New Brunswick Redevelopment
Interview with Tony Nelessen
Berkhout: You're ready?
Nelessen: I'm ready.
Nelessen: I'm as ready as I'm going to be.
Listokin: I was just saying, you know – just to literally catch our breath.
Nelessen: Yeah, this really has given me a lot to think about.
Listokin: What's gotten the least attention . . ?
Nelessen: The staff looks interesting; I mean the whole thing looked like a great. What I needed – Francoise said what you need in your life is another challenge.
Listokin: No, no . . .
Nelessen: The office now is almost non-existent. It's like I need another challenge.
Listokin: You know, this gives you an opportunity to impart your vision on . . .
Nelessen: And fate has sometimes a way of playing its games in the same way, I think when you think about this New Brunswick thing. Things happened at a time when I walked into something that I had really no idea what I was walking into. And fate is just, fate has a way of playing those games and it certainly has played those games with me.
Listokin: Alright, so Tony, thank you. We've been enjoying doing this oral history.
Nelessen: Yeah, it sounds like a fabulous project.
Listokin: You don't always have an opportunity to do it. So we have interviewed I guess what, about twelve. . ?
Listokin: Sixteen, and then at some later point, we need to touch base with you on how we can carve out from the video and audio into something that . . .
Nelessen: Yeah, because I just finished editing my fourth film, so I've got pretty good capability on that.
Listokin: So, we'll have to have that discussion.
Nelessen: Yeah, that's fine.
Listokin: Now we sent just a broad outline.
Listokin: You know, which it's not like this is a Q & A.
Nelessen: No, no, but I thought the questions were . . .
Listokin: As long as we can pick up . . .
Nelessen: I thought the questions were good and . . .
Listokin: The points there were why and who and what.
Nelessen: Right, sure.
Listokin: The outcomes and hindsight, 20/20 hindsight.
Listokin: And is it transferable and where do we go for more information on that?
Listokin: So I could sort of go down some of these things or I guess maybe why don't I just stop and see if it works. And then I you want to . . .
Nelessen: No, I think it was fine, because those questions were good.
Listokin: More . . .
Nelessen: Because they made me think.
Listokin: More free-flowing and we'll go from there.
Listokin: I guess the why; you know what do you envision were the motivations for the redevelopment from the different parties?
Nelessen: From the parties, I think . . .
Listokin: And along with that, you know who were the different parties and what were their motivations?
Berkhout: Excuse me, David. Are you going to ask him the background question, too?
Listokin: You're right. Thank you, thank you.
Berkhout: Right, which is not there.
Listokin: If you can – as we're doing this, we're finding out people's personal history is important to informing on . . .
Listokin: If you can just give us a brief, you know personal history, you know where you were educated, where you lived and coming to New Brunswick and you know just so that we can have that framework.
Nelessen: Oh, okay.
Listokin: Thank you, Thea.
Nelessen: Okay, do you want me to start from the beginning. I'll start at the beginning.
Listokin: Start at the beginning.
Berkhout: Okay, like where you have lived, so – and what is – did you live in New Brunswick at some point or whatever?
Nelessen: Oh yeah, I definitely did live in New Brunswick.
Berkhout: And how that. . ?
Nelessen: I would tend to think that relative to the New Brunswick story, it has to go back to my time in Cambridge, living in Boston. That was where Francoise and I lived before we moved to, before we moved to New Brunswick.
Nelessen: And we had lived in Boston, I had taught at Harvard and I was teaching at Image Work School of Photography. And with affirmative action at Harvard, you know, Adele had to take my place, we needed a black woman, ideally and junior faculty. So Salah El Shakhs called me and said, "Listen, we heard about you. Are you interested in coming here to New Jersey and we're starting a new program and we need a physical planner?" So that's how I got, that's how I got started with this.
And the first time that we moved, because I came here back and forth for like three years, the university paid to fly me back and forth to Boston and then finally asked me to do more courses and in the process I bought a car, which I didn't have a car before.
Listokin: And just for the record, this was about what year?
Nelessen: We're talking about 1973, we're in 1973, and I think we moved here then in 1974 that we actually, physically came. And I think the whole – the whole involvement once I was here came from my initial impressions of the place. And some very important people, to me, in this whole redevelopment process and that is the very first class that I taught which was in the basement of Livingston College Library.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Listokin: Uh hum.
Nelessen: Had maybe eight, nine or ten people in it, which was the size of the class, three of which became partners of mine in a small consulting organization called Community Alternatives, which we then started in the King block which is next to where the Hyatt Hotel is now.
Berkhout: Oh, okay.
Nelessen: So we started up on the third floor of that. And when the bust happened, when the office went belly-up at that point because there was literally no work at that recession, we moved, Francoise and I, moved into the office because it was like 6,000 square feet and we had our two kids there. Bob Schneider, who is really one of those pivotal people . . .
Berkhout: He was then the head of the Frog and . . ?
Nelessen: No, he owned . . .
Berkhout: J. August Café?
Nelessen: No, he owned J. August Café and Bob . . .
Listokin: And was a student at. . ?
Nelessen: Was a student at Rutgers.
Berkhout: That's right.
Nelessen: And he's a funny guy because his dog attended every class at the university and received an honorary degree.
Nelessen: The dog went everyplace this guy went. But Bob, Kathy Andreczek and David Treach became my first three partners. It was Bob Schneider who really introduced me to New Brunswick.
Nelessen: And he had this extraordinary gift of collecting people. And Bob was the guy who said to me, "Listen, you should move here because we could have an incredible time. Look at this place, it's deteriorating, it's funky, it's interesting, this could be one of the greatest places to live anyplace." And he said, "I want to introduce you to some people." And so we started going around to some people, the antique shops and the bars and what have you. And the number of people that he knew was pretty extraordinary. So it was through Bob . . .
Listokin: Since we can't talk to Bob . . .
Listokin: Can you just, a brief sidebar?
Nelessen: A brief sidebar. Bob Scheider started the Frog and the Peach – I mean started the J. August Café on Church Street. He was also the guy who organized the original City of Lights and was the guy who organized all of the Oktoberfests, which – right before, he died of cancer now about fifteen years ago, of pancreatic cancer. A huge funeral was for him. But at the last party he had, 50,000 people or more came to New Brunswick and it's never been repeated since. And it was, it was that cadre of people that I became the urban designer for and that's how I got – got involved in the very beginning in this process. And not knowing anything about John Lynch or Mr. Sellers or Heldrich or New Brunswick Tomorrow, none of those folks. It was just an intuitive response that if I'm here and we're going to have our kids here, we already—you know shortly after we were here we had our first child at the hospital and said, "Listen, this is where we're going to stay. And so what we really need to do is find out what are the resources in this place and let's work to make this place something really incredible."
Listokin: And the cadre again of these people, besides Bob Schneider?
Nelessen: Well it was things like Peter Weeks, Michelle D'Amato, and Susan Starr were some, the folks from – Aaron Aardvark, Jim Black, Betsy . . .
Berkhout: So these are retail people?
Nelessen: These were primarily retail people, but they were people who – Tom Clark, people who lived here and were willing to move into the city.
Listokin: Especially, I hate to bother you with the sidebar, but . . .
Nelessen: No, that's . . .
Listokin: You're giving us part of this picture that we just don't have at all.
Listokin: Just maybe a sentence on each of those people, just if you. . ?
Nelessen: Okay. Susan probably was one of the most important and she had . . .
Listokin: For the record, Susan. . ?
Nelessen: Susan Starr and she worked with, I forget Arthur's last name, at a place called Aaron Aardvark here.
Nelessen: Susan was an historian from Rutgers and she was the one who said, "Tony, you're living down in the district, down in the Hiram Market District, it's a really important place." And I said, "Yeah, and it really is an important place and it resonates with me because that's where we decided to live."
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: She said, "What we need to do is we need to get this on the National Historic Register because it's deteriorating, and the city clearly in '73 when I got here, was clearly at a stage of deterioration.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: I mean there were a few odds and ends. So Susan was very much a part of that. Peter Weeks, Peter Weeks was the gadfly in town. Peter was, I think, a Ph.D. student. Peter got involved with the extension of Route 18, which was really the first major, major element to happen. Because when I came the two stances were standing in the middle of the river there and Peter was one of those guys who rallied against an alternative, a green alternative, even at that time for this big highway going through and covering over the canal. Peter was a very important part of it.
Then there other folks like Lee Richardson who was from the Crossroads Theater Company, that start-up theater company and Rick Khan, those guys were part of this cadre of people. Then there was the whole Dick Mack, the whole gay community and gay students we had here all kind of rallied around that, so there was that group of people. And it just, and it seemed to just go on and on and on.
Berkhout: And Jim Black is the owner of the Frog and the Peach.
Nelessen: Jim Black is the owner of the Frog and the Peach. Jim . . .
Berkhout: Who does not want to be interviewed.
Nelessen: Oh, I would suspect not.
Berkhout: He said that he wants to forget that part of his life.
Nelessen: Yeah, no Jim – it's interesting that . . .
Listokin: He was part of this cadre, right?
Nelessen: Jim was part of this cadre, but it's really interesting when you think about it that the two buildings that still remain down there beside the synagogue are the Delta's, which was called . . .
Berkhout: J. August.
Nelessen: J. August, originally, which is the old A&P supermarket chain, and the Home News, which is the Frog and the Peach. Two folks, all three of us lived together in the same building. And I went to court with one to try to get Jim his building permit. So it's interesting that those are the only two buildings that remained. And what is interesting to me is that once the big defeat happened, that everybody thought was the defeat, Bob stayed on and battled . . .
Listokin: And I guess you are referring to the Hiram Market?
Nelessen: The Hiram Market defeat and that the city was not going to go in that kind of funky way that most of these people thought it should go and could go, they all left.
Listokin: And, I guess, before we leave the Hiram Market, we had this cadre recognize some of its significance, it went on the national registry.
Nelessen: Clearly we started photographing . . .
Listokin: The national and state registries.
Nelessen: Yeah, it went on the national and state register.
Listokin: And then there was the proposal for the Hyatt?
Nelessen: Then there was the proposal for the Hyatt.
Nelessen: Well, there were lots of things that happened in between that period of time. I think that while there was this kind of growing cadre of support people here, there was simultaneously a whole other parallel track going on with Mr. Heldrich and Mr. Sellars and Paul Abdalla and Abe Wallach and the folks from, once New Brunswick Tomorrow had actually started. And they came up with a kind of a sketch plan; the American Cities first did a sketch plan.
Berkhout: Right, Leo Molinaro.
Nelessen: And said, "Listen there is a real possibility, there is potential here." I think that was a study that really talked about the potential. And then I think from that one, then they hired I.M. Pei to do the first building and to do this first sketch of the Hiram Market, which when we saw it, literally bulldozed everything.
Listokin: Uh hum.
Nelessen: I mean it just bulldozed everything. And at that point, I think it added fuel to the historic preservation fire saying, "Listen, this extraordinary resource, I mean all of the stuff that happened down in this place and the scale and the character, they plan on bulldozing it all."
Listokin: As you said, actually it's interesting. We've gotten some background how the American Cities and then the I.M. Pei plan was very visionary.
Listokin: And in fact a lot of what ultimately happened . . .
Listokin: Really drew out of that.
Listokin: So maybe we can talk a little – you clearly felt otherwise. I mean . . .
Nelessen: You know, it's hard when you think about, think about that. We had established ourselves up on that third floor. We could walk down the street, there was still a kosher Jewish butcher down the street, there were still people who knew our kids' names and the grocery was down on the street and that was down on the Market. So and once you understood all of the kind of wonderful history that happened down there, you went, "This is something that really deserves to be saved because it had a very important part of American history and it's a very important part of the history of New Brunswick."
And then there was David Muyskens, by the way, who was the pastor.
Nelessen: Of the Dutch Reformed Church and then there was Father McCarthy. Father McCarthy always was very jovial and very nice and loved his port and loved his roast beef, as I thought. And he was always a guy who could moderate between – if anybody, Father McCarthy was the one that kind of moderated between the two. By Reverend Muyskens was clearly with us. It was like, "Okay this is originally the Dutch community and we're going to follow along."
So if you say there was a spiritual advisor, it was reverend Muyskens and then Father McCarthy was always a good guy who was always around and was giving good support, but also talking to everybody else. So he was a good guy. So, I think that as that emerged to think about getting it onto the register, that group, it was one Thanksgiving and it was, I think, Francoise and I still smile about it. We think it was all of the indigents from New Brunswick, we decided to have Thanksgiving for everybody and I think we had, I think 90 people over. And people cooked and I mean the whole loft was full. And people showed movies and I mean it was really incredible. But the discussion on that was, what are we going to do?
This kind of character that we were kind of looking for of a community of people, I think everybody felt a little bit in jeopardy of what was going on and the PEI plan was there. So they said to me, "Do you think that you could develop an alternative plan for the Hiram Market?"
Listokin: Uh hum.
Nelessen: And I said, "sure, I mean, I'll take it to Rutgers and see what Rutgers has to say about it. And I'm sure lots of students would be interested in doing that. And it certainly was a huge studio." But the university was also very good because Ken Wheeler came up to my loft and, he is the only guy that ever approached mea and ever came and knocked on my door and said, "Listen, I've got to talk to you." He said, "Do you mind if I attend your classes?"
I said, "I would love to have you as a historian. I would love to have his as part of my classes."
Berkhout: An urban historian.
Nelessen: And he said, "Oh, I just kind of want to make sure, we're walking a tender line here now and I just want to make sure you're not going to fall one way or the other on this. But try to go down the middle." So and then we started showing him the resources, here's the building and here's what happened and here's its character. And this is why it should be nominated, etc. And what we did is very judiciously looked at every building, did plans for every building that we thought could be kept.
Listokin: In Hiram Market?
Nelessen: In Hiram Market, every building that could be kept and a lot of them that we knew were wood frame, I'm sorry we're just not going to be able to keep that. But how do we very carefully put the stuff in-between? And, I think one of the key contention's was that Church Street used to go all the way down and we did an alternative plan for a hotel that would have fit on one block, with a big walkway through it, as opposed to the four blocks it took to build that hotel. And then obviously the Pei plan which said, "Scrape everything down." By the way, they never did the Pei plan, it probably would have been better than what's down there, but whatever they did, everything that was planned.
Listokin: How so, just on that nuance?
Listokin: You know, the Pei plan versus what actually happened.
Nelessen: What actually happened, there were issues with both of the plans. But the Pei plan never, I believe, called for a hotel at the size that it was. I think that block was another kind of a development block at that point. I think the hotel and somehow or another was generated out of the UDAG.
Berkhout: Yeah, that's right.
Nelessen: Was generated out of the UDAG, because there were two thoughts. One was that Johnson & Johnson clearly were – I mean everybody became fairly aware fairly soon that Johnson & Johnson was clearly calling the shots on this. That the city was so desperate, in fact, they were desperate because, I think in '74 or '75, I and Bob Schneider and an army of 250 or 300 people hung lights fourteen miles of lights on all of the buildings because they couldn't afford to put in seasonal holiday lights in downtown.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: So Rick Lanman retired as a Provost, I think at NYU, Rick helped me all the time. We were up in his ladder trucks, stringing lights because we felt it was our town and we needed to do something for the town. It was the holidays and if they don't have it, we'll put the energy together to be able to do it. And Berman's Hardware store of Highland Park donated most of the lights.
Berkhout: Oh really?
Nelessen: And it was all of those people who just somehow or another, through Scheider's energy, everybody got excited about it, "Yeah, we'll do that." And so that part of it, I guess . . .
Listokin: So I guess we have the I.M. Pei plan on a smaller footprint.
Listokin: And then there was the ultimate, the UDAG which was larger.
Nelessen: Which was a much larger plan.
Listokin: And the preservation alternative, which is what the studio . . .
Listokin: Preservation and new construction.
Nelessen: Preservation and new construction, right.
Berkhout: Came out of studio class?
Listokin: Which came out of the studio class?
Nelessen: The studio class.
Listokin: Can you talk a little about that, just . . .
Nelessen: Sure. That plan went from Albany Street all the way now to what was in the public housing projects, to Commercial Avenue. That was the study area we looked at.
Berkhout: From George Street down?
Nelessen: From George Street, no not George Street, Neilson Street down. But we were interfacing across the street on Neilson. So it was a fairly . . .
Listokin: It was a lot.
Nelessen: It was much larger than Hiram Market.
Nelessen: Fairly large blocks, so the fun on that one was to do this interesting, I thought, very interesting building that would have an atrium on Dennis Street. So Dennis Street, which is the main street where Frog and the Peach is, would continue straight on down, it would go through this big, magnificent entry into a big five story, six story, seven story atrium and go directly on to the other side and connect to Johnson & Johnson on the other side. And we thought, "Wow, we could really make that ting, wrap that around the block and then wrap the next block around with retail and turn Dennis Street essentially into a entertainment street.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: That was the thought, bars, restaurants and jazz clubs. And have that one, those two blocks that would be completely focused – if you want to stay at the hotel, that's fine. As you can see, the two restaurants that survived that started there, the Frog and the Peach and Delta's are the remnants of that idea.
Nelessen: So then what happened, it would continue then down Dennis Street and then down on Dennis Street, the big parking lot that now has the housing on it, our proposal at tat point was to move – the science center was up for grabs, we thought "That science center in connection with Rutgers . . ."
Berkhout: What science?
Nelessen: It's out in the, the New Jersey Science Center, which is near the statue of Liberty, Liberty Park, that big science center.
Berkhout: Oh, Liberty Science.
Nelessen: Oh, it wasn't called – it was called the New Jersey Science Center.
Nelessen: And we thought "Wow, can you imagine bringing that in as the other anchor in this place?"
Berkhout: What . . .
Nelessen: I mean this would have been a synergy that would have been just incredible. So we did plans for a full museum on side, a full hotel on the other side and this very careful little infusion into the actual fabric, but turning Dennis essentially into you know primarily a pedestrian street like Austin or Boulder or what have you.
Listokin: And this is about what time?
Nelessen: This was about – I know exactly when. I think this was, and this had to be, David, in – it had to be '79, the fall of '79.
Listokin: Two things, I guess if you can just take us to the plan and what happened. But then also, I'd like to take advantage, you have a very nice . . .
Listokin: Notes on time, which are very important and that's what we're trying to do. So maybe if you can just take us to the studio and the preservation and development and then what happened with that.
Listokin: And I would be delighted if you could take us through this time, if you could take us through this timeline.
Nelessen: Well there was a big; there was a big public presentation of that plan that was done here. And we were back and forth at the city council at the same time and they were very polite in terms of listening to it. But then we started getting these big editorials in the paper by people like Abe Wallach who thought how terrible this was and it didn't fit into the vision as to what Devco wanted, etc. And then the frosting on the cake was that they revealed plans for the New Hyatt, and then, quite to everybody's surprise, I mean everybody's horror, they lined up what was considered to be the three or four best historic preservation experts in the state of New Jersey and got them at a public meeting to testify that there was nothing of significance to be kept in the Hiram Market.
Nelessen: And when that happened, that night it was like somebody ran over all of us. That whole group was, "That's it, we're out of here."
Berkhout: Aren't they the ones who just helped you get it on the historical record?
Nelessen: Yeah, they did. But once it got de-designated, they got it on the record.
Nelessen: And then there would have had to be a, then there was another big hearing held to de-designate it.
Berkhout: But didn't . . . I mean these three people who they brought in from the state. . ?
Berkhout: Were they not part of the approval to make this a historic designation?
Nelessen: I have a feeling that – they had to go through the state in order to get it.
Berkhout: Right and so that seems like a conflict of interest or something.
Nelessen: No kidding. No kidding, a big-time conflict of . . .
Nelessen: I don't know what happened, but they all got up there, read their speeches and got it de-designated.
Berkhout: I see.
Nelessen: And I had never – I was embarrassed for the profession.
Nelessen: I was mortified how unethical these people were. And I was just so sad that none of this historic value that had such spirit. This place has had, this place had a feeing to it that nothing else had in this town. That somehow or another, they got paid to lie.
Listokin: Uh hum.
Nelessen: Because I can't imagine them professionally not understanding what was there, but they needed to get that UDAG grant and they needed to get that hotel in, supposedly in the same way they needed to get Route 18, because if you didn't get 18 and you didn't get the hotel, Johnson & Johnson was going to threaten to leave. And that was always the big threat.
Nelessen: They're going to leave. Well, we went, "Alright, so we can find something else, there's enough –" see there was an arrogance on our part that we really believed that this cadre of 50,000 people or whatever came to the party, could really do it if we really focused all of the energy on New Brunswick and making this a kind of Austin of New Jersey. You know, it was an arrogance on our part, but one that we thought for almost five years that we might be able to pull it off. And to me, that was – once that happened, once they got it de-designated and once the Abe Wallach thing came out saying, "Well this plan doesn't mean anything and it's not according to our vision, etc, etc." That was the first straw. People were still, "Well but maybe we can still do something. But when the de-designation then occurred, I had never seen such demoralization of a group of people in my entire life. That's why I have such tremendous respect for Jim and Betsey because they stared. But out of that whole cadre . . .
Listokin: Jim and Betsy. . ?
Nelessen: Jim and Betsy Black who run the Frog and the Peach and you know, God bless those two because they had done an extraordinary job and I'm really good friends with them. And I testified at the hearing. I know them and I know them – but they stayed, they stuck it out and Bob stuck it out until he died. But literally everybody else left.
Berkhout: Now Jim. . ?
Nelessen: And there was a mass exodus from the city of that energy. They all just left.
Berkhout: Did you know somebody named David Williams who was from sociology, he had a loft. I took cooking classes with him.
Nelessen: I remember the name.
Berkhout: He graduated; he went through one of the French cooking schools.
Nelessen: Really, where was his loft?
Berkhout: In the early '80's. It was on the street down from; you know the street that's now new townhouses they are building.
Berkhout: Going down towards the Frog, not – you know,
Nelessen: Sure, sure, going down to the Market.
Berkhout: It was right up from the corner from where the Frog and the Peach is. And you know maybe five or six . . .
Nelessen: I must have someplace, but he's not a guy who was . . . I was not one-on-one with him.
Berkhout: So how long was it actually on the historic register? If you got it onto it and they de-designated it, it must have only been on for a few years.
Nelessen: I think it was, I think it was less than a year.
Berkhout: Oh really?
Nelessen: I think it was less than a year.
Listokin: And it may have been part of – since there was a UDAG that this section 106 review, in which if there is government-related action, you then have to . . .
Nelessen: You tie that hotel up forever.
Listokin: Well, if there isn't a historic resource, it's a moot issue.
Nelessen: Exactly, David, you hit the nail right on the point. That was the importance of the UDAG. I mean it had lots of importance, you know it got the hotel. But I think that was really clear. They did not want to go to the 106 review process, because of the essential importance of that district.
Listokin: Actually if you can give us the benefit of. . ?
Listokin: You have some good notes of the time, which is important because not many people . . .
Listokin: It was interesting, when you asked me to do this is that I was – you know, Francoise and I were trying to put this together in the same way, but the way, that I just found the chronology of the first twenty-five years of the department. I found that. By the way, I also have some; I found some eighty incredible slides of the Hiram District.
Berkhout: Oh really?
Nelessen: I just found them; I was digging through my resources and said "Do I still have those?" So I found some of those.
Berkhout: The building by building.
Nelessen: Building by almost a building interior shots of that. At least I found one of the reels. Someplace around there is the rest of them, they could be in storage someplace. But at least I found one pretty intact . . .
Listokin: We'll have to put that on . . .
Nelessen: Yeah, I think it would be good, these little clips. This, I think, is a chronology that tried to get us to really think about that in terms of the chronology that I have is '74, starting community alternatives down in the Hiram Market district with Bob and Kathy and David and in the summer of 1974, we moved to Hassert Street. So I was that. And then that same year, we did Highland Park 2000, the plan for Highland Park. And that got some interesting kind of results.
Listokin: That was a studio?
Nelessen: A studio, that one was a studio. In '75, our first child was born here, so we had just been here for a while. In September of '75, I did the downtown Metuchen plan. And that December of '75 is when we did the City of Lights, that the city was at that point in serious problems and it needed to move ahead with something else.
Then, I think the big one was once the office went down and we no longer wanted to live at Hassert Street, we then moved up to the loft. So, we moved up there with one child in July of 1976. Because I dug up an old Home News article about us in 1976, like "Young couple moves into loft, eclectic." Oh, it was wonderful.
Berkhout: Where was Hassert Street?
Nelessen: Hassert Street is down here about one, two, three, four, five more blocks down over here.
Nelessen: One, two, three four and five and it's really a nice, older 19020's apartment building. And Bob lived in the basement and Francoise and I lived up on the second floor. In '77 we had the second, and then we had the second one. And October of 1977, to me that was a big year because that was the first year of the Church Street festivals. When Bob said, "Listen, we're going to close off the street and see if we can gather some people and some people who are really interested will come down to New Brunswick." Because if it's like getting seedier and seedier, and we need to get people down here. So he organized the first Church Street.
Of course Bob would always say, "I have a great idea, let's do this. I'll go deal with the city, but can you do everything else? Like can you get the vendors and can you put the lights and get the flags and all of the rest of that stuff?"
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: So, I was always kind of inherent part of every scheme that he got into, I got into some form of another I got into it with him. Then I think it was '77 or '78 that Devco came along. And that was pretty encouraging for us, because we thought, 'Well, okay, they're going to do something." And then it was the Route 18 extension. Now when that happened and that was the first notion that this big thing was going to be extended, because it had been in the plan. So ;78 was a, I think, was a big deal. Because it was clearly that, once that went in, then Johnson started with their major acquisitions to put that headquarters piece – I mean I think they took seven or eight blocks, just wiped out the seven or eight blocks and then built their headquarters. But I think that really started. And then I think there was the Pei plan that came along.
Listokin: Uh hum.
Nelessen: I think somewhere around the '78 area. And then the fall of '79, I said was the Hiram Market plan. We did that, that's a studio plan that we did.
Listokin: That's a studio. . ?
Nelessen: Right, we did that plan. And then at that point by the way, the major actors I have here were Ken Wheeler, Abe Wallach, and Paul Abdalla who was really the henchman, I mean he was really – he's the guy that dealt with all of us and a very evil man, I thought. John Heldrich, John Lynch and Roy Epps . . .
Listokin: So with Paul, you would what, you would have a discussion or present here is this plan?
Nelessen: No, no, it was always tangential. It was always because one of the liaisons, this was George Gussis, I don't know if you have interviewed George Gus. But George Guses is a lawyer right over here and George is a longtime crony and he is Jim Black's lawyer. So George has been involved with this thing for a very long time. George would be the one who, because George was also my lawyer at the time, he said, "You know, Abdulla just hates you. He just hates you." So it was, and it was never . . .
And maybe the difficulty was that I never went and really shook hands with those guys and said, "Listen, can we work together as a team." It's not that I didn't want to do it; it's just that I was pegged as an evil person by that whole group really early on, that's what I thought anyway. And that's what I was told. "You can't come up with an alternative plan." I think they might have been a little bit concerned that there was this big cadre of people up there who were like not marching in lock-step, but were really putting a lot of energy into the City of New Brunswick at that point.
As it happened, it happened and some of them are still great friends and I think that's an important part of it. The spring of '79, I put down nomination for the national historic registry and the fall . . .
Listokin: For Hiram?
Nelessen: For Hiram Market, right. In the fall of 1979, I have it was deregistered. So I don't, it could have only been eight, nine or ten months maybe at the most. And then we at that point started to say, "Listen, the writing is on the wall. We're going to have to find another place." Jim and Betsy said, "We're going to go find another place." Bob went and found another, everybody started to say, "Okay that's it. We're going."
Berkhout: Did they stay in New Brunswick?
Nelessen: No. Jim and Betsy wound up in Rocky Hill, and we've moved down now to an old 1700's farm.
Nelessen: I think Bob bought a house way on the other end of town because he was still in the tavern business. He said, "I'm going to stay." I think it killed him in the end, personally, I think – he, like everybody else, is just devastated by this thing. And it was false on our part to have that kind of expectation that this kind of "Austin-feeling" kind of a place could actually, we thought could happen because we had enough contact with the bluegrass folks and the jazz folks and we said, "We can make this happen."
So when it did happen, that was part of it. Be that as it may . . .
Listokin: Along with you say that group or cadre, where were students in this and other Rutgers faculty?
Nelessen: No, that was interesting. That was interesting. I think Briavel is the only of the all the faculty who really got interested in this, and Ken Wheeler, of course was there. But the majority—and the students were always interested, but as kind of an academic exercise. And I still see Alan and several of his kids who worked on it. They still talk about it – every time I see them, they talk about . . .
Berkhout: Who was this?
Nelessen: Alan Fink, he is a lawyer now, a big, big lawyer in Manhattan. And Alan, every time I see him, "Well you remember that project?" I mean everyone thought it was the greatest thing going because it was a real project and it was real conflict and people really liked that kind of a thing.
Listokin: And I ask that because that was the era of, almost the height of maximum feasible participation in, it was the counter to the whole physical planning, at least in part. But it really was flying below the radar for the students.
Nelessen: It flew below the radar for most of the students, although I remember having a faculty party at our house when Paula Solari came and we held it, they asked if we could hold it up in the loft. And I said, "Of course we will hold it here." So what we were really interested in doing is not only getting – because we were out at Livingston at that point – of getting faculty downtown and seeing kind of what the advantages of what downtown would be.
And you had the George Street Theater; he was doing his thing over here in the storefront over there. And Mason Gross was doing its thing down the street in the old department store. So it was a kind of an interesting, kind of funky, kind of feeling to the town at that point. But you know, it was one that really . . .
Listokin: And if you had to think of like why, you know especially that that was an era where participation in planning and local input was more on the horizon.
Listokin: And that wasn't happening by the students at Rutgers or the planning students, who were perhaps most close to that, as well as some faculty. If you had to opine like on, "Why do you think that was the case?"
Nelessen: Why so few participated?
Nelessen: I think in some ways, David, probably it was, A, because we never really publicized – you never really publicized it a lot; you know to get that group. But also, I think there was also kind of a comfort that there was this big cadre of other folks that were looking at me, primarily me, but other folks to say, "Listen, can you come up with an alternative plan? We don't know how to do this." So, somehow or another, I got so involved with them and those forty or so students who were involved with it over a period of time, but I never went out to try to rally support for the cause. I just didn't do that.
I was so busy trying to figure out how to do a feasible design for each building. Just going and measuring all of those buildings.
Berkhout: So did Salah or Kenneth Wheeler or anybody else from Rutgers outside of the planning program take any interest in what you were doing? You said Kenneth came to some of your classes?
Nelessen: Ken came to some of the classes and came up to the loft two or three times.
Berkhout: But he sort of had to tow the tine with J&J's plan?
Nelessen: My guess is that – but he never, he always was very encouraging. He never said no. He said, "Just keep me informed of what's going on and what you're doing. And we had wonderful conversations with him in talking about the intricacies of the historic element and how that could become a thematic idea for some of the activities that would happen. Because there was so much, there was so much early – the third reading of the Constitution to early first bank notes and river boats and whore houses and Wild Bill Hickock and nylon stockings and rubber tires, and it all came from that era. And you went "Wow, this is really very rich."
Plus it had this fabulous old market in the middle of it. And everyone went "Market, yeah, farmer's market. Let's have the biggest farmers market in central Jersey. Look, we have all of this farmland around it. Let's put the farmer's market back.
Berkhout: So because I don't recall that. I guess I only ever went down that one street. But inside of those buildings, there was a market area? Or was it . . .
Nelessen: The main, if you go down right centerline to the church, because the church steeple of the Dutch Reformed Church is the official clock of the City of New Brunswick.
Nelessen: That axis used to have a classic pitched roof market that the trailers would back up to.
Berkhout: I see.
Listokin: A shed-like structure?
Nelessen: Shed-like, glass-like structure and they would back up to it and then outside of that were the trolley tracks.
Berkhout: So it was around the church?
Nelessen: It was, actually it was down that church, wide enough that the wagons could back up and people could walk down, covered underneath it, classic.
Nelessen: Wonderful old photographs of that, of that market. Then after a while, it became the trolley stopping terminal because the trolleys all stopped down there. It was a logical connection between the trolleys and then the steamboat, which was just cross the street.
Nelessen: And the swimming pool, which was off of the bridge, because kids used to swim, come off the bridge and swim in the river right there before it got – well, it's not polluted; it's so full, it's never been dredged out. It's silting in.
Listokin: We've heard, I guess, another perspective on that, that the buildings were too far deteriorated, in the market now.
Nelessen: They were too far gone.
Berkhout: They were too far gone and to do the infill, because they did think of it at one point about keeping some of them.
Listokin: And that it just wasn't . . .
Berkhout: And it wasn't financially feasible.
Listokin: Feasible or practical.
Nelessen: Well, here's the difference between that thinking and our thinking. Rather than having one corporation do it, and they're right. Seeing what Bob went through and I saw what Jim went through to restore those two buildings. It takes love, it takes care, it takes work and it takes labor and it takes – you know, your hands get – it's just not a corporate way of doing stuff. I mean from a corporate perspective, I think there are two kinds of sheets out there. One is how are you doing from a corporate perspective? If it's an old building, let's tear it down. It's cheaper to do concrete block and do it cheaper, blah, blah blah.
The other one is the love and care that went into the two buildings that remained. And I think the difference here was that I think there was no doubt in our mind, because we had talked to five or six developers. I mean we had developers online. We had people who had done this before, who were interested in coming down there if they could have gotten the rights to it. But the rights belonged to Devco, they were the redevelopment authority, they were the purchasers, they were the developers. So here you're condemning and giving back to yourself. It was the most . . .
Berkhout: Alan Voorhees for a period of time owned some of that property.
Nelessen: Yeah, he did. There was a whole bunch of people, but it was so interesting because we had these guys come in saying, "Could you make this work?" "Yeah, we could make this work." And then Bob would go, "Well, I'll take those two buildings" and Jim said, "I'll take that," which he did with three of them.
Listokin: And their thinking was what, restaurants, stores. . ?
Nelessen: Restaurants, stores, jazz clubs and live upstairs. You know, organic food, you know historic antiques. It was just this, everybody had an idea of what they want. And when you think about it, the gay club moved down there later, Atomic Particles, which was Michael's antique store, which is like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. There was all of this crazy energy in this town of people who said, "You come to New Brunswick, you go to Rutgers and you can't wait to get out of this place."
We're going, "Listen, we're here." I had no intention of saying, "Okay, I'm going to teach here for three years and then I'm going to move on to someplace else." I just, that wasn't my thinking. We're going to stay here and we're going to commit ourselves to this place. It's like Ed Bacon, commit yourself for fifteen years or you'll get nothing done. So we were going to commit ourselves and there were a lot of people who were out there that had that same kind of thinking.
Berkhout: So did your kids go to the New Brunswick schools?
Nelessen: Until we moved out and then they went to the Franklin schools.
Nelessen: Yeah, we lived in New Brunswick. How are we going to change the schools if we don't get our kids in the schools?
Nelessen: No, that just – and you know and I think about it now and people say to me, "It's such a terrible thing." I have been relocated twice now and I will admit it was extremely hard.
Listokin: And the second time was in Franklin?
Nelessen: Was it Franklin, twice now I got relocated.
Berkhout: Where in Franklin were you?
Nelessen: Well, we owned, which was clear. We owned Hilltop Farm and we lived there for sixteen years.
Nelessen: If you go down South Little Bridge road, right on top of where that reservoir was going to go.
Listokin: And that was taken because the state acquired that land for the reservoir?
Nelessen: For a reservoir. The house is still there, but we got moved out of there.
Berkhout: And then you moved to Princeton?
Nelessen: Then we moved to Princeton. So in each case, I will admit that I remember being the last one to get paid my relocation assistance, and they didn't really like me at all. I mean we got our tires slashed and the heat cut off and I spent Christmas here with my kids and Bob Schneider and Diana, I remember that, and they cut the heat off in the building two days before Christmas.
Nelessen: We had a wood stove in there and we said, "Listen, this is Christmas. We're going to – we 'll make it through with a woodstove and sweaters," and we did. I mean but you know, batteries would disappear, tires would get slashed and people went "Well," and Paul would see me, he would go and he would give me a finger, I shouldn't do that on television. But Paul just really didn't like me at all.
Listokin: So we have gotten the perspective on the plan you came up with. Maybe if you can wear your design planning hat, how would you evaluate what happened, what actually happened? Let's start with the J&J headquarters.
Nelessen: The J&J headquarters is an office building in a park.
Listokin: Right, and I guess that was touted as an office in a park in a city.
Nelessen: Yeah, but the reality that it's an office in a park, and the city, with the exception of that absolutely double row of trees that they have along the front, it's a public, totally publically inaccessible piece of land. It's an office in a park.
Listokin: And, like the style and materials.
Nelessen: Well, the design, it was interesting because we have the whole photographic collection going up. What was amazing to us when we watched it go up is the tower. The tower has the back curve, it must be, I'm guessing, it's been a long time, three to four feet thick, solid concrete.
Nelessen: And then the concrete is covered with an anodized aluminum paneling that is acid-resistant. This tower was meant to take a bomb.
Nelessen: This was designed that it would never go. And I mean of course you put concrete and you can do a thin shell, like Jefferson did with his curved walls. But this is a big, thick wall against that curve. So that building was meant never to go anywhere. So that was an interesting one. And of course all of the corner offices, it was all kind of interesting and nice. But the reality of it was it was, to me, it was anti-urban. It was a suburban – it was a suburban solution to an office building, essentially a gated office park, if you will, with their own internal campus on the inside of it. And, you know, that's the way they had been with their earlier building and it's a corporate mentality. And they did it.
And the thing I think was ingenious of them to say, "We're not doing this because we want to produce a great thing or we want to do something really great for the city of New Brunswick," which was kind of touted because all of these people were going to go to these jewelry stores.
Nelessen: And it was going to be this big economic development thing. Then they got a twenty-five year whatever it was, no – got a tax abatement with no payment back.
Listokin: Payment in lieu of taxes.
Nelessen: Whatever it was, but it was something miniscule, relative we thought. Then they got the grant for the UDAG for the Hyatt, which they turned around and bought.
Nelessen: I mean they are very clever people. Very clever, very cost conscious and they got everything that they wanted. And they got their little – somebody called it, they got the – what do they call it? They got the picture frame; they got the picture within the picture frame.
Nelessen: They got what they wanted and you know I don't – I mean certainly they are here, they are a presence and they are important. So that building was one thing. So that was kind of written off, saying, "Okay, that's fine." But then let's have a piece of the rest of it; at least have a little piece of the rest of it. No, no, no, it couldn't have that either.
Listokin: Maybe I can get your perspective on the Hyatt and Church Street and . . .
Nelessen: Okay, the Hyatt is terrible. I think the Hyatt is one of the worst designs I have ever seen. I mean for a Hyatt Hotel, that one is really pretty miserable. I mean just the construction and material; just to have done it in brick would have been better. The step-up at the bottom, I don't know what it does. The termination of Church Street, you can't even walk across Church Street to get to the front end of the hotel. The sidewalks don't even continue, you've got to walk across the grass.
Nelessen: It is such a bad design from an urban design perspective, from a scale perspective, from a materiality perspective, it's – to me, it was just awful.
Berkhout: How about Kilmer Square?
Nelessen: Kilmer Square, the only thing that – if anything got saved out of Kilmer Square was that they left the space that the original market was. And they kind of emulated the scale, although the buildings that were there before were bigger than what is there now. They kind of downsized it, if you will. They kind of miniaturized it. But the key thing is that they at least left a piece of that space that somehow or another responded positively to the church façade, which by the way is now falling apart.
Nelessen: It's really in serious trouble; I mean you can see it's . . .
Berkhout: Are you talking about the Christ Church or the . . .
Nelessen: No, Christ Church, no Father McCarthy played the game and he got a big thing from J&J and they sprayed the walls and they did all the stuff. And by the way, Bob Schneider, another key important, is one of the key factors as to why that church is in the good condition that it is now.
Berkhout: How is that?
Nelessen: Because Bob figured out, and I think it was – I'm not sure; I remember being part of it, but not as clever.
Listokin: The New Jersey Historic Trust Grant or something?
Nelessen: Well no, what he did, he said to Father McCarthy because Father McCarthy would come over and have a few drinks at the bar and he was always a jovial kind of guy. When he took off his collar, we liked him. He was just a nice guy, right. And he said, "You know, if we only could get some additional revenue."
So we had done the cemetery over here, the Jewish cemetery in the ward over here. We picked up all the stones that we could and we put them all into one place. And that was a student project that Rutgers did and put a memorial path through it. But it had been an abandoned Jewish Cemetery, plus there are several other abandoned cemeteries you can't even see in this town which are covered with blacktop.
But his cemetery was still there and Bob said, "Well, you know" – you know in his typical engineering fashion, he said, "If we draw all of these graves and we look at all the space in between" – and him being a farm boy like me who could figure out – "If we just had people cremated and we put them a posthole in between, how many post holes could we get in there?" So I think one night we just doodled on it and said, "Wow, we could get like 4,000 more post holes in here." Well, that's what's happened.
Nelessen: And Bob was one of the first guys that got buried, they cremated him and one morning, at 6:00 or something in the morning and sometime we came and dug a post hole and poured his ashes in it and now we've got those memorial things. And everybody who gets a posthole now has relatives that come there. Because after the second generation, nobody goes there anymore. I still go there, his kids go there. So Bob flowed money into Father McCarthy and I thought that was just the most – that was the cleverest thing I had ever heard about. And it worked very well, it's right here in New Brunswick and it's a very unique way of, I think, with dealing with that.
So, father McCarthy and the Trust, they kind of work together. But Muyskens, because he had sided with the wrong side, he got blackballed. I'm not saying blackballed, but somehow or another, there was less favoritism towards – in fact, I don't think he got any resources at all.
Berkhout: I see.
Nelessen: I don't know, I'd have to look at that. But I know that the church is in really pretty horrible condition.
Listokin: How about the Church Street Mall?
Nelessen: The Church Street Mall, first of all, I never . . .
Listokin: And any thoughts on Old Man Rafferty's after we talk about the Church Street Mall.
Nelessen: Yeah, well there are some clear things about old man Rafferty's because that's where, the building next to it was where the original J.August was, in that building which is a cigar building or whatever it is right now. And the one next to it then, again we had detailed plans because Bob Schneider was planning on buying that building. That's where . . .
Berkhout: You mean Old Bay.
Nelessen: Old Bay, that where – Old Bay, sorry, that one, David, that one on the other side. Bob was planning and I remember days spending up there measuring that building, all of the columns and getting it because he wanted to expand J. August into that building. That was the thought, to anchor that corner. But then when the rest of the mall came along, we thought "Well that's a good thing."
Listokin: And how do you think from a design perspective . . ?
Nelessen: Well, I think the center corridor that's just always been problematic because it never connected to anything, number one. And number two; they violated all of the basic retailing rules by putting it up on a platform.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: Without making that platform continuous because they have what used to be PSE&G down at the other end, which was on grade and then you had to kind of step half up-grade. It was doomed – in my opinion, it was doomed for failure because they violated all of the basic rules. Plus, they violated everything that was there before, I mean even the step – Tops Appliances was sitting there, that was a land-office business at the corner, but it was on grade. I mean you have to have retail on grade.
Listokin: Tops and Gabowitz..
Nelessen: Whoever it was, we called them Tops, Mr. Tops. So anyway, so, I think they violated that. And then you have that little park on the corner, which on City Lights we put the first big Christmas tree on that corner, because it was an empty corner. It still is fenced in, it is still fenced in. So, like I don't understand why Old Man Rafferty's just can't expand into that space? It would be fantastic with Starbucks next to it; it would make a great corner. But it just, there is a certain tightness that happened because of the corporate control, I think. That somehow or another never allowed people to have much fun. You were there on a nine-to-five basis and you had tow the line, don't have too much fun, because that's not what we do.
Nelessen: And I have a feeling that, and we were all for making money and having as much fun as conceivably possible in this town. That was the thought. So when they cut that corner out, I thought "Well that's kind of too bad." But they left the building next to it where . . .
Nelessen: Where the Starbucks is now. And then one next to it was Mansell's Drug Store and that one, we always had great plans for that one. And of course, Dick Mack was going to – the gay bar was supposed to go across the street.
Nelessen: Well, none of that happened. I mean every, it seemed every time that a counter proposal came up for it, it was somehow or another not what people were really looking for.
Listokin: The Golden Triangle, I guess, the office by the train.
Nelessen: The office by the train, the wedding cake, as it's called by folks – you know, despite the step-back in the building and all the stuff that was done with that. I thought, "Well if you're going to put step-backs, please, Dear God, cover it with trees so it really looks like a green thing up there." Well, that didn't happen.
And then, of course, what I was concerned about was the extension of George Street, that when you come from George Street, on one side it's completely dead because you got the Johnson & Johnson wall. On the other side of it, I thought "There's the street that you're going to have to put all of the activities on it." Now it's just an awful walking experience, so people getting from here to Old Queens, which is our most sacred relic. And that walk is not very – from a pure interactive with street level, that should be one of those street which . . .
Berkhout: You mean where the garage is?
Nelessen: Yeah, it's a whole garage edge there.
Nelessen: So that one, that one was a little bit – that building itself. You know, it was, "Look, we're bringing in all of these new buildings in town." And I think it was a TIF, one of the first TIFs, I'm not really sure.
Listokin: They always used a payment in lieu of taxes, which was a variation of . . .
Nelessen: Yeah, they negotiated something on that building to put that in. But I think everybody was very happy to see the – and, of course, well there's the picture frame, everything around the park is now complete. And the old PSE&G building with wonderful trompe l'oeuil at the end, that got torn down.
Berkhout: Right, that was the power station.
Nelessen: That was the power station, yeah. And so the picture frame was totally complete. And after that, I had worked for Roy Epps and was on the board of the Urban League, you know that was another plan. We said, "Listen, this needs major work over here, major, major work." That one also . . .
Berkhout: Now was Roy Epps in line with J&J?
Nelessen: Roy Epps was always part of the mix because Roy was really hoping that the revitalization of the city would simultaneously mean a revitalization to the second ward. Because the Hungarian, the fifth ward, the Hungarian one, they had been pretty solid over there. So there was this railroad split in town. It was like you had the Hungarians and white folks essentially on one side of the railroad on that little strip in between, you had the Spanish and then the other side of the railroad essentially mixed Afro-American.
Listokin: And so if we can talk a little about how redevelopment affected the neighborhoods?
Nelessen: Right. I think you cannot talk about that without talking about Mount Laurel. I think that, and I don't know what the numbers on it are, but I think the amount of new housing that came in because of that was primarily transfers from suburban communities into New Brunswick for Mount Laurel payments and that's how a lot of that revitalization occurred. The fifth ward study must now be twenty-five years old, and, literally, besides that, I don't think very much else has really been done over there. You know, we did Feester Park; they put the school in Feester Park. The volunteer work did the Jewish cemetery there, but we did that primarily. But not a whole lot, a few trees have been planted. And Roy has been working all of these years, you know and then he had to split the Urban League and began the Civic League and what have you. But not much has been done over there.
But the advantage of it was that there was this money coming in, I think, from the transfer of funds from Mount Laurel. But I think you've got to focus that way more then. And then when the public housing projects, you know, because they couldn't sell the plan for Hiram Market because the public housing projects were there, so they had to do something about the housing projects. And then Kluckman, or whatever it is, came and did the investment and the first piece down here and so that was a good sign, sort of clean that neighborhood, which was a festering dump. We had lived down there, and you can't tell me how many times our cars got busted into and radios got stolen. That's why Francoise finally said, "Tony, we can't live down here anymore. I'm not going to—" I mean somebody had stabbed Bob with a knife.
Listokin: In a moment, I'd like to ask you where do you think the City of New Brunswick is going, but before that, any further thoughts and observations about what has happened, you know we got some design reaction?
Nelessen: You have to look at this as a – kind of an experiment in corporate redevelopment and as that model goes; it's probably got to be considered as very successful. I mean, they had a goal and they accomplished it. However, they had to go through the political and legal and the judicial structure to do it, they did it. And you have to—and this time when things are so difficult to get done – you have to respect the fact that the corporation came along and did – and is still doing it. It's still – across the street, it's still better. But, you know, what I think is happening in some cases in the urban design is that in some cases, it's getting better than what it was before, and I think that's a lot to do with who's directing Devco and what have you now. But the building across the street is very a formidable – I like that building across the street.
I think the city has kind of grown up. The thirty story tower, I like. The city is kind of growing up.
Berkhout: You mean Boraie's building?
Nelessen: Yeah, the city is growing up.
Listokin: I guess we can just take that a little forward, where do you see New Brunswick in ten or twenty years?
Nelessen: That really depends upon, to me, what happens with – what's going to happen both with the economy, and, secondly, it seems to me that the more and more people . . . Well, it's two things, one is New Jersey going to grow or is it not going to grow? You know, if I listened to what folks here, which I totally believe, I don't think we've got much growth potential.
Listokin: Of course, New Jersey cannot grow, but people can come to New Brunswick.
Nelessen: People can come; well that's the next thing. So one, you have to say that okay that's at one level. But you could get people to come here and I think the combination of the theaters now and it's got a big reputation for restaurants now, might be able to do that. But I still yet in my mind cannot feel a soul in this place. I can't.
Listokin: So you . . .
Nelessen: That sense of community that I once experienced, it just isn't here.
Listokin: So it's not like. . ?
Nelessen: I don't get a sense of it anymore.
Listokin: It's not like you would have an interest in moving back here?
Nelessen: No. No, no, no.
Listokin: Because that spirit that . . .
Nelessen: No, no it's not – it's not that, it's not that. We lived here.
Nelessen: We lived here for seven years and now, you know, we keep thinking, "Well" – Francoise is going, "Well Tony, how long are. . ? What are we going to do next?" And I'm going, "Francoise, I don't know, what we're going to do next but I don't intend to retire." But right now, if my wife had her choice, we'd either be living in Manhattan or we'd be living in Paris, and she is looking at places in both of them.
Berkhout: Did you ever talk to Don when he bought a house?
Berkhout: Did he talk about how there was any soul?
Nelessen: Don was so – as quiet as Don was, I say . . .
Listokin: Don Krueckeberg.
Nelessen: Don Krueckeberg, I sailed with him a lot. And you know, he went through lots of things as well.
Nelessen: But he was really happy when he moved down here. The kids had Ph.D. seminars down there, so he'd have parties down there. And it was like a proximity to the school. So Don – I always say Don was one of those kinds of pioneers who kind of – who drank the Kool-Aid and said, "Listen, I'm going to move down there and really enjoy it."
Berkhout: Uh hum. Right.
Nelessen: And he had his boat and his open space other places and therefore had that kind of correct balance of urban and open.
Berkhout: But you weren't there anymore when the school was built there, so it was a totally different . . .
Nelessen: No, no by that time – after that big disillusionment, we moved out to Hilltop Farm and restored that gem for seventeen years it took me to restore that one. And then we moved on to downtown Princeton.
Nelessen: Which, by the way, we really liked. I mean we lived on a little street with no cars and no parking and nothing. But we knew everybody on the street and everybody – it was the only time I had that kind of feeling, and Francoise said, "You know, we kind of miss that not having that," and I'm going, "Well Francoise you can always – we've still got the house and we could always move back to Princeton." But you know, it's different where we are now, we're totally isolated where we are now.
Nelessen: And for me, somehow or another, that's okay right now. That's okay.
Listokin: If I go back, you were talking earlier about this was a successful corporate . . .
Nelessen: Yeah, big time.
Listokin: And to that extent, it's transferable. I think you would have like to have seen an alternate universe of a more multi-use, multi-ethnic, multi-income . . .
Nelessen: Yeah, I would like to have seen a balance.
Listokin: But let's, you, looking at the corporate model.
Listokin: What were some of the factors that made it successful here, so if I can maybe just mention some things and if I can get some reactions?
Listokin: One was the support of a major, major corporation.
Nelessen: Oh clearly.
Listokin: You know, J&J.
Nelessen: Oh absolutely.
Listokin: The presence of Rutgers University.
Listokin: The fact that it's the – the hospital and the growth of the medical and you know . . .
Listokin: Do you think scale was a factor, you know the fact that you could wrap your arms around a city of 40,000 and it's much harder to do it in city of 200,000, like in Newark.
Listokin: Newark, they are very different places.
Nelessen: It's a very, very interesting question.
Listokin: But do you think that has something to do with it?
Nelessen: No, no, I think it did have something, I think it really did have something to do with it. But I think that within these cities, a redevelopment scenario or a building scenario that you have to break the cities down into smaller component pieces, their districts if you will, in the Lynchean sense, that the Hiram Market and downtown was kind of one district, that was kind of our milieu, if you will.
Then there was the second ward and Douglass, and then there was the third ward, and then there were the other elements of this growing, Middlesex Hospital becoming this major teaching hospital. And then there was St. Peter's down the way and then there was the county.
Listokin: The county seat.
Nelessen: And then the two colleges. We went, and a river location, it was like, I mean, this plus all of this great historic fabric which when we moved in, was really cheap. It was really cheap and we're going, "Let's start buying." You know, if we had money we would have,I think everybody would have bought because everything was so cheap. So all of those components, all of those components were there and, of course, the major corporation and Rutgers, which, I think, has quite honestly has longer staying ability than even Johnson & Johnson does.
Rutgers is going to be here forever. I mean if ever there is such a thing. But I don't know about that corporation, if it was to decide one day it's going to move its headquarters to Taiwan because the Chief Executive Officer of it wants to be in Honolulu or something, I don't know. It has that power to do that, because they are now a world . . .
Nelessen: They are a world organization.
Nelessen: And they can go anywhere.
Berkhout: But Rutgers can't pick up and move.
Nelessen: But Rutgers is not going to pick up and move. And its students are a huge, a huge potential market, which I don't think is being capitalized on. But that's just me personally. I don't think they are being capitalized on other than the ward over there, in which eight kids are living in one house and are being bilked for so many dollars.
Listokin: If I could just mention going down this list of what are some factors that the stability of stability of city government. The fact that you have . . .
Berkhout: Only two mayors during that time.
Listokin: You haven't had – now you can view that in different perspectives.
Nelessen: Yeah, I would view that in different perspectives because when I started, the first major was caught in illicit sexual acts. So I forget what his name was.
Berkhout: Is that the guy who moved to the West?
Nelessen: Yeah, because he got . . .
Berkhout: We never heard about that part.
Nelessen: So that was my first experience, I went, "Oh my God, this guy got caught in the parking lot doing what?" Yeah, so he was gone and I thought, "Well, okay, this is New Brunswick, right? And then the people we met on the council seemed like nice people, but somehow they just went wherever they were told to go. And, of course ,then there was the tremendous influence of John Lynch and his dad and the judiciary that he had set up for all of those years. The son walked into like the perfect, perfect greed opportunity that John walked into.
And then what he married into gave him another whole venue, which nobody could have ever thought about. I heard lots and lots of stories, none of which I could confirm. But I heard lots and lots of stories of people who actually saw certain events.
Listokin: So that's a different take.
Nelessen: I had never had, I never had a trust in that. I never had a trust in that other than they were there to say, "Okay we'll just help you along." Because the Devco folks were the people who were really controlling all of what was going on.
Listokin: How about Devco as a model?
Nelessen: Devco as a model for a city, I think worked – look at it, it really worked remarkably well. But they were by themselves very insular. I mean they never really tried to reach out, although they will say that was not their job. Their job, New Brunswick Tomorrow, that was their job to be able to reach out. But even then it was clear that they had a plan and that that plan was going to move ahead and the city government just helped us.
Listokin: I should have mentioned Devco and New Brunswick Tomorrow.
Nelessen: Yeah, they were . . .
Listokin: New Brunswick Tomorrow with some sensitivity to the social and Devco saying, "We're going to focus on the development and become good at it."
Nelessen: Right. Right.
Listokin: And local government may not have that expertise and can't move so nimbly.
Nelessen: Yeah, no that was and that was true. But they also consolidate power, I think.
Listokin: Uh hum.
Nelessen: I mean, an extraordinary amount of power was consolidated into Devco in order to make this happen. And maybe that's what has to happen in order to get redevelopment to move ahead at this kind of gigantic scale.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: And maybe that's one of the lessons that now with Kilo and all of the rest of the things that are going on in redevelopment, there may not be much opportunity, if ever, again to do any really large scale – do any large scale redevelopment projects. So it might have to be done on a much more incremental kind of a basis.
But some of the regional plan things, whether it's Minneapolis or it's downtown Portland, I mean there is a whole series of models of people who have worked together with communities in order to make those happen. Unless you've got a very big government and that government is really efficient, you need the second – to me, you need this secondary redevelopment authority in order to move something like this ahead. I think that model is the correct one.
Listokin: Actually just on the side, I guess some revisionist thinking on Robert Moses and the role he played? And again, this is not . . .
Listokin: For this discussion, but it would be – he was cast as an utter villain for thirty years and now maybe a little thinking, you needed some of that consolidation of power to move ahead, to get things done.
Nelessen: Well, it's interesting. I'm reading Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the parallels of what's happening now in the United States and what happened back then are too uncanny to believe. Consolidation of power in order to get stuff done, bread and circus, keep people prosperous and keep them entertained. And then everything else can just, will be illusionary, towards the fact that we're becoming satiated and we're losing our abilities to do lots of other things. I think that's a kind of an interesting parallel. But I still, in my mind, David, think that if I had a choice between one person doing it, unless it was a great emperor or military dictator, which is Cesar's work, or lots of people having an ability to work into the process with a plan, with a grand vision, I think I would choose the latter.
Berkhout: But somebody's got to have the plan and grand vision.
Nelessen: You've got to have a plan, that's what I said. You've got to have the plan and grand vision, but then let lots of people help you in the process. And let it become a little bit deviant if you will. I mean I just looked at a bunch of images of Vancouver and Portland and Seattle. The stuff that's going on out there is just fabulous, but it's all kind of human garden, funky, interesting, old, new and here, it just didn't – it didn't quite gel because there is still, to me, and never has been, a clear vision of where the city wants to go. Where do they want to go with French Street?
Nelessen: Where do you want to go. . ?
Berkhout: They want to put a high school up there.
Nelessen: Where do you want to go with the connection? A high school way out in the middle of nowhere up there. Stick it as far as you can like the welfare office, next to the welfare office, as far on the edge of New Brunswick as you could possibly stick it.
I mean I don't know who makes these decisions, but it seems to me that the future of cities is going to be about sustainability. It's going to be about human contact, sustainability and green and it's got to be about community. Because life is becoming tougher, people are becoming more depressed, and so the cities have got to be the revitalizing factor in people's souls.
I mean you can go and be Thoreau and go look at nature and say, "It's wonderful to have nature." But why not have nature in a city? Why not have buildings that grow trees? Why not have green markets and why not to get this energy into the city? That's why so many kids probably like Manhattan now or Jersey City or Hoboken.
I keep saying Hoboken, because I go to Hoboken a lot. I'm going, "The number of strollers on the street is becoming incredible. It's like this army of strollers." And it's wonderful. Old people, an old lady walked by with a flower and there's a guy and there young kids, and there's people with purple hair, and it's like "Wow, isn't this cool?" And so that notion that a city can revitalize itself in that way needs this grand vision, it needs a plan. But then my fear is that the days of corporate dominance in the redevelopment sphere may be over. But on the other hand, the other side of me thinks that may be the only way to do it in the future. Because the only way we're going to get stuff done is going to dictate it from up above in some form or another.
Listokin: So we have those tensions.
Nelessen: So I think those tensions, somehow or another, parallel those two things which are happening, this kind of more free market with an overall vision against a corporate vision and you just do and we'll just keep you kind of – and I think that would be a very, very interesting two-sided thing to explore because I think those are the two sides of urban – I think that's going to be two sides of rebuilding cities. I think.
Berkhout: Tony, I know you have to go teach sometime soon.
Berkhout: But I have a question about community involvement. According to people involved from the J&J side and through NBT, there were community discussions and apparently John Heldrich was one of the people who convened groups of people and Roy Epps was supposedly involved in those, what were they? Were they actually discussions?
Nelessen: Yeah – no I didn't think they were.
Berkhout: What were they? How were they?
Nelessen: They were told, "This is what we're going to be doing." They were like – the only parallel that I can think about was the same way that the hearing was held on the extension of Route 18. The plan was done; we're going to have public meetings on the plan. Well, what public meetings? I mean, "Okay, we're going to do it. It's going to be here."
Berkhout: Did they invite people's comments?
Nelessen: Oh, there were people standing in line, we were up until 2:00 in the morning and you still had your number to comment on the thing. And they all dutifully said their thing, "Yes, yes, a very good idea. Nice, nice, nice." And it was pro-forma, it always is pro-forma in those kinds of cases, it can't be anything else.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: Because they have a plan. It's not a plan that's generated from the bottom up; it was a plan that was generated from the top down. And that's very different than the kind of work I've been doing for thirty years. I believe that when you listen to people at the bottom level, you'll get the financing, you'll get the ideas, and you'll get the enthusiasm to pull it up from the bottom up.
Berkhout: Uh hum.
Nelessen: It's what worked in Atlanta, that's what worked in Austin and that's what worked in Minneapolis and that's what worked in Milwaukee. That's, to me I really like that idea. But strong leadership at the top with a vision about where you want to go and then you can get lots of little people involved. You know, people who are selling gelatos on the street can get involved and somebody can start something which is smaller, so they are really actively involved in the participation of community in a city. And I think that, that to me still is the goal.
Listokin: I know you have to go, any further thoughts and it's not like it ends here.
Nelessen: No, you know all in all, I mean it – you look at what's happening and I kind of wish it could accelerate itself a little bit further because I think there is maybe still some opportunities here. I must admit that it is nice to see that it has gone as far as it has as quickly as it has. It's not what I would have imagined the vision for it to be, but it is what it is. And believe me; I think it could have been worse. I think it could have been worse, so nonetheless it is what it is, it's here and our job is to continue to try to as much as we can, pump as much energy into this place as conceivably possible. But I just regret that all of those folks who had all of that initial energy all abandoned the place, for all practical purposes.
Berkhout: Why do you think Rutgers didn't play a more important role as a partner?
Nelessen: Well, this is only total hearsay on my part, but again it was, "Either you go along with us or else we'll cut our endowments and we'll cut that. You don't get the building." And there was always this notion that Rutgers, that J&J is going to give Rutgers the building and that was like . . .
Nelessen: That was this big – there was kind of this veiled threat, but again, I only got that from this discussion with other people who were infill, who were secretaries to Ken Wheeler or – I mean all of those people I know, it was all the underground. It was all of those, "Well did you know he had a meeting with so and so and blah, blah?" And I went "Really?"
Nelessen: So that's how it all occurred.
Nelessen: So, I think that's how – I mean Rutgers and I think Ken walked a very thin line on that thing, not wanting to discourage me and us, but on the other hand, not saying, "Hey you know it's a great plan. We'll support it. Rutgers will come out and support this thing," he couldn't do that. He couldn't do that, you know and I understand that.
Listokin: We'd like to follow-up, I think you have some very unique materials.
Listokin: Related to New Brunswick.
Nelessen: Yes, I would be very happy to, very happy to give you those materials.
Listokin: And again, we have to have a discussion on how to bring what we're doing into a synthesized shorter version, which we'd like to talk to you about.
Nelessen: Yeah, that's something because you need to get it down to a half-hour.
Listokin: Yeah, I'll see . . .
Nelessen: Yeah, you've got to get it down to a half hour . . .
[End of recording]