The Queen City. The City of Homes. Plainfield. I never saw her at her best. That would have been in the 1950s or so. But I never saw her at her worst either, that would have been in the 80’s.
She was a shining jewel and a symbol of suburban prosperity and wealth in the United States, but most importantly, Central New Jersey. Plainfield, a small suburban city had it all. Throughout the late 19th century and early to mid 20th century, Plainfield was the shopping destination of central New Jersey and was a resort town for presidents and the wealthy that worked on Wall Street who built massive mansions all over the city.
It would take forever to explain the difficult situations that led to the Queen City being, well, dethroned to the likes of neighboring cities, such as Summit, Westfield, Somerville, and Cranford. But one reason, and one that Plainfield didn’t suffer from alone, was urban renewal. Urban renewal was a federal program that aimed to eliminate substandard housing, revitalize city economies, construct good housing, and reduce de facto segregation. However the ills of the program were many, including (as in Plainfield’s case) a long turnover time between demolition and the start of rebuilding of new units. Fortunately, Plainfield had only two urban renewal site, the Park-Madison site and the Hancock building.
Unfortunately, both were in the very center of Downtown Plainfield and were architecturally important. Many amenities on the Park-Madison block, such as the renowned Paramount Theater, and many department stores were torn down. The Park-Madison site took not a couple of years to build, like many urban renewal sites, but several decades. In approximately 2004 the Park-Madison site, finally after sitting empty in the middle of downtown for over 30 years, became the site of a shoddily done, architecturally bland 5-story office building and accompanying retail awkwardly angled toward the street. The Hancock building didn’t get so “lucky”, it has been an even plainer looking development for decades: a McDonald’s.
There are many positive aspects to downtown Plainfield today design-wise however, and the architectural grandeur of yore still shines through between many now shoddy homes and a less than appealing downtown. The gems are numerous, and make a visitor feel at home and cast into history. The City Hall building (the building in which I work) is a fine example of a time of grand stature in Plainfield, filled with luxurious touches and features, along with various historic fixtures.
Another aspect of Plainfield that I like would be the architecture of the various churches and homes. This architecture is what makes Plainfield today still feel very, very suburban, and worthy of a brighter future.
However we can’t blame many problems on urban renewal. Some problems simply…happened. For example, the Park Hotel used to be a premier hotel for the wealthy that passed through Plainfield, including celebrities and presidents alike. Now today, its 7 stories sit dilapidating and peeling as it is home to an adult daycare and facility for the mentally ill. The problems in the surrounding area are many, including the roaming around of their tenants on city streets from sun up to sun down. Many have gotten hurt, abused on city streets, and become violent with people passing by. Another very prominent problem in Plainfield is the façade of buildings in the downtown being frequently destroyed by signage and by their owners.
But where there is a will, there is a way. Plainfield has a comprehensive plan that sounds extremely promising, and has a strong chance at restoring the grand character that she it is known for. Between having very powerful developers making progress downtown at a rapid pace, and having a unified vision, Plainfield is once again on the move. Personally, I am preparing the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) applications for state designation. Plainfield will be the first municipality in New Jersey to have two transit villages if granted TOD status. Optimism is again in the air in Plainfield, and we feel on the right track. The most interesting aspect of Plainfield is that all that happened to it could have (and can still) happen anywhere. It could have happened to your hometown…