Burlington, New Jersey: A Love Letter
There is a particularly poignant passage from the opening chapter of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, in which the narrator returns to his adolescent boarding school in New Hampshire fifteen years later and remarks that the campus has been rendered a “museum” by its new coat of varnish and other perceived renovations. “In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought,” he begins, “I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.” The novel’s more traumatic underpinnings notwithstanding, I imagine this passage accurately reflects many individuals’ complicated and often contradictory relationship with their hometown. One’s paradoxical connection to and deep detachment from the circumstances of their youth is inevitably spatialized within a temporal landscape, i.e. the sites and places where such childhood memories took root.
Indeed, I cannot help but grapple with the quirks and implications of my hometown’s inexorable influence upon me, as both an ever-evolving entity and an essential part of who I am today. In my case, moreover, Knowles assumes additional relevance, with time having reduced my hometown to a mere shell of its former self—not merely in the eyes of locals, but in its regional repute. This testifies to the subjective nature of spatial memory: beyond personal detachment, an entire city can be neglected or even forgotten once its unique history and identity are rendered irrelevant by contemporary sensibilities. To a certain extent, downtown Burlington, New Jersey became a living museum.
Once a thriving industrial town at the confluence of Delaware River commercial routes, Burlington—like several former manufacturing hubs flanking Philadelphia—lost most of its regional importance in the 20th century due to a combination of suburban sprawl, rising crime rates and an overwhelming failure to diversify economically. Its residents have borne the brunt of these socioeconomic shocks. Today, Burlington’s violent crime rate is over twice the statewide median, with the New Yorkshire neighbourhood experiencing a particularly troubling wave of shootings in 2016 that led to 16 arrests in a controversial sting operation. Burlington City High School, where 53% of students are eligible for free lunch, counts itself among 31 special-needs “SDA districts” receiving full state funding from New Jersey’s School Development Authority for construction and renovations.
This agonizing process of deindustrialization and urban blight reflects, on a micro scale, larger trends that took place in countless American cities throughout the 20th century. Still, encouraging examples of effective adaptation to manufacturing decline certainly exist —on a large scale, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Akron come to mind, while just 10 miles northeast of Burlington, local dining destination Bordentown represents an apposite case study—and our historic downtown is slowly but surely showing signs of life. For as long as I could remember, to walk along High and Broad streets, Burlington’s main commercial arteries, was to effectively witness a sea of vacant storefronts and abandoned architectural beauties punctuated only by a handful of bona fide institutions (more below) and dive bars. The times are, thankfully, a-changin’.
Although the city maintains a worryingly high rental vacancy rate and many of its storied sites and buildings are still largely neglected, Burlington under Mayor Barry Conaway boasts a promising urban renewal plan premised around innovative strategies to honour the city’s past while crafting a new identity for the 21st century. In that spirit, I wish to highlight 15 selected sites, embodying six different centuries of local history and culture, that make my hometown so special:
Burlington Island: the first European settlement in New Jersey and the first African presence in New Jersey
The tumultuous history of Burlington Island deserves a separate article, in itself. Located in the middle of the Delaware River, the island is part of the indigenous territory of the Lenni Lenape people. Walloon merchants from the West India Company of Holland established a trading post on the island in 1624, the first European settlement in New Jersey. Control passed between the Swedes, Finns and Dutch before being occupied as an English colony in 1664. Interestingly, it was also during this time that the first African presence in New Jersey was recorded, with Dutch colonial officials transporting slaves to the island.
In the early 1900s, the island hosted a popular amusement park before multiple fires left the area in ruins. The Army Corps has since used it as dumping site, and sand-dredging operations have destroyed virtually any colonial artifacts that remained. Recreational use of the uninhabited island is now prohibited, but that fact hasn’t deterred countless high schoolers from venturing there.
Revell House (1685): the oldest building in Burlington County
Arguably the crown jewel of Burlington’s historic district, the Revell House famously hosted Benjamin Franklin en route from Boston to Philadelphia. At the time, Burlington was the capital of the British colony of West Jersey, and many of the legal principles William Penn and other landholders delineated here in 1676 for the colony’s government (i.e. civil and religious liberty, freedom of speech, separation of executive and legislative powers, due process of law) would be incorporated into the United States Constitution over a century later.
Watch one sunset over the Delaware River from Burlington’s mile-long public park and it’s easy to see why our city has the potential to become a local destination once more. Stretching roughly from Doane Academy on one edge to Curtin’s Marina and Restaurant on the other, the tree-lined Riverfront Promenade provides a beautiful juxtaposition with the architecture surrounding it.
Wheatley’s Burlington Pharmacy (1731): New Jersey’s oldest pharmacy in continuous operation
Besides faithfully serving the surrounding community for hundreds of years, the pharmacy was a noted meeting point for Burlington’s sizeable abolitionist movement in the 19th century and a haven along the Underground Railroad, as runaway slaves reportedly hid in a network of tunnels beneath the building.
James Fennimore Cooper House (1782)
Cooper, born in Burlington in 1789, is widely credited as the father of a distinct American literature, typified by his classic novel The Last of the Mohicans. Interestingly, his birthplace on High Street is adjacent to the childhood home of Capt. James Lawrence, a naval hero in the War of 1812 famous for his dying command, “Don’t give up the ship!” The two homes today form a museum complex offering guided tours and school visits that no child in town can hope to avoid.
Oliver Cromwell House (1798)
114 E. Union Street was the final residence of Cromwell, a decorated African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War. Cromwell fought in the Battles of Princeton, Trenton, Brandywine, Monmouth and Yorktown and was one of the soldiers who accompanied General George Washington in his legendary crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776.
St. Mary’s (1703): the oldest Episcopal church in New Jersey
In 1986, St. Mary’s was declared a National Historic Landmark of the United States. Its Gothic Revival spire, completed in the 1850s, towers over downtown.
Ulysses S. Grant House (1856)
During the final years of the Civil War, the renowned general and future president Grant lived with his wife, Mary, on Burlington’s Wood Street. On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, after having declined the president’s invitation to see a play at Washington’s Ford Theatre, Grant was travelling back to Burlington when Michael O’Laughlen, a conspirator of John Wilkes Booth, unsuccessfully attempted to break into Grant’s train car and kill the general. Grant received the news of Lincoln’s death hours later and quickly boarded a train back to Washington.
Acclaimed French bistro Café Gallery called this building home for 34 years before its sudden closing in 2013. At the time, many considered this loss the nail in the coffin for upscale dining in Burlington. However, Australian vintner Adrian Thomas swiftly purchased the property, investing almost $2 million into remodeling and recruiting Philadelphia chef Ross Scofield to craft a rustic farm-to-table menu. The new 250-seat restaurant, Riverview, opened this past February to strong reviews.
A Route 130 landmark since 1947
Amy’s Omelette House
With a menu of over 200 different omelettes and a classic diner aesthetic, Amy’s respectfully embodies the best of a quintessential New Jersey institution.
Ummm Ice Cream Parlor
When I was little, downtown was almost synonymous with Ummm. The parlor, besides serving incredible ice cream and coffee, captures in a single street corner a small-town American innocence that was never truly afforded to Burlington.
Library Company of Burlington (1758): New Jersey’s oldest library in continuous operation, 7th oldest library in the United States
This iconic brownstone interposes a gorgeous array of 19th century rowhouses on Union, easily my favourite street in Burlington.
Third State Brewing
Opened just two years ago on High Street, Third State put Burlington on the microbrewery map, offering in-house tours and draft specials on their award-winning beers.
Evermore Coffee Roasters
Evermore is the latest addition to the city, and the gourmet coffee shop is already attracting buzz in the community in addition to forging wholesale partnerships with regional restaurants and shops.
Through decades of economic stagnation, one thing Burlington never really lacked was bars, albeit simple and often dodgy bars. When Brickwall Tavern opened in October 2015 in a remodeled 18th century firehouse, it rapidly became the nightlife spot in Burlington, and for the first time, drew my generation into downtown on weekends. Brickwall boasts an extensive selection of craft beers and an unpretentious menu of classic bar fare, but perhaps most importantly, its owners have consciously embraced the surrounding community with frequent charity events and an unofficial motto that represents a fitting exclamation point to this piece: “Believe in Burlington.”