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In Your Opinion: Hamilton Street Shepherds Need To Look To The Past To See The Future

By Mark Grieco, Somerset.

“Facts,” said John Adams, “are stubborn things…”  I was reminded of this quote by Adams when reading about the disbanding of the Hamilton Street Business and Community Corporation (HSBCC).  Over the past 10 years, the non-profit HSBCC had been tasked with overseeing the Hamilton Street Business District, over a 1-mile long stretch of residential and commercial properties in the eastern part of the township.  As a full disclosure, I had been active in the HSBCC in its earliest days, but left after a few years.

One often-repeated remark in Franklin is the notion that this stretch of Hamilton Street was the downtown of Somerset. It had fallen onto tough times and needed some revitalization to bring it back to its former glory.  This dovetails with a widely held notion throughout the township that “Somerset” was once a village, of at least equal historical status to the other villages in the township.  Unfortunately, the facts speak of something else entirely.  Without an accurate understanding of what Somerset is, the township council and their advisors will labor to solve the wrong problem.

Simply put, no historical village of Somerset ever existed, and Hamilton Street was never a Main Street in the traditional sense.  If Somerset was a village, nearly every local historian and mapmaker of the last four centuries is silent about the matter.  You will not find any photos of “Somerset Village” and very few of “Downtown Hamilton Street” in the township library’s archives. While people lived, farmed, and did business along Hamilton Street and Amwell Road over the centuries, historically there was no sizable hub or village between Middlebush and New Brunswick.

The idea of Somerset as a village of eastern Franklin seems to be more of a late 20th century notion, based not on fact, but on a yearning for a sense of place in the vast sea of suburban sprawl that typifies the area.  But it wasn’t always like that. Eastern Franklin at one time contained part of one of the most important settlements in the Raritan Valley; a cultural, business, and educational center rivaling any other in the region.

Until 1850 when the border of Middlesex and Somerset counties shifted, all the triangle of land on the north side of Albany Street in New Brunswick up to the Mile Run brook was part of Somerset County and Franklin. Arguably, European settlement in Franklin began in New Brunswick along the Raritan River in 1681 when Englishman John Inians bought from the Native Americans a huge tract of land on the south side of the Raritan River, starting from a property line on present-day Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick to Bound Brook.  Settlement continued along the river and along what is now Easton Avenue and Route 27. Hamilton Street, a link to western Somerset County, would be known as the”Road to the Somerset County Courthouse,” located in Millstone.

When John Adams and Ben Franklin famously debated the merits of sleeping with the windows open, they did it while sharing a room at the Indian Queen tavern on the Franklin side of Albany Street in New Brunswick. When Rutgers Alumni sing of the “Banks of the old Raritan”, the banks the Old Queens Campus sits on were for many years in the Franklin section of New Brunswick. Buccleuch mansion and the Theological Seminary were located in Franklin. Early 20th Century historian, William H. Benedict, tells us many notable Franklin residents lived in the city and it exerted much influence over the rest of Somerset County.

When New Brunswick left Somerset County entirely, what was left in eastern Franklin was the 19th century version of rural suburbia; some large estates, modest country homes, and farms. But it took the invention of the internal combustion engine to really change the landscape, some might say for the worse.
A 1910 panorama of New Brunswick shows a barely developed, rural Hamilton Street in Franklin. A 1910 map at the Somerset County Clerks Office indicates the same low density.  But aerial photos of the 1930s show the auto was already pushing suburban sprawl across the Mile Run brook into Franklin, mixing with farmland on Hamilton Street. In a 1959 master plan, professional planners noted it was unlikely Franklin would ever develop a “central business area,” but stated Hamilton Street had the potentialto become one, indicating it was not one even then.

More than 50 years later, the most densely populated part of the township still lacks a well-planned business district. It is almost totally devoid of any civic buildings to remind residents they live in Franklin. The coup de grace regarding this latter point came in 1972 when the township opened its new “Municipal Complex” near Middlebush.  Its design celebrates suburban sprawl, and not traditional urban planning where public buildings define public spaces.  Rather, its uninspiring buildings define parking lots.

The Hamilton Street business district reflects the power of the automobile to conquer distance. It is a long, haphazard, intermittent chain of commercial sprawl in the midst of greater residential sprawl. Sprawl is the product of cheap fossil fuel: a Peak Oil creation.  But, in the post-Peak Oil world, what are needed are sustainable communities.

At the very least, the township needs to address the issues of crime and poor property maintenance that have plagued the area for years.  Knocking down sub-standard structures and replacing them with 3-4 story structures, with ground floor businesses right up to the sidewalk, is a positive step and should be continued. The recent re-establishment of mass transit on Hamilton Street is also a good idea.  However, sustainability speaks of compactness, not hypertrophy. The last 10 years have shown the inability of the township to manage the entire district at once. While it should avoid neglecting the rest of the community, the township should concentrate its rebuilding efforts to a smaller area, an urban hub, with greater access to mass transit, perhaps wifi, and buildings scaled to the pedestrian, not the auto.

The new managers of the business district would be wise not to make the mistake of engaging in the fantasy that they are preserving the quaint main street of a “Somerset Village”, something which never really existed. The real village, New Brunswick, left in 1850 and was never replaced. Confronting Hamilton Street’s problems is not an act of historical preservation; it’s one of combating sprawl and creating a well-defined business and civic area where one never existed.

From a broader perspective, this part of Franklin desperately needs something other parts of the township already have: a sense of place and identity grounded in history; grounded in facts, not fantasy. There is much to be proud of regarding the history of eastern Franklin, with or without New Brunswick. However, the telling of that history has been eclipsed by the stories of the township’s real historic villages; places better defined geographically, and with preserved architecture and artifacts.  The result is eastern Franklin lacks any cohesive story of itself. Without that story, it lacks the foundation to build a cohesive community, and it will lack the community spark to create public spaces to celebrate and build upon that story. While Somerset Village is a hoax, the people that live here are not.  They deserve better.  They deserve great public spaces in order to live a public life in this democratic society.

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