Since the 1950s Trenton, like many cities, had been losing its middle class to the suburbs. But in the late 1960s a multi-racial group of civic, labor and religious leaders believed they had a duty to bring the middle class back to Trenton. Out of this commitment to rebuilding and repopulating Trenton came the Kingsbury, an ambitious non-profit housing organization whose legacy can be seen today in Trenton’s skyline in the form of the commanding Kingsbury Twin Towers on Market Street.
“The hope was to bring middle class families back into the city,” says Mildred Gershen, wife of the late Alvin E. Gershen, urban planner and consultant to the project. Kingsbury’s Board of Directors included leaders of Trenton’s Jewish and Christian communities as well as representatives of Mercer County’s AFL-CIO, Knights of Columbus, and the City of Trenton. The group included the Rev. S. Howard Woodson, a pioneering African-American politician in New Jersey and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church; Samuel Berkowitz, head of the Brothers of Israel Synagogue, the oldest Synagogue in Trenton; Samuel J. Plumeri; and William Dinkins, father of David Dinkins who would go on to be mayor of New York City.
Rabbi Howard Hersch, Rabbi of the Brothers of Israel Congregation since 1961 and one of the founding directors remembers “a true ecumenical effort” and consensus of direction for the project.
“It was a collective effort,” Rabbi Hersch recalls. “Everyone who was participating, the whole board were very dedicated. I remember attending many many meetings where everyone showed up. It was a commitment of love and commitment to redeveloping Trenton.”
“The one thing they all had in common was their interest in helping people,” says Mrs. Gershen. “They really believed that housing was the answer for the city of Trenton. Housing is still the answer for the city of Trenton.”
The concept was to take the example of federal housing for veterans, rental units that enabled those returning home to establish themselves and then move on to home-ownership, and offer it to the middle-class “returning home” to Trenton. It was the first project of its kind in the state, and one of only a handful around the country. To facilitate such an ambitious plan nothing less than a new stage agency was needed – the Department of Community Affairs – which Alvin Gershen was instrumental in devising, according to Mrs. Gershen.
“The Department of Community Affairs was his idea. It was developed in my living room over dinner, many many nights,” she said. Her husband “felt very strongly, and he had the personality and the enthusiasm that would set things in motion.” Mr. Gershen was in the process of building a state-wide property management business which Mrs. Gershen and their children, Jonathan and Deborah, still preside over.
The $35 million, 1151 unit Kingsbury development was the first project to be given DCA funding. The ambitious project was on 35 acres adjacent to Market Street, on land originally purchased in 1677 by Robert Stacy, one of Trenton’s settlers. Going from the Mill Hill section of Trenton down towards the Delaware River to the Robert Trent House, the development’s name was drawn from one of the earlier names for Trent House: Kingsbury Hall.
The project, designed by the Kramer, Hirsch and Carchidi architectural firm, included the two 21-story towers, with middle class amenities like modern floor plans, balconies and patios, as well as low rise housing too. An elementary school was planned on the grounds of the community, with security protection for the grounds overall, a precursor of today’s gated communities. Ground was broken on the project in 1970 but construction delays resulted in the first phase not being completed until 1972. To the disappointment of Kingsburys board the housing units did not fill up with the intended returning middle class residents.
“The city and state’s heart was not completely in it. They found that they needed housing really for people in Trenton, and they were not middle class,” Mrs. Gershen says.
The buildings were converted to federal Housing and Urban Development rental assisted housing. The bulk of the project’s land was sold off to the state for construction of the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, leaving only the 1.6-acre property that houses the Twin Towers today.
“A real attempt was made,” Mrs. Gershen says. “It didn’t succeed.” being lower income housing the Kingsbury site evolved in the 1980s into 55-and-older housing and housing for the handicapped under the auspices of the state. In 1982, the Gershen’s management company took over management of the buildings and began to rebuild the property’s reputation.
A residential population once almost completely African-American, the buildings now house a diverse population. “We have all sorts of people living there without a problem,” Mrs. Gershen says. “People now graduate from the apartments and buy a house.”
“It went through a whole metamorphosis from what they wanted it to be, to what it became to what it is now, which is closer to its original plan,” Mrs. Gershen says.