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

October 9, 2002:

What other side of paradise?
Hey, Princeton students, while you’re 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 I’ve met don’t seem to have a clue where they are. Oh, they know they’re at the top-ranked university in the country (merchandising idea: orange-and-black oversize novelty “We’re-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 don’t seem to know what’s 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 mine—let’s 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 friend’s 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,” he’ll say. “Is that near the Tap Room?”

I’ve heard those sorts of questions from way too many Princetonians, students and alumni both. Like the famous New Yorker cover cartoon depicting a Manhattanite’s view of the world, in which everything beyond the Hudson appeared as vaguely defined desert, the Princeton student’s perspective is skewed — heavily — to the foreground. Street smarts? Theirs begin and end with The Street.

Then again, maybe it’s 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 that’s another column). Surely they can’t 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, don’t get me wrong. I don’t 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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. It’s called “development,” of course, and it’s developing a sense of urgency in me.

The thrill of Princeton has always been that there’s a real there here. There’s history all around, set in an iconographic landscape. Yet it’s disappearing, day by day, obscured by armies of McMansions marching across the same fields that Washington’s 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, it’s going to radically alter the surrounding area. It’s all going to look that much more like everywhere else.
Which, I suppose, is an argument for my friend Hank’s 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 — they’re just going to be there waiting for you? Still, it hasn’t all disappeared yet. If you ask me, it’s 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" paw@princeton.edu