Trenton's future rides on history; Capital city: A downtown revival may be what's needed to bring tourists to the city.


TRENTON, N.J. -- Not only did George Washington sleep here, this is where he proved his ability and daring as a military commander, and in the process saved the colonies' foundering cause for independence.

In fact, Washington may not have gotten much sack time, and certainly not on his last night here, Jan. 2, 1777, as he peered across Assunpink Creek, near present-day Mill Hill Park, at the army that British Gen. Charles Cornwallis had arrayed against him.

Having executed his midnight river crossing at Christmas eight days earlier and the surprise assault on the garrison here, Washington would soon meet his officers in Douglass House to plot a night march around the entire British column for a brilliant rear attack at Princeton the following morning.

The Douglass House survives at Mill Hill Park, though little advertised and rarely open. As such, it is a fitting analogy to the tourist image of the capital city little advertised and rarely open.

Washington's Crossing, Pa., and Princeton Battlefield State Park are popular draws for study and strolling. The battlefield features the 250-year-old oak where Gen. Hugh Mercer fell. He died at the nearby Clark House.

But a walk in Trenton is indispensable for the fullest appreciation of the action here, which for 10 days made this area important.

The historic appeal of these streets remains hidden. It may be the key to a downtown revival someday, as in Boston's North End. The heritage exists. As yet, the will does not.

For three centuries Trenton has been a busy "company" town, first as a mill, then a waterway commerce point, then a steel town, and now the center of government and jurisprudence in this corridor state of 8 million.

On weekdays it bustles with thousands of state workers flowing toward lunch spots or a bench in the sun.

But if it can be said they vote with their wallets, then the workers' vote says downtown Trenton is devoid of interest after hours.

Merchants have accommodated them by staying away. A bistro in the historic Lafayette House recently closed after 20 years. On Broad Street, the Old Eagle Tavern with its colonial cuisine didn't last that long.

After 6 p.m., one is hard pressed to find a slice of pizza or pack of cigarettes downtown. There hasn't been a movie theater here in decades, there has never been a mall. The first downtown nightclub in decades, Maxine's, is a new undertaking, hopeful but untested.

But the political establishment has brought with it impressive gifts for the city. Each has become an attraction for visitors, and taken together they are substantial, if poorly coordinated.

On West State Street, the official New Jersey State Museum offers creative special exhibits and a permanent collection mixing art, local archaeology and natural science. The first full dinosaur skeleton, Hadrosaurus, was found in New Jersey in the 1850s. His mascot alter ego, Haddy, appears at the museum on Sundays to greet and amuse children.

There is a planetarium with daily shows and periodic laser concerts. The museum will draw in the new millennium with a special exhibit opening in September of imperial Russian art and artifacts never seen in the West.

At the opposite end of this immense block is the Old Barracks museum, the only surviving example of the quartering barracks the British empire built along the East Coast. It is recently renovated with interactive exhibits and recreations of Colonial life. Come on the right day and you will find Colonial troops drilling schoolchildren and firing their muskets.

Between the two is the nation's second-oldest operating statehouse, with a newly gilded dome, funded with dimes collected by school children. There are daily guided tours of the interior, with its legislative chambers and gallery of portraits.

Down the street from the barracks is the newly reopened War Memorial, a neoclassical 1930s auditorium. It stands second only to the glistening Performing Arts Center of Newark as the finest symphony venue in the state, but is underused.

Warren and Broad streets move north from the center of the city and merge at the Trenton Battle Monument, an easy and worthwhile stroll. This is a commanding height from which Capt. Alexander Hamilton's guns flushed the British troops.

Mill Hill Park on Front Street two blocks away offers the only "natural" view of the historic Assunpink Creek, which Washington used to pin and later block his enemy.

Next to Douglass House is the Mill Hill Playhouse, a rehabilitation of a 1850s Protestant church that houses a part-time professional theater company.

And all of these attractions are aside from what folks in the region would regard as the most valuable features of all: the sports facilities.

At the south edge of town, Waterfront Park is perched on a bank of the Delaware River. It is a brick stadium with pretzels, Italian ices, decent beer and a good AA baseball team, the Trenton Thunder. Here people cheered Nomar Garciaparra's infield theatrics in the days before he could hit.

The county built the stadium and it is not done. Closer in town on Hamilton Avenue, the county is erecting an ice hockey arena where the Trenton Titans will skate, slash and punch. This is expected to boost the charming if struggling Chambersburg neighborhood, which features a clutch of small Italian restaurants. Many will insist the food in the "Burg" is without peer south of New York.

And Trenton is a growing footnote in the sports world for those drawn by the dramatics of this year's Tour de France. The first Thursday of June features a bank-sponsored professional race in a five-mile, two-way circuit that has produced not only one of the fastest races in the world but one of the most accessible for spectators.

Near Trenton, Washington's Crossing is charming, if retail oriented, and Princeton features the most beautiful, walkable university campus in the Ivy League, the superb McCarter Theater and a friendly art museum. Check out the building they call the "student chapel." It would humiliate many European-style cathedrals, here and in Europe.

Nearby also is Mercer County Park, nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park. It features Mercer Oaks public golf course, which at $30 a round is probably the best golf value in the state.

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