102 steps.

 “The hill is the reason we tend to attract independent retailers, not chains or big box stores,” says Cristina Amoruso, executive director of Boonton Main Street, a nonprofit group that promotes the downtown area. “The hill makes it difficult to have loading docks on the south side of Main Street, which has a steep drop behind it.”

The incline is also the reason Main Street buildings tend to be smaller in square footage than the buildings in many other downtowns, leaving many businesses that need 4,000 or 5,000 square feet looking elsewhere.

“Sometimes the hill deters the elderly from walking here,” Amoruso concedes. “A mother with a stroller may not want to, either. But it’s good exercise, and there are lots of places you can stop to eat, drink, or shop along the way.”

Rich in iron deposits and situated on the Rockaway River, Boonton prospered with its ironworks in Colonial days; later, its economy was supported by factories, including one that made molded plastic dishes called Boontonware. But the last major factory closed around 1990, and downtown fell into disuse and disrepair.

“I remember the early eighties, when this was a biker town,” says Andrew Chappell, a Boonton native who, as a boy, used to enjoy watching the Harleys roar through town. As for shopping, downtown was notable for “sleepy antique stores,” he says. Three years ago, Chappell and his wife, Susan, opened The Upper Crust, a British-themed restaurant where the most popular item is an $18.50 afternoon tea.

The turnaround began with the completion of Route 287 in the early 1990s. In the last decade, the vacancy rate on Main Street has dropped from 50 percent to just 5 percent. Alderman Patti Bujitas also credits the establishment two years ago of a historic district to protect period facades. In 2002, Boonton was designated a Main Street New Jersey town, qualifying it for state-funded technical assistance and consulting for downtown merchants and property owners.

Cross a threshold, catch your breath, stay a while. That’s basically the formula that has brought Boonton back after its manufacturing base faded. Duck into the Alora Ambiance Spa, Gri-Gri’s Home Accents & Gifts, or the Babycatcher Boutique, all upscale establishments that run counter to Boonton’s blue-collar image.

There are still antique stores, which may not be “sleepy” but also aren’t chi-chi. Many of the upper floors above the 110 storefronts along Main Street are occupied by accountants, attorneys, and marketing and public relations firms.

More remains to be done. The library, on the first floor of an 1849 Greek Revival building, needs a paint job. Next door, the Darress Theater, a 1919 treasure, lost its marquee when a truck struck the building last year. But in addition to live entertainment and current movies, the Darress still turns back the clock, running silent movies accompanied by a live organist.—Janice Perrone

Cape May

Hard to believe this Victorian gem almost went bye-bye.

xDowntown Cape May owes its prosperity to a fateful decision more than 40 years ago to preserve rather than destroy the city’s Victorian style and feel. It’s horrifying to imagine now, but there was a time when developers and town officials considered getting rid of those wedding-cake buildings and great old hotels. Luckily, aesthetics and an appreciation of history carried the day.

But creating a vital downtown required more than maintaining the status quo. “Downtown Cape May was kind of a sad place when I got here in 1968,” says Tom Carroll, a local resident, business leader, and civic booster. “There were a lot of vacant storefronts.”

In 1971, after heated debate among citizens and officials, Cape May closed off a three-block portion of Washington Street to create an outdoor pedestrian mall. Workers planted trees and shrubbery, store owners spruced up their shops, benches were placed in shady spots, and suddenly Cape May had an authentic downtown whose charm matched the surrounding hotels. This, in turn, spurred renovations of hotels like the splendid Congress Hall.

The mall makes downtown perfect for strolling with no apparent mission in mind until you are lured into a shop by a sample of free fudge or by an arresting window display or, as is often the case, by a sudden and powerful thirst.

“The Washington Street mall is our way of saying that if you’re here for a vacation, there’s more than just a beach,” says Carroll, former owner of the Mainstay, one of Cape May’s loveliest inns, and currently chairman of the restoration committee of Cape May Stage, a local arts organization.

The restaurant scene is another big draw. It ranges from fun and funky joints like the Ugly Mug and the Mad Batter to fine restaurants such as 410 Bank Street and the Blue Pig, which rank with the best in the state. In the summer, horse-drawn carriages filled with visitors clip-clop through town as onboard guides describe the passing sights and historic highlights, their sonorous voices carrying gently in the sweet ocean air. 

Cape May has begun an extensive revitalization study focusing on shore communities like Annapolis, Maryland; Bar Harbor, Maine; and Charleston, South Carolina. “We’re studying other communities that have pedestrian traffic and a strong architectural image to see how we can make downtown even more enjoyable for pedestrians and maybe build a green, sustainable environment on the mall,” Carroll said. The town is considering a major renovation of Rotary Park near the mall and is looking to ease that most intractable of downtown woes—parking.—Terry Golway

Collingswood

“Festivals R Us” could be the motto keeping Haddon Avenue (aka Restaurant Row) bright.

A few years ago, Collingswood’s once-vibrant downtown was ghostly. Stores were empty; people passed through only on their way to somewhere else. Now Haddon Avenue is bubbling with eclectic shops and so many upscale restaurants that you could take a culinary trip around the world just by walking down the street.

How did the turnaround happen? For one thing, the town has good bones, in the sense that the housing stock and the commercial buildings have character and are worth fixing up. The surrounding towns have enough population and prosperity, all within close range, that if Collingswood could give them a reason to come, they would. “Downtown has always been there,” says Collingswood mayor Jim Maley. “But now we’ve got much more of a vibrancy.”

The revival is not just about bricks and mortar but about activity. Something is always happening. For the Second Saturday festival, held every month of the year, stores, restaurants and galleries stay open late. The sidewalks of Haddon Avenue fill with pedestrians taking in exhibits by visual artists and performances by musicians. It’s a street party with a happy, non-threatening vibe.

Every third Thursday during the summer, half of Haddon Avenue closes to traffic so visitors can enjoy displays of classic cars and motorcycles to the accompaniment of live music. Collings­wood also hosts an annual May Fair (May 26 this year) that attracts about 20,000 people from all over the region, and an annual book festival (October 6 this year). The biggest regular draw, though, is the Collingswood Farmers’ Market, open every Saturday from early May through Thanksgiving, one block off Haddon Avenue. Here you’ll find choice Jersey produce. In summer, you can select fresh ears of corn right off the back of a farm truck.

Downtown is still spreading its wings. This month, the first phase of the LumberYard, a mixed-use residential and retail project, is scheduled to open, with much more to come. —Jen A. Miller

Englewood

Both sides of the tracks make this busy downtown hum.

With many historic storefronts intact, downtown Englewood seamlessly blends boutiques with bodegas, chain stores with one-of-a-kind shops. With more than 300 stores and restaurants lining the streets, the downtown is a testament to a redevelopment bid that paid off.

Railroad tracks divide the main commercial street, Palisade Avenue. A decade ago, there were two distinct worlds. East of the tracks, the avenue thrived with shops and eateries; west of the tracks, the neighborhood suffered from blight and neglect.

The tracks remain, but today the distinction is blurred. On West Palisade Avenue, Papyrus, a gift and paper purveyor, has opened. Zeytinia, an upscale food market, is scheduled to open there this summer, joining well-known retailers like Group USA and Victoria’s Secret. Even with these chains, the thoroughfare retains its flavor thanks to juxtapositions like a luxury golf store, Spade Mashie, next to Cositas Ricas, a Colombian and Mexican eatery where Latin music spills out the doorway.

A five-minute drive from the George Washington Bridge, Englewood offers enough diversity and culture to have lured Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Upton Sinclair, and Eddie Murphy as residents. Vince Lombardi started his coaching career there, at St. Cecelia High School.

“Even though it has a suburban presentation, it has a very urbane existence,” says psychotherapist Barbara Friedman, who stops by one of the several independent coffee shops on her morning walk. “There are people in the arts, in business; there’s a real economic mix and a lot of individuality.”

The jewelry stores, clothing shops, and art galleries along North Dean Street create a mini Soho. Below the intersection with Palisade Avenue, Dean becomes South Dean, where Balthazar Bakery makes all the breads and pastries served at its celebrated namesake restaurant in lower Manhattan. Another downtown lure is Bergen PAC, a performance venue offering a roster of music, dance, opera, and comedy.

“The town has changed a lot, especially in the last ten years. Now it’s very lively at night,” says Joan Van Alstyne Johnson, a lifelong Englewood resident and a self-described “professional volunteer” involved in historic preservation. “When I was a girl, downtown Englewood had one restaurant. Today we must have 35.” 

Baumgart’s, the Art Deco soda fountain from Van Alstyne’s childhood, looks the same, though its menu now includes  Chinese food as well as ice cream sodas. Its enduring success—it now has two sister locations in surrounding communities—and its ability to change without compromising speak volumes about this downtown. —Liz George

Haddonfield

Yes, the first hadrosaurus skeleton was found here, but downtown is no dinosaur.

Robert Aaron Greenberg’s family moved to Haddonfield in 1960, and—except for college—he hasn’t left. “We’re two blocks from downtown,” Greenberg says, “and if people come to visit, or even if it’s just us, we can walk up to Kings Highway, have something to drink or eat, or shop. It’s a nice feeling.”

Downtown, which includes Kings Highway and several radiating streets, is also easy to reach for out-of-towners via the PATCO High Speed Line to Philadelphia.

“You can actually walk the town and walk the shopping district, as opposed to being confined in a mall or one of the newer retro shopping centers,” says Todd Rodgers, co-owner of two sporting equipment and apparel stores, Threds & Sleds and the Powder Room.

Haddonfield has added more restaurants to the mix, with eateries like Tre Famiglia, Animo Juice, and Salsaritas Fresh Cantina opening in the past two years. The town has also attracted out-of-town boutiques such as Benjamin Lovell Shoes from Philadelphia, and Ellie, a women’s fashion store based in Delaware.

The atmosphere is an attraction in itself. The streets are tree lined and shady, with plenty of benches for resting, schmoozing, or people-watching. Joggers, dog-walkers, and bicyclists take to the streets from dawn to well after dark.—Jen A. Miller

Hoboken

Could have been a contender? Turns out it’s a champ.

In the 1970s Hobokenites would bring chairs to the cliffs by the Stevens Institute of Technology and watch the Hudson River wharfs burn for days. Puerto Rican and white residents waged turf battles in those days, and walking into the wrong neighborhood could be dangerous. Heaps of garbage clogged the curbs, and abandoned dogs roamed the alleys. Through it all, you could never get the smell of coffee being processed at the Maxwell House plant overlooking the river out of your clothes.

That city is a distant memory. Hoboken today teems with youthful energy. The Hudson River is much cleaner. High-speed ferries shuttle young professionals to and from Manhattan. A downtown promenade that lines the Hudson draws thousands of people for concerts, strolling, and recreation. Residents include Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Governor Jon S. Corzine. This summer, a posh W Hotel with 225 rooms and 40 residences is scheduled to open there. It’s a far cry from the Hoboken prowled by Marlon Brando 53 years ago in On the Waterfront.

“The last 30 years have been some of the most tumultuous in the city’s history,” says Hoboken historian Jim Hans. “Few cities have experienced as dramatic a turnaround.”

Hoboken relaxed certain zoning standards to attract new construction, including subsidized low-income housing, but for the most part private developers and individual brownstone owners spearheaded the rebirth.

The renaissance first took hold on Washington Street, the fourteen-block-long north-south boulevard that is Hoboken’s spine. In the early 1980s, Maxwell’s, a music club, opened there, bringing in cutting-edge bands such as R.E.M. and Nirvana.

Attracted by low rents, roomy brownstones, and easy access to Manhattan, musicians moved in, along with artists and upwardly mobile young people. The filmmaker John Sayles moved to Hoboken. Legendary folk singer Richie Havens could often be seen walking on Washington Street.

“Rents and housing costs went through the roof,” says Hans. “But fortunately Hoboken had subsidized apartments for some of the longtime residents.”

Downtown continues to mature. The first New Jersey branch of Garden of Eden, a New York City gourmet supermarket, opened over the winter. Urban, noisy, and compact, Hoboken is made for walking. New discoveries unfold around every corner. Just be careful crossing the street.—Paul Drexel

Maplewood

Starbucks? Borders? Not a chance in this old-school burg.

Ye Olde King’s Market. Anywhere else, a sign like this—hand-painted in Old English script and hung in front of an upscale supermarket—would be just another bit of creeping kitsch. But on Maplewood Avenue, it somehow seems perfectly appropriate.

Maplewood’s narrow, curving streets lined with brick buildings exude European charm. The structures are no taller than a couple of stories, giving the district a human scale, with small retail spaces that have kept the cookie-cutter chains out.

“There’s not nearly enough room for a Gap or a Restoration Hardware,” says John James, a local architect and president of the Maplewood Village Alliance.

Another factor is the town’s relatively secluded location. “We’re a little bit off the beaten path,” says James. Indeed, a visitor driving in the area isn’t likely to find the village without help from MapQuest.

The train station is the hub of downtown. New Jersey Transit’s Morris & Essex line whisks commuters to  Penn Station and back. The station also funnels foot traffic through the compact shopping district to the adjacent residential streets. “The direct train to New York really revitalized this town,” says John Meade, owner of St. James Gate, an Irish Pub on Maplewood Avenue. On the way home from Manhattan, it’s natural to stop at Freeman’s Fish Market, Jerry Rose florist, or the St. James Gate for a well-pulled pint.

While it looks like it’s been there a century, St. James Gate opened just four years ago, a retirement project for Meade and a legacy for his five grown kids. Still, it was built for keeps. The barstools were imported from Ireland, and the floor is made of wood from Guinness Brewery kegs in St. James Gate, Dublin. The bar itself was an eBay special salvaged from a Passaic joint called the Mambo King.

Downtown remains pleasingly rough around the edges. The Maplewood Theatre, for example, is one of the few independent movie houses left anywhere, and what it lacks in stadium seating it makes up for with eclectic programming—a mix of mainstream hits and somewhat more arty films. Three pizzas parlors, the Village Trattoria, Arturo’s, and the Roman Gourmet, engage in a friendly competition for the title of the town’s best slice. And the Maple Leaf Diner remains staunchly old-school, with Formica and vinyl that look like they date back to the Eisenhower administration.

With its hidden gems, Maplewood Avenue is best appreciated with the benefit of a little local knowledge. It’s hardly a destination downtown, which is exactly why it’s worth a visit.—Allen St. John

Millville

If you can walk, sip wine, nibble hors d’oeuvres, and peruse art all at the same time, the monthly moveable feast is for you.

It’s the third Friday of the month, and the Old Oar House Brewery is packed. A local band is blaring from the front of the tavern while revelers dance and mob the bar. Outside, hundreds of people stroll along North High Street, Millville’s main drag, sipping cocktails and nibbling hors d’oeuvres  picked up at one of the many art galleries in the neighborhood. It all starts around 4 pm and—at least at the Old Oar House—rattles on until two in the morning.

This isn’t the Millville your father knew. It might not even be the Millville you knew.

Eight years ago, downtown was dilapidated, with half its retail spaces vacant. Mattresses on sale at secondhand stores lined the sidewalks, and North High Street—vibrant with commerce until a shopping mall drove nearly all the mom-and-pop stores out of business in the 1970s—was swooning. Even the glass industry, which had long sustained the town, was melting away.

Since 1999, though, local officials have sunk $23 million of public, private, and grant money into rehabilitating buildings,  facelifting façades, and developing a promenade along the Maurice River. Most important, officials with grants and interest-free loans in hand have recruited artists and small businesses to the area in hopes of building a niche culture that would attract tourists.

So far it all seems to be working. Faded bricks and stained cement still mar enough buildings to make North High Street, rechristened the Glasstown Arts District, feel a bit worn, but the number of galleries has shot from zero to nearly twenty, and restaurants from about five to more than fifteen. The vacancy rate is just 7 percent, and commercial real estate values have tripled.

“It’s amazing how far they’ve gone in just a few years,” says artist Ellen Gavin, who was lured to town in 2003 and runs the Green Boots Studio on North Second Street.

After quitting her vice president–level job at L’Oréal in New York to pursue art full-time, the former North Jersey resident considered other locations but chose Millville for its budding art community and $6,000 in grants and interest-free loans from the town’s development corporation. With the money, she was able to redo her new gallery’s façade and spruce up the property.

“I’m glad I bought early,” she says. “There’s a lot of buzz about this whole area.”

The most buzz comes on Third Fridays, when the galleries stay open late. “It’s nice to be able to just mingle [among the] various buildings and take in the artwork—it’s really something different for this area,” says Old Oar House manager Mary Pat McCann.

Millville’s latest boost came in February with passage of the New Jersey Sports and Entertainment District Urban Revitalization Act. The law allows the town to finance a motor-sports park, “paid for entirely by levies on the users of the facilities inside the motor park,” explained State Senator Nicholas Asselta, one of five South Jersey legislators who sponsored the bill.

The project will be built on 707 vacant acres next to the municipal airport. The first part, Thunderbolt Raceway, is scheduled to open next spring, with hotels, restaurants, a race-driving school, and other attractions anticipated to follow by 2015.—Jason Schwartz

Montclair

When you can claim three downtowns, a little chauvinism is perhaps understandable.

Contrast is king on funky but chic Bloomfield Avenue. Stroll toward the burgundy-curtained windows of Fascino, one of the state’s best restaurants, and you’ll pass the “adult” diversions—Lingerie! Bachelor party gifts!—offered by Montclair Video. A few blocks west and you can buy a century-old armoire with a five-figure price tag at Ivory Bird Antiques, or have an eagle inked into your favorite body part at Performance Tattoos.

“It’s a little more urban, a little more edgy than a typical homogeneous suburban downtown,” says local architect Eric Maran, president of Montclair’s Business Improvement District.   

Speaking of contrast, not to mention abundance, Montclair is  blessed with three distinct shopping districts. Tall and skinny, the town is shaped like a parfait. Bloomfield Avenue, cutting across the southern end, is the super-rich bottom layer. Watchung Plaza, in the middle, and Upper Montclair Center, at the northern end, are more quaint and villagey, combining neighborhood services (hardware, dry cleaner, shoe repair) with boutiques and restaurants. A case can be made that a fourth district is emerging about half a mile south of Bloomfield Avenue in what old-timers call the South End.

For day-and-night staying power, though, it’s hard to beat Bloomfield Avenue and its offshoots, such as pedestrian-friendly Church Street. Start with the excellent Montclair Art Museum on Bloomfield Avenue, check out the latest art exhibit at Gallery 51 on Church Street, take in a movie at the Claridge multiplex or a play at Luna Stage, then make the hard decision: Thai? Greek? Italian? Sushi? South Indian? Ethiopian? Pizza? Barbecue? It’s hard to go wrong.

Still have energy? Try Rascals comedy club or a concert at Outpost in the Burbs, where the likes of Roseanne Cash or Richard Thompson might be holding forth any given Friday.

Clothes shopping on Bloomfield Avenue has always been a bit hit or miss. (It’s worth walking two blocks up North Fullerton Avenue from Bloomfield to Marion Lake’s unique Dem Two Hands, a boutique featuring handmade clothing and accessories from artisans around the world.) But things are in flux.

 “Downtown Montclair is on the threshold of greatness,” says Tom Lonergan, executive director of the Business Improvement District. The 800-pound gorilla is the Siena, slated to open later this year. Built on the site of the former Hahne’s department store, which notoriously sat vacant about fifteen years, the Siena will add luxury condos and street-level retail to the scene.

Last year, Urban Outfitters opened in the shadow of the Siena on South Park Street, and while it’s the first retail chain in a district dominated by mom-and-pop shops, it likely won’t be the last. Rising rents have claimed as casualties several shops with high funk quotients, such as the novelty store Copacabanas and the retro ice-cream parlor the Pop Shop.

Perpetually inadequate parking gives all downtown merchants agita, though the situation eased somewhat after a multi-level deck opened in late 2005. Everyone loves the holiday season in December, when the town puts plastic bags over the meters—free parking! But at any time of year, if you spy a vacant spot on the opposite side of the avenue, it will be gone before you can pull a U-ey (which politically correct locals would never do, it being illegal). Residents take it all in stride, perhaps because so many of them are refugees from Brooklyn or the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where spaces vanish even quicker.—Allen St. John

New Brunswick

Growing, growing, and still growing. Did we mention it’s growing?

xThree decades after Johnson & Johnson announced it would invest in its hometown rather than leave it—an epochal moment in the city’s history—New Brunswick continues to develop and change. The widening of Route 18, a necessary if traffic-snarling project, is expected to drag on at least two years. Meanwhile, residential properties are opening, including the One Spring Street luxury high-rise and Fulton Square—a community of luxury (and affordable) condos and townhouses on a thirteen-acre former industrial site. Because Fulton Square is in a redevelopment zone, new homeowners receive a break on their property taxes.

Luxury condominiums are also part of the Heldrich, a 248-room hotel and conference center that opened last month. It occupies a full city block that had fallen into disrepair. The Heldrich also offers a spa, restaurant, and plenty of space for retail. James Cahill, the city’s longtime mayor, has called it one of the state’s most ambitious mixed-use development projects in decades.

It used to be that Rutgers students were seldom seen on George Street in the heart of downtown. Now, Liberty Plaza, a mixed office and retail complex completed in 1998, and Rockoff Hall, a tower of 186 apartment suites with street-level stores finished in 2005, cater to Rutgers students.

Some of the city’s numerous health-care centers have reinvented whole city blocks, compensating or relocating businesses displaced by the expansion. Another leading player has been the New Brunswick Development Corporation, or Devco, which has overseen more than $1.6 billion in investments in the city since its founding in 1976. (Currently, $650 million in projects are under construction or in planning stages.) In 1987, New Brunswick City Market was founded to oversee the city’s state-designated Special Improvement District. An Urban Enterprise Zone created in 2004 further sweetened the pot for local businesses, offering shoppers a 3.5 percent sales tax. Since redevelopment began, rates of unemployment and crime have dropped. Between 1997 and 2005, the crime rate was nearly cut in half.

As an important Revolutionary War site, a nineteenth-century industrial center, especially for rubber products, and the home of Rutgers, New Brunswick is drenched in history. Official city historian George Dawson recalls that in the 1970s, some residents objected to the city’s removing the Hiram Market District from the state and national registers of historic places. The city prevailed and redevelopment proceeded. While Dawson has raised questions about other projects, he likes the Hiram results: Attractive townhouses and apartments, and restaurants in renovated nineteenth-century buildings. “It hasn’t changed the feel of the neighborhood,” he says. —Jennifer Weiss

Princeton

Brains and beauty—and artisanal ice cream.

Albert Einstein once described his move to Princeton in 1933 as “banishment to paradise.” Coming from someone who could be as spacey as he was smart, that might sound like loopy hyperbole. But if you’ve ever walked Witherspoon Street in the spring when the pear trees are blooming crazily, spreading a canopy of pink and white, you know exactly what he meant.

Beauty and brains: Those are two of the qualities that make Princeton  great. History is a big part of its charm too—and, it must be said, so is money. It’s a town for undergrads hunched over laptops, moms pushing strollers, wizened academics, and red-cheeked kids fresh from hockey practice.

Above all, Princeton is a university town, drawing energy from the world-renowned Ivy League icon right across Nassau Street, not to mention the Princeton Theological Seminary and the Institute for Advanced Study, which are a short walk away. And in Princeton, everybody does walk, which means that a stroll down Nassau Street can be an intellectual people-watcher’s feast. It’s nothing to bump into cerebral celebrities like Joyce Carol Oates or Cornel West, or perhaps both in the course of a single walk. And even if you have no idea who the guy is sitting next to you in Small World Coffee holding forth about particle physics, it’s a treat to be able to hear so many fascinating conversations. A favorite story comes from a friend who noticed a fellow patron in Small World hunched over A Beautiful Mind, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was sitting back to back with the book’s subject, John Nash himself.

The tree-lined half-mile of Nassau Street facing campus, plus Palmer Square and a few side streets like Witherspoon—that’s downtown. To walk a loop around all of it takes perhaps fifteen minutes, which also is roughly how long it would take to walk from Einstein’s house at 112 Mercer Street to Paul Robeson’s birthplace at 110 Witherspoon.

Historical goosebumps galore can be had in the Princeton Cemetery at the corner of Witherspoon and Paul Robeson Place. Known as “the Westminster Abbey of America,” it is the final resting place for many notable people, including Grover Cleveland, George Gallup, Aaron Burr, mathematicians John Von Neumann and Kurt Gödel, and fiery eighteenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards, one of eleven Princeton University presidents buried there.

If there was a key moment in the town’s development, it came in the 1930s, when Edgar Palmer, a member of the Princeton class of 1903 who’d made a fortune in zinc and other investments, began buying up real estate along Nassau Street with the notion of building a faux-colonial town square. To do so Palmer had to tear down a very real and historically significant African-American neighborhood. Many of these residents’ houses were actually picked up and moved farther down Witherspoon Street.

Today Palmer Square thrives, and not only because its tidy Dutch colonial architecture is so pleasing. The McCarter Theatre won a 1994 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater; the superb Princeton University Art Museum joins sports events and lectures at the university as public attractions. Palmer Square is anchored by the 203-room Nassau Inn, which is surrounded by upscale chain shops and quirky local businesses such as the Silver Shop, which dates to 1937; the Bent Spoon, specializing in “artisanal ice cream”; and Hazel & Hannah’s Pawtisserie, a bakery for pets.

Nearly a century ago residents campaigned successfully to shift the construction of Route 206 several hundred yards to the west to avoid running through downtown. Today Princeton residents are battling a recent state ruling that would permit large trucks to rumble down both Nassau Street and Route 206. It seems a battle worth fighting: Who wouldn’t want to preserve paradise? —Merrell Noden

Red Bank

Down by the riverside, the sounds are sweet.

Downtown Red Bank was rife with empty storefronts when No Ordinary Joe opened on Broad Street in 1993. “We thought that was so exciting,” recalls Tricia Rumola, then a student at Red Bank Catholic High School and now executive director of RiverCenter, the nonprofit group charged with keeping downtown charged up.

From little coffee beans mighty downtowns grow. Sure, it took more than caffeine (a Special Improvement District helped), but No Ordinary Joe is still pumping java, and the compact, strollable downtown is bustling.

In its revival, Red Bank harkened back to its roots as a Navesink River trading post. Much of the excitement centers on the river and outdoor events in two parks along the water. The Red Bank Jazz and Blues Festival, scheduled this year for June 1–3, draws tens of thousands of visitors, and smaller outdoor concerts featuring the likes of folkie Steve Forbert also fill the calendar. An annual independent film festival has gained wide notice. Art galleries dot White and Monmouth Streets. “It’s a proven fact that arts and economic development go hand in hand,” Rumola says.

Riverside Gardens Park, on a bluff above the Navesink, was created in 1998 on the site of a 160-year-old mansion whose demolition galvanized preservationists. A popular site for concerts and film screenings, the park is also a grassy perch from which to view the waterway.

Factor in about 70 restaurants, plenty of indigenous stores (including a comic-book emporium drenched in the puerility of filmmaker Kevin Smith, who owns it, and a surf and skateboard shop as hip as any you might find in Aspen), and your cup will surely overflow, whether  regular or decaf. —John T. Ward

Ridgewood

Its pedigree helped it fight off the siren call of the malls.

How ya gonna keep ’em on Main Street after they’ve seen the megamalls? Like many Bergen County suburbs, Ridgewood didn’t have an immediate answer after Garden State Plaza (1957) and the other Paramus shopping malls began to open. By the early 1990s, as Oliver Abel, a Ridgewood chocolatier, recalls, “It was kind of an overlooked downtown with lots of vacant buildings.”

But Ridgewood had a few things going for it, including a train station; a stable and affluent population; an attractive main shopping street with an eclectic mix of storefronts, many dating to the 1920s; and wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.

“The money was here,” says Bill Ryder, a realtor with Gilsenan & Co. and a 30-year Ridgewood resident. To cater to an upscale clientele, “downtown businesses re-emphasized personal service.”

Of course, all those vacancies meant rock-bottom rents, a major attraction for modest-profit businesses such as restaurants. Among the first businesses to take advantage of the situation were restaurants such as It’s Greek to Me, Latour, Mela, Joel’s Malibu Kitchen, and 28 Oak Street. They bet, correctly, that Ridgewood’s upscale residents would stay close to home if given a good enough reason. The restaurants got a boost ten years ago when the village passed an ordinance allowing outdoor dining on those wide sidewalks. Soon, downtown shopping began to revitalize. Talbots and Ann Taylor came in. New boutiques opened.

Today, one-of-a-kind shops dominate, with a sprinkling of chain stores including Gap Kids and Sigrid Olsen. (Bergen County’s blue laws, which prevent businesses opening on Sundays, may keep some of the bigger chains away, says Chamber of Commerce president Tony Damiano.)

The main shopping street is Ridgewood Avenue, with the mission-style train station dividing East Ridgewood Avenue from West Ridgewood Avenue. In the center of the shopping area, two blocks east of the station, a brand-new freestanding clock tower fronts Van Neste Memorial Park, where shoppers can take a break on tree-shaded benches surrounded by manicured flower beds.

On Friday and Saturday nights, people flock to Ridgewood for its wide variety of restaurants, everything from Malee Thai Cuisine to the southern, Cajun, and barbecue specialties of Silver Oak Bistro to the late-night tapas and Mediterranean fare of Mediterraneo.

In fact, restaurants are so busy on weekends that locals complain that it’s hard to get reservations and impossible to find a place to park—the downside of downtown success.—Carol Weeg

Stone Harbor

Ahh, the crunch of sand underfoot, the rumble of skateboards...

xLife in Stone Harbor, situated at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach, is pretty great no matter when you go. Thanks to conservation efforts, it has one of the few beaches in the state that has actually widened in recent years. And while year-round residents are used to the Atlantic’s tidal ebb and flow, the Memorial Day-to-Labor Day churn is a human tsunami, when the 1,000 permanent residents find themselves living with 19,000 new friends and neighbors.

Compounding matters is last year’s “discovery” by Forbes magazine that Stone Harbor is the 47th most expensive zip code in the nation. Not sure if that’s really swanky? Stone Harbor was bracketed on the list by Nantucket and New York City. In 2005, the median home price was $1.3 million. Yet the median annual household income is just $57,000. And so, as in most Shore towns, the locals and the moneyed interlopers peacefully co-exist, each enjoying their respective versions of real life.

Stone Harbor’s summer lovers—whether they got in on the ground floor or bought in the middle of the boom—are happy to call it home for a season. Meanwhile, those who work, go to school, or enjoy their retirement year-round use their quiet, off-peak months to chill out, enjoy the peace and quiet, and simply live their lives.

Shoobies and locals alike prize the gritty tickle of sand underfoot. Sand sprinkles the bricks on the four-block stretch of 96th Street that is the heart of downtown.

Here pedestrians step aside for conversation, folks cruise by on bikes, kids rumble along on skateboards. Dogs wait patiently, their leashes wrapped around parking meters the way Roy Rogers tied Trigger’s reins to a hitching post. Stores range from high-end (Pappagallo and Island Pursuit—among the latter’s other locations are Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) to throwbacks such as Hoy’s Five and Ten, and Pete Smith’s Surf Shop. There’s also Tee Time Golf (the Pine Valley of putt-putt), built on a rooftop affording views of the ocean and the shoppers below. Saunter past T-shirt shops, the arcade, and the realtors’ offices. Duck out of the crowd onto Third Avenue and find a place to snack or dine. You’ll want to hit downtown again on your way home.—David Chmiel

Summit

Like Norm walking into Cheers, locals relish that first-name welcome.

Downtown Summit is about a four- minute ride from one of the state’s most chi-chi shopping centers, the Mall at Short Hills. But it hasn’t succumbed to the rote appeal of plastic shrubbery, concrete parking decks, and climate-controlled promenades, and it remains a destination for locals and visitors alike.x

Being a transit hub helps: Summit is where New Jersey Transit’s Dover Line intersects its Gladstone branch. Equally helpful is manageable traffic flow on Springfield Avenue, the business district’s main drag. “Because Springfield Avenue is not the main thoroughfare, downtown Summit works better than some other towns where the main street is very busy,” says Dave Rosen, a Summit native and founding partner of the Rosen Group, a local architecture and design firm. Ample, free, off-street parking is another boon. But for Rosen the key is locally-owned businesses.

“When you’re shopping downtown, you want to feel like Norm walking into Cheers,” he says. “You want to go to a place where everybody knows your name. You’re not just buying a product, you’re buying an experience.”

Summit’s hominess persists despite a bumper crop of banks. Since Hilltop Community Bank opened on Springfield Avenue seven years ago, Mortimer O’Shea, its president and CEO, has seen half a dozen competitors pop up within a two-minute walk. The competition hasn’t dulled O’Shea’s enthusiasm for Summit, however. “It remains a great walking-around downtown,” he says.

No account of downtown Summit’s charms would be complete without a mention of the old Summit Opera House on Springfield Avenue at Kent Place Boulevard. The Opera House once served as a meeting place for the Summit chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. Now, ironically, the ground floor houses a J.B. Winberie’s restaurant, where for $19 parties of two or more can choose from a select menu of wines. —Terry Golway

Westfield

Only town east of the Mississippi to win a Main Street Award.

A funny thing happens on a trip to Westfield. Maybe you just came to see a movie at the Rialto or shop at Trader Joe’s or Lord & Taylor. But then you notice the Funk & Standard Variety Store, designer clothiers like Menina, and—well, before you know it, you’re staying for dinner. No wonder Westfield won the Great American Main Street Award from the National Historic Trust in 2004—the only town east of the Mississippi to have received it.

The malls hit Westfield hard in the 1980s, but the 1996 establishment of a Special Improvement District helped the downtown recover. The store vacancy rate has plunged from a high of 40 percent in the early ’90s to just 3 percent now. Westfield has bucked conventional wisdom by encouraging a balance of independent stores and upscale chains. The current ratio of independents to chains is about 60/40.

A traffic cop is often on hand to manage the busier pedestrian crossings, and there are plenty of pedestrians. Despite a chronic parking squeeze, voters overwhelmingly nixed a 2004 referendum to build a parking deck. Instead, existing lots are being redesigned to hold more spaces. The town hosts a summer jazz festival, when many restaurants offer outdoor dining. People can stroll, listening to bands play on different corners. Says Mayor James Skibitsky, “It feels almost like a European city.”—Jennifer Melick


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