Monday, October 20, 2014

Truly, the Town's Hall

Ask folks what they feel is lacking in many American "communities" these days and the answer may well be that the very concept of "community" itself is missing. Community can be defined as, "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals." From the birth of our nation up until around the time of World War II, America was rich with community groups and the "third places" in which they could easily meet. "Third places" being defined as "the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace," and included at that time: taverns, inns, public squares, village greens, lodges, meetinghouses, coffee shops, etc. Even during times of civil unrest and troubled economic periods, America never turned its back on community engagement and the idea that the public realm symbolized the common good.

Woodbury's Town Hall in its final day. It was torn down for a gas station.
image: Gloucester County Historical Society
However, early 20th century America saw a gradual shift from the importance it placed on communal, civic engagement (a "we're all in this together" mentality), to an increased interest in isolation and escapism largely brought on by the rise of suburban development and the increasing presence of the automobile. Simply, it became easier to distance oneself from problems than to address them in a civic forum. For example, where in pre-turn of the century America most adults participated in public societies (through the involvement in various lodge groups), and therefore actively engaged in direct civic contributions, by today's comparison there is very little involvement. The belief that it is always someone else's job to fix, is commonly expressed nowadays.

Take the morphing idea of the Town Hall (aka City Hall) as example. The original concept of the American Town Hall is nearly a foreign one by today's standards. Historically the Town Hall was truly an open-access hall or meeting space for the community and usually filled with art, performances, plays, educational lectures, and entertainment. Most towns and cities still retain a Town Hall, but this is in name only. Look inside today's Town Halls and we may find one or two meeting rooms that may or may not be used for community groups, but will predominantly consist of offices for the various bureaucratic functions of a municipality. It is the place you go to pay your tax bill or inquire about a zoning variance or have an ordinance passed. It is certainly not the place you would go to a Halloween ball and dance to a full orchestra band, or enjoy a family evening of roller skating (all things that regularly occurred in Woodbury's former Town Hall).

Research shows that Woodbury's original Town Hall sat on the SE corner of German (now Barber) and Broad Sts and was completed in 1875. It was cherished by the community. The Woodbury Constitution reported the opening as, "The reproach which we, as a community, so long endured, the mortification to which our citizens were for so many years subjected, is now happily a thing of the past. To-day we have an evidence of our city's growth and improvement, and addition to the long list of advantages which our City enjoys, a creditable and satisfactory answer to the imputations that we are standing still. The opening of the City Hall on Thursday evening last was an event which reflected no little  honor on the people of Woodbury, - it is marked a new and better era which is dawning, or has opened, upon this lovely habitation."

Woodbury's Town Hall consisted of a large hall on the second floor affording a comfortable seating capacity of 500, a gallery, and dressing/preparation rooms. It was lit by 37 lamps, heated with two large portable heaters, adorned with cypress and walnut trim, and boasted a 22 foot ornamental ceiling. A dumb-waiter provided convenient access from the basement kitchen. Various local commercial enterprises including a dry goods merchant, restaurant, shoe cobbler, grocery, oyster saloon, J. Elmer Jackson's patent medicine enterprise, barbershop and more thrived on the street level, truly making the building a mixed-use community center. It was also the location of the community library and reading-room, headquarters for the German Singing Society, Salvation Army Headquarters, and housed the town's first gymnasium hosting the Woodbury basketball team's home games. It was also transformed weekly as a skating rink and the town's first (silent) moving picture house in 1907 which featured a live female soloist to sing the illustrated parts. The hall throughout the years hosted many civic lectures and nights of entertainment and amusement for the community. It was the perfect culmination of American ingenuity and expression through culture.

This was Woodbury's Golden Age and with the above in consideration it becomes clear that the more value a community places in the recognition and engagement in Arts and Culture, the greater the health of that community. But as the years progressed and American communities slowly drifted apart to live quite literally among greener pastures, the very concept of community played a decreasing role in American civic life. Woodbury's Town Hall was torn down in 1936 for a gas station, which no doubt paradoxically provided the fuel for many one-time residents to leave Woodbury for good. Nothing replaced the Town Hall as the "civic, social, and athletic" center of Woodbury, and city leaders increasingly focused their energy on converting a residential-based city of proud locals to a drive-through business district and in doing so, forgot about Woodbury's remaining residents and their quality of life. A side effect of this quest to maximize short-term profit is that city leaders essentially forewent the trouble to worry about the town's aesthetic appeal. The story is no different across the nation during this time, when a quick transformation occurred and America's cities and towns went from proud human habitats, to current-day dilapidated, plastic strip malls clusters where consumers go in one end and out the other.

Despite America's decline in participation in civil activities over the past decade, the concept of Creative Placemaking through the arts is gaining steadfastly. Creative Placemaking "is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community's interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place." Traditional towns seemingly left for dead have been revitalized through Arts and Culture and have simultaneously increased an awareness of their own local History and importance. Quite simply, the arts stimulate local economies. The NJ Arts Council reports that, state arts funding employs an estimated 17,000 workers, supports 37,000 cultural events, and attracts 5 million visitors who spend $125 million. Perhaps more importantly however, is that the arts have been shown time and again to have the power to bridge divides and bring a renewed sense of pride to residents.

APA's latest national poll surveyed Millennials and Baby Boomers on community preferences and dispels popular assumptions on how to improve local economies and attract new residents. The wide-ranging national survey finds that Millennials and Baby Boomers want cities to focus less on recruiting new companies and more on investing in new transportation options, walkable communities, and making the area as attractive as possible. With the apparently failing model of 'business recruiting as economic development,' city leaders will be forced to look at alternatives. Creative Placemaking organizations such as the recently established FAF Coalition may hold the secret to the future success of the City of Woodbury.

Today the former site of Woodbury's Town Hall sits as an empty corner pocket-park along Broad Street in the heart of our once-bustling downtown. Not the best location for such a space and what some in the urban planning field might refer to as a "nature band-aid," but an open, green space nonetheless. With such a space there at least exists the potential for something to flourish. Perhaps "community" through Arts and Culture will once again sprout in the heart of our classic American downtown, and perhaps in towns across the entire nation, as a result of effective Creative Placemaking. Only then will we have the chance to come together, connect, and grow as a community. This is the formula for real progress, not only in 1875, but for today as well.

From the 1877 G.G. Green Daily Advertiser

Citations to follow...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Deptford Institute Free Library

"Deptford Institute Free Library is the outgrowth of a Friends' school. Before the Revolutionary war, a number of Friends of Deptford township, realizing the importance of education and the poor opportunities then existing for obtaining it, formed the Deptford Free School Society to carry out their plans for the establishment of a school. In 1773 one- fourth of an acre of land was bought, on which the present building, known as the Deptford Institute, now stands. In time more land was added and the property was held in trust for the maintenance of the school. Although the trustees were to be Friends, the pupils were not limited to any religious sect.

This institution was kept up until a satisfactory school of the kind originally intended was no longer possible, owing to the excellent public schools which had been opened. Feeling that the property should still be used for educational purposes, the Society decided upon a free library and reading-room. In 1892 the city of Woodbury was made trustee of the building and $5,000 realized from the sale of the land which was to be invested for the use of the library. The articles' of trust provided that a free library, reading-room and museum be opened on the first floor of the building. A course of free lectures were also to be given each year. The city was to provide a librarian and keep the building comfortable and in repair.

In November, 1894, the library was opened, a large proportion of the books having been given by the Woodbury Library Company. Since that time the library has been steadily growing, and a new reading and reference-room has been opened. An effort is being made to serve the interests of the people by placing before them the best literature and leading the children to an appreciation of the standard writers." 
(Public Library Commission of New Jersey)

The Institute's first Librarian was Mary L. Whitall (of Revolutionary family fame). She served as librarian from 1894 to 1897. She left to become Cataloguer for the Free Library of Philadelphia.

To read more about the building's original purpose, the Friends' Schoolhouse, its first headmaster/teacher, and his prominent Colonial-era artist son visit:


Public Library Commission of New Jersey, Hand-book of the Public Library Commission of New Jersey: Libraries and Library Laws of the State (p. 90). (1901). Trenton: MacCrellish & Quigley.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Classic Kunstler

"In James Howard Kunstler's view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about."

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Green Hotel STILL Threatened!


Holy Angels Parish overseen by the Diocese of Camden will yet again attempt to apply for demolition for the historic Green Castle Hotel located at 85 Cooper Street in Woodbury, NJ. Your help is needed! The last thing Woodbury needs is more surface parking!

You will have an opportunity to speak out against this intended action in person at the following times:

Holy Angels Parish will appear before the City of Woodbury's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) on 8/13/2014 at 7pm.

HPC's decision is then turned over to the joint Planning/Zoning Board which will meet on: 8/20/2014 at 7pm.

Please also consider sending polite but firm emails to the City of Woodbury Mayor and Council stating that you are against demolition:

Mayor: Bill Volk
(856) 845-1300 ext. 137

In addition please contact the Parish and Diocese and tell them you are against demolition:

Holy Angels Parish
64 Cooper Street
Woodbury, NJ
Phone: 856-845-0123 
Fax: 856-845-7409



Diocese of Camden 
631 Market Street
Camden, NJ 
Phone: 856-756-7900 
Fax: 856-963-2655

and of course

Bishop Dennis Sullivan
510 Cooper Street
Woodbury, NJ

Tell the Catholic church that they should be more concerned with building communities and not in tearing them down! "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set." - Proverbs 22:28

Monday, May 19, 2014

Happy 216th Anniversary, Woodbury Methodism!

Ok, so 216 isn't a typical anniversary year you normally celebrate but we just had to share the following Woodbury Daily Times two-page spread from 1922 regarding everyone's favorite downtown, Hazlehurst and Huckel-designed, gargoyle-adorned church. Way back in May, 1922 the Kemble Methodist Episcopal church celebrated 125 years of Methodism in Woodbury. That would make this May in 2014, Methodism's 216th year in Woodbury... if we did our math right! Enjoy the embedded articles below which feature some excellent images (newspaper quality at least) complete with plentiful historical information. Feel free to download or utilize the full-screen option with the toolbar below each article for optimal viewing.

The article unfortunately does not mention the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church which had its beginnings in Woodbury in 1817. It would be remiss not to mention the contributions to Woodbury's religious scene by the Reverends Richard Allen and W.P. Quinn. Richard Allen founded the first A.M.E. in Philadelphia back in 1794! William Dickerson, a prominent Woodbury citizen, became the church's 13th Bishop. Henry Dickerson, William's father, owned a large farm along Broad bounded by Carpenter which stretched back to the railroad. In 1862, he leased some of the land to the Union Army for Camp Stockton, a Civil War training camp for the 12 Regiment NJ Infantry Volunteers.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Control Car Culture for Better Living

"We have more to gain [by consulting] our planners than our psychiatrists. We can achieve more to improve our relationships with others by participating in community planning, rather than group therapy encounters. What ails us—most of us, anyway—is not that we are incapable of living a satisfactory and creative life in harmony with ourselves, but that our habitat does not offer sufficient opportunities. It hems us in. It isolates us. It irritates and disrupts." – Wolf Von Eckardt

My good friend's mother was killed in an automobile accident last weekend right here in Gloucester County, NJ. A drunk driver took her life. By now, we have all heard the story and the easiest way to deal with it is to shame the irresponsible driver.... but it really goes beyond that. Ray Oldenburg, author of the Great Good Place writes, "Why should a nation of drinkers arrange their municipalities such that drinking and driving are frequently and almost necessarily combined? “Gasoline and alcohol don’t mix,” says the American slogan. Of course they do. Our urban planners mix them all the time and in great doses. See the zoning codes for confirmation." It's time America holds their town and city planners responsible for what they have built and demand change.

Is this the America we all envision?
I grew up with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street so forgive my leanings towards a properly functioning urban neighborhood rich with community and mass transit. But unfortunately my real life upbringing was quite different. My parents moved us from Philadelphia to the New Jersey "suburbs" because by then car culture was in full swing and had most Americans under a sort of spell. I suppose my parents ultimately felt it would be safer to raise children in a less urbanized environment, not an uncommon thought in those days. However, recent studies show in actuality the opposite to be true. “A 2013 University of Pennsylvania/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) study challenges the entire notion that suburbs are safer. The study examines, for the first time comprehensively, all kinds of accidental and violent deaths in America. Contrary to conventional wisdom, urban streets are significantly safer than leafy suburbs and rural areas. While counterintuitive at first glance, the finding is not hard to fathom if you think about it. The number one US cause of death from ages 5 to 34 is automobile crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Deadly automobile crashes are far less likely on lower-speed urban streets.” (Top 10 Reasons for a New American Dream)

Sesame Street set... nice mixed use, walkable neighborhood.
Social mobility is higher in compact urban places, Arizona State University researchers found. The more walkable the census block — as measured by Walk Score — the more likely someone from the bottom fifth of income will reach the top fifth in their lives.” (Top 10 Reasons for a New American Dream)  I spent the later years of my childhood inherently feeling that something was not quite right about my car-centric hometown. Of course once I reached adolescence I felt downright trapped and ineffectual. When I was told that I NEEDED to drive and own a car to survive in today's world, even then, I felt the perversity of it all. It felt as if my parents told me I needed an artificial appendage grafted on to me to become really human. All the while, I found my visits to Philadelphia with my friends (via Patco Speedline) to be rich with friendly and rewarding human experience and acceptance, compared to my (dangerous) walks around my small-minded town or local mall which were replete with deriding insults and bullying. My favorite was getting stuff thrown at me from cowardly anonymous drivers.

But how does the presence of the automobile really effect community? Cars, as essential as they have become to survive in America have a serious unintended side-effect. They ruin our living environments. We need only to look at Ye Olde Broad Street here in Woodbury to see it. Pre-auto dominant Broad Street was once lined with mansions. Now you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that would want to live there amongst the roar and rush of the auto. Fortunately, with the recent road diet, we have taken a step in the right direction in returning our downtown to a place for people and not merely a state highway through-road. But with most things, it could be better.

The safest roads in America are ones that are not made for easy speeding. The more "obstacles" such as trolley tracks, twists and turns, or even a nice tree-lined median significantly tame the car and signify to the driver that they have entered the domain of humans. The Charter for the Congress of New Urbanism states, "road engineers [once] put the safety of motorists first by designing road and intersections for speeds beyond the posed limit. The idea was to protect those motorists who drive carelessly or too fast. But when the road is designed for speeding, more drivers take advantage of that invitation, and more mayhem results. Proper traffic engineering today reverses that approach by providing physical cues--including street trees, narrower lanes, and intersections designed for pedestrians--that urge motorists to slow down rather than speed up."

Typical Woodbury, NJ Broad Street residence is now the Bottom Dollar PARKING lot.
Once a grand residence for people has been relegated as a domain for the automobile.
image courtesy Gloucester County Historical Society
“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places," says Fred Kent. If you go with the former you get what James Howard Kunstler describes as the "National Automobile Slum," an unsightly, unfriendly, and unwelcoming place devoid of real community. Millions of American's flock every year to the most successful Main Street in America to experience what a downtown could look like devoid of the damaging effects of the automobile. Unfortunately it's all a mirage and goes by the name Disney World, but it was once a reality all across small town America and still exists in other countries. One of the reasons Disney theme parks do not do well outside of America is that in most other countries there exists public realms that are far superior to the artificial ones presented by the Disney corporation. They don't need the fakery, they have the real thing. They don't need to loose themselves in the fantasy realm because their everyday urban life experience is rewarding enough.

People have the upper hand in this typical European street scene
Thankfully even in "the most car-mad country" of America, driving statistics have been steadily falling since 2004. Combine this with studies that show 3 out of every 4 US Millennials expressing they would like to live in a place where they do not need a car to get around, and throw in of course rising gas costs, rising car costs, car maintenance costs, carbon emission damage to the planet and war for oil… the alternative for smart growth to build better, aesthetically-pleasing, human-scaled neighborhoods is a no-brainer. Only 10% of Millennials and Active Boomers want to live in a suburb where most trips are made by car.

Manhattan neighborhood event
image credit: PPS
We can choose to demolish every last vestige of humanity from our towns in favor of more freeways and faster byways or we can choose to relocalize our communities and reduce the necessary miles needed to drive on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. I've blogged before about the self-sufficiency of 18th, 19th and early 20th century Woodbury, and the story is no different from any town in the United States at that time. Everything needed to survive and live happily could be found within a 5 minute walk from one's home. Why are we now forced to get in a car for virtually everything? It is seriously frustrating, wasteful, polluting, and severely imprisoning especially for Americans who claim to value their so-called freedom. I can't help but view the car as some sort of gas-powered wheelchair. We have voluntarily disabled ourselves through planning and zoning. 

Top is what happens when the car is allowed to dominate (looks scarily like most of our rt.45 sprawl)
Bottom is what happens when you bring people into the equation
1.61 people die on average EVERY DAY in New Jersey alone from automobiles. Here we are in America talking about gun control, when really we need auto control. Death by firearms in NJ is actually lower than death by automobile, but Americans in general evince a sickening complacency when it comes to cars and the violence they can inflict. "Between 2003 and 2012, 47,025 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the United States. To put that in perspective, that’s 16 times the number of fatalities caused in the same period by the natural disasters – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the like – that get so much more attention. An additional 676,000 were injured, the equivalent of one person every eight minutes." Of course banishing the auto is just not going to happen in our car-crazy-country (not until the last drop of affordable oil is squeezed from the Earth) but we have the means to tame the automobile where they enter our immediate living areas, our downtowns and our streets and avenues. And of course ultimately we need better mass transit options... trains, trolleys, etc. 

In the latest poll from the American Planning Association, two thirds of all respondents and 74% of Millennials believe investing in schools, transportation choices, and walkable areas is a better way to grow the economy than recruiting companies. It's time to really get serious about transportation reform especially with bankruptcy looming for the nation's transportation trust fund. We can't keep throwing good money after bad trying to prop up the unsustainable network of automobile-based infrastructure. NEVER put all your eggs in one basket. We need more options. Had the drunk driver had the ability to walk or take effective public transit home from a neighborhood pub, perhaps my friend’s mother would still be here today.

For many of us, we drive because we are forced to, not because we want to and our sense of community suffers all the more for it... not to mention our safety. The automobile must be tamed. We should never let a machine dominate our lives... or give it the opportunity to take it from us so freely.

This post dedicated to the memory of Katherine C. Steponick and for all who have been taken from this Earth by a machine.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Green's Almanac Precursor, Daily Advertiser 1877 FOUND!

A recent donation from a Green-relation estate clean-out has revealed a heretofore unknown precursor to the popular August Flower almanac. Before Woodbury's multimillionaire, G.G. Green, introduced the world to his patent medicine remedies by way of his colorful August Flower almanacs, shown above, it is now known that he first experimented with a newspaper format. The first of his almanacs appeared under the title Green's Pictorial Almanac and began publication on September 1878. The newly discovered Daily Advertiser Vol.1, No.1 predates Green's almanac format by nearly a year, with a publishing date of February 22nd, 1877.

U.S. Patent Image
This is the only known issue and the fact that it resembles a common daily newspaper of the time probably had more to do with a clever advertising technique than any desire on the part of the firm to continue regular publication. In any case, the newspaper format was switched over to the colorful almanac, which by 1878 was beginning to grow in popularity and usage for other patent medicine firms. Green's almanac was printed in-house at his Green Avenue, Woodbury, NJ laboratory utilizing his nine printing press fleet (see image below). It proved so popular for him that he took out a patent for the publication in 1882. In 1883 alone, five million copies of his almanacs printed in English, German, French, and Spanish were distributed worldwide. As a result, Woodbury's Post Office ranked seventh in the state for postal revenue. Not bad for a small (but growing) rural community at the time.

Green's Laboratory Printing Room
Editions of the August Flower almanac are routinely found worldwide in academic library and museum collections pertaining to early American ephemera and advertising and this recent discovery is an important part of the U. S. patent medicine advertising timeline. Given its current deteriorating condition and being the only issue in possible existence, it is important that this undergoes professional conservation treatment. As always, if you'd like to donate towards the conservation, collection, and digital preservation of any historic item pertaining to Woodbury this can be done easily via our PayPal donation link to the left. For now, the pre-treated Daily Advertiser has been digitally scanned and we here at the VGPS proudly present this exciting publication for your enjoyment below.* Not to be missed is the Woodbury is Looking Up article found on page three. This virtual tour of 1877 Woodbury clearly describes the notable buildings and surroundings up and down Broad, Delaware, Cooper, Euclid and Evergreen and features the old Colonial-style Gloucester County Court House, Woodbury Town Hall and more. Download and view the following images on your computer for easier reading.

For a more comprehensive chronology for the Green's August Flower Almanac visit: 
An Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine and Health Reform 

August 1878 announcement of new almanac publication

* These images are property of the Village Green Preservation Society and may only be used for educational purposes or personal use. A credit statement and link attributing the Village Green Preservation Society, Woodbury, NJ must appear alongside any reproduction.