What makes a town so likable? Residents weigh in on the appeal of Princeton

Princetonians were happy and proud that Smithsonian Magazine recently named Princeton one of America’s 20 best small towns to live in — happy and proud, yes, but not that surprised.

“Princeton has got everything a city has, but it still feels like a small town,” said Robert Hillier. An architect for 40 years, Hillier graduated from Princeton University, where he’s an adjunct professor of architecture. His offices are on Witherspoon Street.

“The town is very dense. It’s walkable,” said Mr. Hillier. “There are many people out walking all the time. There are so many places for them to go, so much for them to do, in such a compact geographical area — very good shops of all kinds, restaurants, cafes, galleries. There’s the McCarter Theatre.”

Residents from all over the area have long agreed that the theatre is a jewel. Located a short walk from the southern end of Nassau Street, Princeton’s famous main thoroughfare, it’s housed in a beautiful building — it seems that everything in Princeton is housed in a strikingly good-looking building; great architecture is one of the town’s defining traits. McCarter hosts concerts of almost any kind of music anyone could name, ballets, performance art, plays, holiday events and children’s programs.

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“The University gives Princeton tremendous stability and has done an incalculable amount, really, to make the town such a great and interesting place,” said Hillier, who also is the publisher of Princeton Magazine and the majority stockholder of Town Topics, a weekly newspaper that’s been on the Princeton scene for decades. “Along with the University, you have the Institute for Advanced Studies, where Einstein worked for many years, along with other Nobel Laureates. Princeton is a great educational base. You have great independent schools here, or very near here — Hun, the Lawrenceville School and others. Our educational heritage includes a great history of research, by Einstein and so many others.”

The chance to walk the Princeton University campus is a great asset and attraction in itself, he said.

“The campus, I think, is the most beautiful campus in the world. It’s a spectacular place. It has a great collection of buildings old and new. The University has made it a mission to have only first-class architecture on campus.”

Lori Rabon is manager of the Nassau Inn, one of Princeton’s most historic enterprises. From 1756 to 1937, it was on Nassau Street, where it was built by Judge Thomas Leonard, one of the founders of Princeton University. Since the late 1930s, the Inn has been at Palmer Square, surrounded by shops, spas, salons and a beautiful town green.

Of Princeton, Rabon, who has worked at the Inn for 25 years, said: “I love it. It’s an eclectic town. You won’t find too many towns with such a great blend of shops, restaurants and cafes. And there are so many cultural offerings — McCarter, the Westminster Choir College and the Arts Council of Princeton, which has offered so many young people the chance to express themselves.”

Princeton is heaven for people watchers, she said. “There’s nothing like sitting in Palmer Square and watching those who pass by — students, families, people from the corporate world, the professors from the academic world. The merchants are special here — many of them don’t live in Princeton, but they’ve adopted it as their second home.”

Rabon, who chairs the Princeton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that more than 1,400,000 people visited the town in 2011.

“And of course we’ve got the University,” she said. “What an incredible partner for a community to have.”

Pat Ryan also knows Princeton well. He’s chairman of the board of both the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce and of the Hopewell Valley Community Bank, which has a branch office in Princeton.

“Besides the obvious attraction of the great university, Princeton has one of the most vibrant business communities in the country and one of the strongest concentrations of individual retailers in the state,” he said. “Every nook and cranny of the town is fed by the energy created by the university. There are so many talented and productive people in the immediate area.”

Like Hillier and Rabon, Ryan noted that Princeton has become a great tourist attraction.

“On Sunday mornings, the streets and sidewalks are crowded with visitors,” he said. “McCarter Theatre is one of our best known gems, and we also have the Princeton University Art Museum, probably one of the greatest on-campus museums in the country. They have wonderful exhibits of works from ancient to modern times.”

Also among Princeton’s staunchest admirers is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who strongly praised Princeton Borough and Princeton Township for voting, last November, to merge into one municipality. The Governor urged other towns in the state to follow the lead of the Princetons, which he said will result in savings to taxpayers and more efficient government.

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