The history of Eggerts Crossing Village is shared by long-time resident. Courtesy of CentralJersey.
Once upon a time, black families lived in a neighborhood in Lawrence Township that was filled with decrepit housing that lacked indoor plumbing and whose unpaved streets were, by turns, dusty or muddy.
But black folks and white folks, working hand-in-hand, re-wrote the story so that today, those houses and have been demolished. In their place at the end of Johnson Avenue is Eggerts Crossing Village, which is a 100-unit affordable housing townhouse development.
Fred Vereen Jr., who grew up in the Eggerts Crossing neighborhood and who helped lead the charge to replace the shacks with modern housing, shared the story behind Eggerts Crossing Village at the Jan. 20 adult forum that was held at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.
Vereen said his family moved to the Eggerts Crossing neighborhood from Trenton in 1941. Most people lived in shacks, he said. The Vereen family – father, mother and eight children – lived in a 600-square-foot house.
“We were separated from the rest of the town by railroad tracks,” Vereen said. The tracks belonged to the Johnson Trolley Line Co., which ferried passengers between Trenton and Princeton.
In that little part of Lawrence Township, Vereen said, there were seven black-owned businesses and he had worked for several of them. One of those businesses was a trash-hauling company operated by one of his brothers and a partner.
“I would travel around Lawrence when I worked for them. I saw how the other part of town lived and how we lived,” Vereen said – and he did not like it. In other parts of the township, the houses were new and the streets were paved.
But what galvanized the Eggerts Crossing community was the township’s proposal to rezone land near Eggerts Crossing for light industry when the town’s Master Plan was updated in 1965. It would have meant the end to any possible improvements to the neighborhood, he said.
The Eggerts Crossing community asked the then-Lawrence Township Committee not to rezone the land. When the governing body did not respond, “we voted them out of office,” Vereen said.
Although voters in the Eggerts Crossing neighborhood always voted for Democrats, Vereen said, this time they voted for five Republican candidates for the Lawrence Township Committee.
“Did we win? See how Eggerts Crossing looks today. If you are going to choose sides to make a difference, do the right thing for you and the community,” Vereen said.
Around the same time, two Presbyterian ministers – the Rev. Norman Kent of the Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church and the Rev. H. Dana Fearon III of The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville – conducted an assessment of the needs of the poor.
“They came up with housing as a need, and education and jobs in Eggerts Crossing, and that got us started,” Vereen said. The survey grew out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.”
Rev. Fearon was especially appalled by the substandard housing. He was delivering free turkeys to households around Thanksgiving, and noticed that there were cracks in the floorboards and a lack of heat in some houses. Lawrence Township could not condemn the houses because there was nowhere for the residents to move.
That’s when Lawrence Non-Profit Housing Inc. was formed by church members, community members and civic groups. The goal was to build affordable housing on Johnson Avenue, but the proposal met with stiff opposition from some segments of the Lawrence Township community.
After several hard-fought battles, Lawrence Non-Profit Housing Inc. gained township officials’ permission to build Eggerts Crossing Village in June 1971. Ground was broken for the development in January 1973, and the first residents moved into the new housing in June 1974.
“We never wavered. You could never waver,” Vereen said.
Fast forward to 1998, and as Eggerts Crossing Village prepared to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Vereen lobbied for an after-school program for the children. He was the property manager for Eggerts Crossing Village and spent time in the community.
Vereen knew many of the children. They thrived as toddlers, but as soon as they enrolled in public school, their enthusiasm flagged. They could not keep up with their white classmates and “went into a shell,” he said. Many of the black children were “classified” and put in the special education program.
“We met with Max Riley, the superintendent of schools,” Vereen said. The objective was to find a way to help the children who lived in Eggerts Crossing Village find success in school and not to fall behind their classmates.
Every Child Valued, the after-school tutoring and enrichment program that exists today, grew out of those meetings with school district officials, Vereen said. Teachers went to Eggerts Crossing Village to help the children, he said.
The Every Child Valued program has “really made a difference,” Vereen said. The children are not routinely “classified” and placed in special education classes, and they are passing the standardized tests, he said. There is more parental involvement in parent-teacher conferences.
“Whites and blacks working together did this. If they did not work together, Eggerts Crossing Village would not have happened,” Vereen said.
“You cared. Once you get to know each other and become familiar with each other, you can move mountains,” Vereen said.