Pennington Borough
Slow Pace, Good Schools, Wide Volunteerism

New York Times
by Julia Lawlor
Adapted from an article in
the New York Times, June ??, 2003

Stats
Population: 2, 696 (year 2000)
Area: 0.96 square miles
Government: Mayor and Council


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The pace of life is relaxed in Pennington, a one-square-mile borougb in Mercer County, N.J., that was settled in the 17th century. Drivers traveling south on Route 31 must obey the sudden drop in the speed limit - from 45 miles per hour in neighboring Hopewell Township to 25 at the borough's edge - or risk speeding tickets. Elementary-school children walk to school along streets lined with pink-blossomed cherry trees. The mayor shows up at the Cup of Joe coffee shop in downtown Pennington every morning, ready to chat.

You do not have to live here long before just about everybody knows your name. "When people come into my store," said Jack K., a gallery owner on Main Street and lifelong Pennington resident, "I can greet them by their first names, ask them how their kids are doing. I know what's going on in their lives."

Pennington's small-town atmosphere and highly rated school system are big draws for young families, Because the borough is so small, children can easily walk to the two block-long downtown and parents rarely have to drive their children to play dates or after-school activities

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Many Pennington residents commute to Manhattan or Philadelphia. There is no train station in town, however, and the closest station with service to New York, In Hamilton, is a 15-minute drive away. From there, it is more than an hour to Penn Station. The commute is much easier for workers driving to state office buildings In Trenton, Princeton University and large corporate facilities in the area, including Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merrill Lynch.

Pennington is just far enough off the beaten path that its tiny downtown has not yet been discovered by the national chains. There is no Starbucks, no Gap. Drive-through fast-food restaurants are banned. There are, however, a bank, a drugstore, a cobbler, a pizza parlor, a hardware store, several gift shops and restaurants.

The closest grocery shopping is the Pennington Supermarket, where, according to a former councilwoman, Susan P, "the dairy section is in Pennington and the rest is in Hopewell Township." The nearest mall is the Quaker bridge mall, about a 10-minute drive away on Route 1.


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Laura S. moved to Pennington March with her husband, Michael, and their two boys 5 and 6. They had been living in Madrid and decided they wanted a big yard and a slow-paced lifestyle when her husband took a job near Philadelphia. They found it in Pennington: "We really wanted a small town," said Laura. "We're two blocks from downtown. Once the kids are old enough to cross the street by themselves, I'd feel comfortable letting them walk."

When Bob and Kathy F. and their two children moved to Pennington from Lexington, Kentucky, in December of 2001, they rented a house on Main Street. Once they realized how much they liked the schools, they decided to buy a 70-year-old fixer-upper.

"The schools here are incredibly good," Kathy said. Her older daughter is in the second grade at Tollgate Grammer School, one of four elementary schools in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and the only one In Pennington.

After elementary school; students who live in Pennington attend Grades 6 through 8 at Timberlane Middle School and Grades 9 through 12 at Central High School, both located on the outskirts of Pennington.


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At Central High School, the school's average SAT scores placed it 27th out of 307 high schools in the state, according to the Superintendent of Schools. Seventy percent of last year's 286 member senior class attended four-year colleges, and 17 percent went to two-year colleges and nursing schools.

"We are a highly academic high school," the Superintendent said. "We offer 55 extracurricular activities and a multitude of advanced placement courses," The high school also offers auto shop as an elective, has two woodworking programs, a robotics team that competes nationally and its own TV studio, A new TV studio, auditorium and gymnasium will be completed in July.

Pennington is within a 20-minute drive of several private schools and is also the home of the Pennington School, a private day and boarding school founded by the Methodist Church in 1838. The school, which has 440 students in Grades 6 through 12, allows local residents the use of its tennis courts, indoor pool and playing fields. In 1980, after a fire destroyed a building at the school, the borough created Pennington Day, a street fair with proceeds going to rebuild facilities at the school. Since then, Pennington Day has been held in May each year, benefiting a variety of nonprofit groups.


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What sets Pennington apart, many residents say, are its sense of community and tradition of volunteerism. The fire department and the rescue squad are made up of volunteers, and residents donate time to work on Pennington Day, the Memorial Day parade, the recreation commission and the streetscape committee. The mayor and council members are all unpaid.

Robbi J. moved to Pennington after being divorced more than four years ago. She had lived on five acres in Hopewell Township, barely knew her neighbors and missed being part of a community. After moving to Pennington, "I went to the mayor and said, 'Put me on a committee,'" she recalled. She moved into a house downtown, and started getting involved - in the library, the Girl Scouts, the streetscape committee. Pennington Day and the Parks and Recreation Commission. "It's like Mayberry," Robbi said. "My neighbor mows my lawn; I shovel his driveway."


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Pennington's mix of Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian-style architecture appeals to old-home lovers, and the Victorian stone Pennington Railroad Station is on the National Register of Historic Places. The borough's history dates to the late 1600's, when it was a crossroads called Queenstown, where travelers between Philadelphia and New York stopped overnight. In 1708, the Presbyterian Church was built, the village grew and two years later the name was changed to Penny Town -a reference to the fact that a night's lodging could be had in a tavern there for pennies.

During the Revolutionary War, the Presbyterian Church became a barracks for British and Hessian soldiers, who were said to have used the pews for chopping meat. They also used a wall outside the church to practice jumping their horses, according to the legend. A crack in the communion table, which remains on view at the church, is said to have been caused by the blow of a Hessian soldier's sword.


The material in this page is adapted from an article appearing in the New York Times. The original article includes several photographs from around Pennington and more information about the housing market and the school system.

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