My friend, the professional photographer and artist Andrew Wilkinson, sprays industrial strength insecticide on my boots, then coats his own, to ward off the fleas inside the ravaged former Trenton Times building on Perry Street.
We enter the two-story building with miner’s lights on our foreheads and ascend through it until we climb onto the roof. The heat has broken and it is a beautiful late summer evening, the sinking sun casting a warm light on the grafitti-covered brick walls and the huge dormant neon signs spelling out “Trenton Times” in the same gothic font as the paper’s page one flag.
Andrew is documenting what is hopefully the nadir in this 89,000-square-foot building’s life before it is reclaimed and rebuilt into the proposed home of the International Academy of Trenton Charter School by HighMark School Development, a Utah-based for-profit school developer that bought the property for $1.3 million (Andrew’s photographs of the former Times building can be found at www.princetonportraitphotography.com).
I vividly remember those glowing red neon words atop the Times of Trenton building. Right off Route 1, they were visible from that main artery into Trenton and from many other vantage points in the city.
They were only one piece, but a memorable piece of Trenton’s cityscape, the face it presented to the world. In ways both real and symbolic, something irreplaceable was lost when those neon letters went dark in 2011 after the Times sold the building to a precast concrete company and moved its beleaguered and vastly reduced staff to Riverview Plaza near the baseball stadium.
I know current and former Trenton Times reporters and photographers, including Planet Trenton’s founder and editor Krystal Knapp, and I wrote freelance for the Times in the 1990s and 2000s, but I had never been in its Perry Street headquarters before this. I only heard from afar about the layoffs and attrition, the low morale, the neglect of infrastructure, the struggle to survive that took place inside these walls as, like newspapers everywhere, the Times waged a losing battle to compete against Internet news and the free digital exchange of information.
I did experience this death spiral of traditional newspapering firsthand however, as a reporter and editor for the Princeton Packet from 2006 to 2010 where there were also layoffs and furloughs, with those who remained picking up the work of those who were gone. It was a terrible circumstance for a profession which plays such a critical role in a free democratic society, or any society for that matter. And it continues.
The building Andrew and I wandered through was like a battle zone. Attempts to seal it had long ago been breached, and in the quest for salvageable metal and other materials, it appeared as if every surface had been hacked into and plundered. Remains of human encampments were apparent in parts of the building where windows let in natural light. Other spaces, such as where the huge presses once stood, were gargantuan black voids.
Some relics of the Times building’s former life remained. The wood-paneled publisher’s and executives’ offices, complete with fireplaces, hinted at a time of past prosperity. And, yes, yellowed newspapers still littered several desks in the empty newsroom.
Amid this vast expanse of decay there were only two real signs of life or potential life, of human dignity and endeavor amid the squalor. First was the graffiti. Some of it was beautifully composed, a pleasure to see amidst the desolation. And second were those sentinel-like neon signs on the roof.
The signs were weathered but unbroken. They gave the impression that if you turned on the juice again, they’d light right up. They almost appeared to be waiting in anticipation of what would come next.
Those signs stuck in my mind. I decided to consult Trenton’s reigning sign expert and artisan, George Zienowicz, owner of the Zienowicz Sign Company on East Canal Street. George is also an expert on neon sign fabrication.
“They are fabulous, as a piece of Trenton history, and as iconic signs,” he said of the Times signs. Although he had never been on the Times building roof to inspect them up close, Zienowicz said they are immediately recognizable as open-faced stainless steel channel letters with exposed neon. This type of sign was manufactured between 1940 and 1965, he said. It is likely the signs were installed when the Times built and occupied the building sometime in the 1960s.
It turns out Zienowicz is an old newspaperman himself, starting as a copy boy and working his way up the ranks at The Trentonian – the Times’ rival, which founded in 1945 by striking Times employees. Zienowicz then changed paths, becoming a sign-maker.
We talk about what people who worked in the news trade tend to talk about – the hard work, the crazy hours, the sense of pride and purpose, the sounds of presses and smells of newsprint.
The Times and Trentonian still continue to operate in Trenton, a remarkable feat given that many cities can barely support one daily newspaper, let alone two. What the future holds for them is anyone’s guess. Like Bob Dylan’s “writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen,” for us writers and journalists “the wheel’s still in spin,” and the only sure thing is “the times they are a-changin’.”
Change can be unwelcome, but it is necessary and ultimately healthy, because that is the nature of all things, including for newspapers and cities like Trenton. I am glad to see that the former Times building will undergo a transformation into a school, and this vast space will be again animated with people, ideas and knowledge. This change is positive to the building, and welcome in the city.
I do hope that one thing will not change. I hope those signs remain atop the roof of 500 Perry Street, and that one day I will get to see those words lit up again in bright red neon.