Why the “colonial downtown” holds 21st century South Jersey back

When tattoo artist Jeffrey Miller first laid eyes on the old Collingswood theater, he had a vision. He was looking for a new space to expand his successful body art operation into, and the empty storefront on the ground floor of the iconic Collingswood building seemed perfect. The space was large, suitable for a retail operation in the front and rooms for tattoo procedures in the back. He saw a town that he thought welcomed all manner of artists, from painters to woodworkers, sculptors to coffee roasters, and thought he would fit right in. But when it came time to get his operation going, he quickly ran into a roadblock. Tattoo parlors were banned from operating in Collingswood. He would have to go in front of the zoning board to ask them to grant him a variance for operating his body art studio in town.

He certainly had civic support for his project. Tom Marchetty, owner of The Factory, a maker space on Fern Avenue (where Miller practices another of his crafts, creating handmade tattoo guns), put together a reception for those who wanted to get to know Miller before he made his pitch to the zoning board. People came out and learned about the project and the artist’s plans to very minimally impact the historic structure and to even have an architecturally relevant handmade wooden sign created for his studio. Overcoming a prohibition in any town is tough, and when the time came to go before the zoning board, Miller and Marchetty reached out on social media for supporters to testify in favor of the variance.

And that’s what they did. Supporters packed the small room where the zoning board meets during a hearing that stretched over two different sessions on two sweltering summer nights. When the time came for the public comment portion, 15 people (myself included) gave testimony in favor of the project. After the testimony, the chairman of the board remarked that all 15 people gave different, thoughtful reasons as to why they wanted to see a tattoo parlor come in to downtown Collingswood.

Unfortunately, when it came down to it, the borough didn’t support him. The zoning board vote was close, but ultimately it voted to deny Miller his variance. Though a majority of the board agreed to grant him a variance, it did not garner the required number of votes needed to bypass the prohibition. It failed by a single vote.

Though it was disappointing that the variance was denied, there was something more telling during the deliberation of the board before the vote. There was questioning as to whether or not this body art studio would match with the “character of the downtown” area. One board member (who eventually voted in favor of the variance) used the term “colonial downtown” to describe the commercial strip of Haddon Avenue that runs through the borough. It seems as though the question wasn’t so much about Jeffery Miller’s tattoo studio as what Collingswood sees as being appropriate to exist within its borders.

If you read the wording of Collingswood municipal code § 141-15.1 that prohibits tattoo parlors, you’ll find that that isn’t the only thing it prohibits. It also frowns upon “ice or roller skating rinks, establishments that show films or videos of any kind, massage or tattoo parlors, establishments utilizing plenary retain distribution licenses, bowling alleys or electronic or mechanical games of kind, including but not limited to pool, billiards or bingo, flea markets, discos and night clubs whether or not using a liquor license, accessory apartments, boarding homes and community residential homes.”

Some of these make more sense than others. A nightclub, for instance, might not be the best fit for an area that directly abuts a residential zone. But the spirit of the code is clear. Its first line declares that “all uses not expressly permitted as either a principal use, an accessory use or as a conditional use by this chapter are not permitted.” The borough wants the power to decide whether or not a business belongs within its borders, regardless of whether or not the market would support it. For a town where many storefronts stay empty for years on end, where promotion of restaurants is so intense that barely anyone comes to shop at its retail stores (resulting in high turnover and rolling community mental anguish), this is a problem. But it’s not only Collingswood’s problem. It’s nearly every other town’s problem as well.

South Jersey seems to consider its downtowns relics of the past to be preserved for quaint weekend trips, and not the thriving community centers they can be. Over the years, downtowns across the region were left to rot while strip malls and shopping plazas got all the retail, downtowns considered too antiquated for modern commerce. Think about traveling around the area. Major roads and signage are happy to point you to a shopping mall or fast food restaurant. But if you’re looking for downtown Bordentown, Mount Holly, Audubon, or Haddon Heights? You’re lucky if you see a “Historic Downtown this way” sign in your travels (and generally speaking, you won’t even see that).

For those towns that either only have an older downtown, or those with both a major highway and a downtown, the central, older part of the town is considered precious and fragile, something to shield from the modern world, as if the sensibilities of the present would damage the allure of our “colonial downtowns.” Think of Haddonfield, whose identity is inextricably tied to the relative antiquity of Kings Highway. There’s certainly no harm in celebrating the past. Too many towns tear it down for strip plazas as it is. But that appreciation can’t be the thing that chokes the town’s lifeline to the present.

Thriving towns always have a healthy mix of economic activity. Their governments do not choose the winners and losers. They do not promote one sector to the detriment of the other. They do not hand pick who gets to live where and what services they get to enjoy. They foster an environment of success without having to lay a heavy hand on the intimate workings of their domain. If the market and citizenry of Collingswood is ready to suffer the bureaucracy of multiple zoning board hearings but your municipal town does not allow it, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your position in the economy of the 21st century.


5 thoughts on “Why the “colonial downtown” holds 21st century South Jersey back

  1. These codes and restrictions exist all over the country. When you poke at the reasoning behind these rules it always comes down to class and social control. Tattoo parlors are “low class” and attract “the wrong element”.

    “Our town is respectable.” There are a lot of insecure limping-along just-scraping-by (white) folks who are terrified that their town will “turn”. In the end, many people would rather have a half dead town than a town full of “them”.

    The same kinds of rules are used to indirectly restrict the number of people who live in each suburban home or apartment building. On street parking is sometimes forbidden and covered off street parking is required to prevent too many cars (really too many humans) from living in a particular building. This keeps the riffraff out of the subdivision.

    On the one hand I agree that these rules are economically counter productive. I live in a neighborhood where a 700 square foot one bedroom apartment costs $850,000 and rents for $4,200 a month. Within half a block of my place there are two! tattoo parlors, a dive bar, and several other “low class” establishments that would not be welcomed in many Jersey towns.

    On the other hand, one of the reasons San Francisco is booming is that neighborhoods like mine are so incredibly rare. People with money who like a funky environment actually pay extra to escape sterile towns with no vitality. The tech jobs are all an hour and a half away in dull suburban office parks. People reverse commute just so they can live in the city.

    1. Hey Johnny, thanks for the insight. What you say makes sense, unfortunately, but Collingswood in particular has spent the past 20 years building itself up as an artist and art-friendly place, which is what makes this so crazy to me. It’s like they simultaneously want to not offend (though I have no idea how it would offend anyone) people who come to our BYO restaurants (they’re nearly obsessed with them here, to the detriment of other uses of the downtown, in my opinion), and try to be “cool” at the same time. They have art events, open studio tours, but this kind of art isn’t alright? There are so many tattooed people in town that this packed a zoning hearing. Maybe other, more socially-conservative towns wouldn’t bat an eyelash at this, but I think it’s inappropriate to be like this in this particular town. And like you said about SF, people who want something interesting will pay a lot to be there. I think they’re missing out on a huge audience by thinking everyone needs a red brick town stuck in the past.

  2. Pingback: Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres | South Jerseyist

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