Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary
October 9, 2002:
other side of paradise?
Hey, Princeton students, while youre here, at least take
a look around
John McPhee 53 wrote a wonderful book
about fellow graduate Bill Bradley 65 called A Sense of Where
You Are. I have come to think of that title as delightfully ironic.
A startling number of the Princeton students Ive met dont
seem to have a clue where they are. Oh, they know theyre at
the top-ranked university in the country (merchandising idea: orange-and-black
oversize novelty Were-number-one! foam hands),
and no doubt they have a better grasp of contemporary geography
than the average young American. I just mean that they dont
seem to know whats around them. Their universe is bound by
the university gates, with only the occasional foray into Manhattan
or across Nassau Street to Hoagie Haven to hint that
there just might be a larger stage out there.
A colleague of minelets call him Hank 80
grew up in the Midwest, spent four years at Princeton and then moved
to New York City, where he lived until just recently, when he and
his family moved to another town in New Jersey. Whenever Hank and
I talk about our respective weekends, and I mention, say, that I
went to dinner at some friends house or to a restaurant somewhere
around Princeton, and I try to describe where it was, a mystified
look will creep over his face, as if I were trying to give him directions
to an abandoned YWCA outside of Khartoum. Which road is that,
hell say. Is that near the Tap Room?
Ive heard those sorts of questions from way too many Princetonians,
students and alumni both. Like the famous New Yorker cover cartoon
depicting a Manhattanites view of the world, in which everything
beyond the Hudson appeared as vaguely defined desert, the Princeton
students perspective is skewed heavily to the
foreground. Street smarts? Theirs begin and end with The Street.
Then again, maybe its starting to change. After all, it seems
as though every undergrad these days has his or her own car (usually
a large sport-utility vehicle taking up two places in the Dinky
parking lot, but thats another column). Surely they cant
all be just driving to Thomas Sweet and back. I have a feeling,
however, that many more of the trips, while undeniably farther afield,
are to the Hamilton multiplex or to Quakerbridge Mall than to, say,
Monmouth Battlefield Park or the Sourland Mountain naure preserve.
Now, dont get me wrong. I dont really expect average,
healthy undergraduates to spend their free time taking in the local
sights like so many silverhairs on an AARP walking tour. As Hank
80 put it recently, when I commented on the blank pages of
his internal Princeton Atlas, I didnt have any reason
to go anywhere. All my needs were met on campus. (To which
another colleague, listening in sardonic amusement, said, Needs?
With an s?) Fair enough, and for students at a most
colleges around the country it wouldnt seem such a big deal.
But lately I look around Princeton and the surrounding New Jersey
landscape and I gasp at how fast and how profoundly
things are changing. Its called development, of
course, and its developing a sense of urgency in me.
The thrill of Princeton has always been that theres a real
there here. Theres history all around, set in an iconographic
landscape. Yet its disappearing, day by day, obscured by armies
of McMansions marching across the same fields that Washingtons
army traveled. The big issue before local planners these days is
how to configure a multi-lane bypass to carry the flood of traffic
that comes in and out of Princeton each day via Route 1. Whatever
cloverleaf or spur they decide on, its going to radically
alter the surrounding area. Its all going to look that much
more like everywhere else.
Which, I suppose, is an argument for my friend Hanks philosophy.
Why bother to make the time during your college days to explore
and soak up your surroundings if no matter where you wind
up after graduation theyre just going to be there waiting
for you? Still, it hasnt all disappeared yet. If you ask me,
its time to get in the SUV (and, not incidentally, free up
a couple of parking spaces) and do a little tooling around beyond
Nassau Street. Anyone lucky enough to go to Princeton should get
a real sense of where they are.
You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" firstname.lastname@example.org