Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

June 5, 2002:

A college town that isn't
Why isn't Princeton more like Ann Arbor, say?

By Hugh O'Bleary

"You call Princeton a college town? Ha!"

My friend Kilgor was obviously in one of his moods, standing on the platform at the Dinky station early on a recent Monday morning, alternately glowering at the front page of the New York Times and scowling down the line of the tracks as if trying to will the little train to appear. It was hopeless, I knew, but I kept my nose buried in my book, thinking that maybe he would just move on.

"Ha!" he said, and I think he had inched closer to my shoulder. I sighed and looked up.

"Well," I began, knowing it was going to be a long Monday morning, "isn’t it?"

"Ha," he said. He clearly had a good thing going. "I know college towns, O’Bleary, and Princeton is no college town."

"What about...?" I made a half-hearted sweeping gesture in the direction of what was, after all, the large, prestigious and undeniably collegiate college surrounding us.

But Kilgor, who had spent his undergraduate years at Ohio State and had gone to grad school at Michigan and, I think, Arizona State, was not about to relent. Perhaps, I thought, he was suffering from some sort of retroactive spring fever.

He said, predictably, "Ha!" then folded his paper and stuffed it under his arm.

"College, yes, but college town, no way." He was off and running. "First of all, didn’t Princeton just win a national championship?"

"Right," I said. "Women’s lacrosse. That was really something—"

"So, where were the riots? Where was the looting? Do you realize, not a single car was torched on Nassau Street?" He smirked. "College town. Ha."

I started to say that I hardly thought that postvictory mayhem was a worthwhile measure of a university community’s character, but he cut me off.

"And what about those Girls Gone Wild videos? You never see any of those advertised on late-night TV with blurred-out shots of Princeton coeds flashing on Prospect Street."

"Well, no, I certainly haven’t," I said, "but—"

"Underground newspapers!" he practically bellowed. "You can’t walk 20 feet in Berkeley or Ann Arbor without bumping into a vending box full of seditious rags. And what about head shops? Piercing parlors? Kids camped out on the sidewalk in front of Ticketmaster? Live Music, for gosh sakes? Where’s the street lined with loud sleazy bars?"

He was just taking a breath when, mercifully, the Dinky arrived, groaning and screeching to a stop at the station. I gave a cheerful shrug and a smile and, as soon as the doors opened, darted for a seat.

"College town," I heard him call after me. "Ha."

Kilgor may be nuts — or just a frustrated former frat boy — but I began to think he had a point. Here was Princeton, the school, a world-renowned university, top-ranked every year in U.S. News and World Report, the place Hollywood comes to when it wants to convey academia in all its glory; and then here is Princeton, the town, a what, exactly? A rather quiet, historic little burg, with a lot of trees and a lot of money and one movie theater.

Sure, if you know how to look you can spot a Nobel Prize winner or two passing on the sidewalk. Einstein’s house is cute, and Nassau Hall is picture-postcard handsome. There is a nice, unpretentiously hip coffee shop and a terrific independent bookstore. But, really, very little of the university dominates the town. Even the P-rade is confined to campus. It is a far cry from Kilgor’s Animal House-Meets-MTV vision of two-and-gown.Then again, I thought, as the train rolled on toward the Junction, would I have it any other way?


You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu