There is perhaps no more iconic symbol of a college town than Nassau Street. On its south side, the FitzRandolph Gate gives way to the tree-lined campus of Princeton University. Its north side, a neat row of historic buildings, is packed with shops and restaurants. Nassau Street forms an unofficial line where the town of Princeton and the University meet.
Too often, the imaginary border between the University and the town prevents Princetonians from enjoying both. The self-contained nature of Princeton’s campus, coupled with the fact that Nassau Street alone already offers almost anything one could want, makes it a formidable psychological hurdle for students who want to see what else Princeton has to offer.
Princeton’s business owners have been trying to bridge the gap for years. Joanne Ferrugia, the owner of the book and toy store jaZams, talked about how rarely Princeton students really ventured out into the town. “The kids don’t cross the gates!” she said regretfully. She wanted nothing better than for whatever imaginary barrier that lay between the University and the rest of Princeton to come down. Especially during the pandemic, as local businesses suffer and students remain wary of leaving campus, the problem of how to encourage students to safely patronize Princeton’s shops and restaurants only became more pressing.
Tigers in Town is Princeton University’s solution. The program is a partnership between the University community and the town’s businesses, designed to give students the chance to experience the best that Princeton has to offer. Through Tigers in Town, campus organizations – including ODUS, Whig-Clio, Undergraduate Student Government, and student groups – can safely host events at local businesses. Eligible students can register for socially-distant timeslots at my.princeton.edu in order to receive free items from participating businesses.
By all accounts, Tigers in Town has been a great success so far for students and businesses alike. “Tigers in Town has done it. Princeton has done it. They’ve broken through the wall!” exclaimed Ms. Ferrugia. jaZams has hosted three Tigers in Town events so far – two “Pop-Up Shops” at which first-years could choose between a free puzzle and an art kit, and another successful puzzle pick-up open to any undergraduate regardless of class year. Registration filled quickly, and over 150 students secured timed slots to safely visit jaZams. Particularly for first-years, Tigers in Town showed them a side of Princeton they might never have otherwise discovered. “You cannot believe how many kids came in and they were like ‘Wow, I had no idea this was here!’” said Ms. Ferrugia.
The promise of a self-made work of art to hang in a dorm room or the unrivalled satisfaction of completing a puzzle not framed as a problem set was more than enough to bring students to jaZams, and their experience in the store was more than enough to make sure they’d be back. “Our goal is to get everybody to play and just relax,” said Ms. Ferrugia. During a stressful midterms period and amid the general uncertainty of living in a pandemic, students needed exactly that.
Tigers in Town has given business owners hope not only that they will make it through the pandemic, but that they will come out the other side with even stronger ties to the University and its students. Nowhere was that more apparent than with Tico’s Eatery and Juice Bar. This past year has been difficult for Tico’s, as it has been for many small businesses. On top of the pandemic and the restrictions it brought, the University’s transition to online learning meant that the shop could no longer count on a steady stream of students or University catering orders. Tico’s had to shut down for two months while its owners, Renee and Ammel De Bernard, reassessed the situation.
When the University announced that undergraduate students would be returning to campus for the Spring 2021 semester, Renee was thrilled. But just having the students back in residence didn’t guarantee that they would venture across Nassau Street, much less that they would find their way to Tico’s. First-year students in particular had little knowledge of the town, due to the cancellation of Princeton Preview or an on-campus fall, and hadn’t had the chance to sample the legendary quesadillas, açai bowls, and smoothies that Tico’s offers. Their açai is made from scratch, and they use only the freshest ingredients. “Everything that comes through that door” said Renee, “is handpicked by my husband.” The issue was getting students to the store; the quality of the food and drinks would take care of the rest.
On March 9th, Tico’s hosted the inaugural event for Tigers in Town. Students who registered in advance for a socially-distanced timeslot got a $10 credit at Tico’s, courtesy of student organization Whig-Clio, the country’s oldest collegiate debating society. Slots for “Tico’s Tuesday” were booked almost instantly, and small groups of masked students cycled in and out of the shop for the whole day – leaving with smoothies, quesadillas, fresh mango, and cold-pressed juice. As with jaZams, one of the event’s goals was to introduce first-years who had never explored the area to the institutions that make Princeton so special. First-years, Renee remarked, were able to find Tico’s easily and many had already been back for more.
Tigers in Town would not have been possible without the cooperation of Princeton’s business owners, the generosity of the University, or the willingness of students to safely patronize local institutions. The program is both a symbol and a source of the community’s strength, tying the University and the town closer together. New Tigers in Town programs are coming soon, so please visit my.princeton.edu or follow @Princeton_odus on social media for updates.