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2001
Movers and shapers

URBAN CONNECTION

Roland Pott ’95 sells steaks and wine at his Urban Word Café, but what he’s really selling is a vision of how a depressed inner city can create possibilities.


Roland Pott
Roland Pott ’95  

Pott co-founded Trenton Makes, a small company leading the redevelopment of a gritty downtown section of New Jersey’s capital city. In just a few years the neighborhood has been transformed into a hotspot for poets, artists, and assorted hipsters.

Pott got involved with the project in 1999, an English major four years out of Reed with no business experience. He was interested in art, had worked a bit in restaurants, and believed in the neighborhood’s potential. Pott and two partners tapped friends and family for funds to restore a dilapidated Victorian house in Trenton’s Mill Hill section.

The building stood derelict, its windows boarded up, its façade scorched by fire. It seemed to symbolize all that was wrong with a city devastated by poverty and crime.

But where others saw urban rot and despair, Pott saw incredible potential. He envisioned the project as the seed from which a vibrant artistic community would flower in a neighborhood where few believed anything of beauty or value could grow.

 
  Urban Word
“A lot of people thought we were crazy,” he says. But that wouldn’t stop them.

The Urban Word opened as a coffeeshop and expanded into a bistro. There followed a bookstore and a nightclub. The businesses together employ up to 60 people.

“I think people can look at us and say, Trenton really is coming back,” Pott says.

The work hasn’t all gone smoothly, and not every new idea has panned out. Pott says he’s virtually earned an M.B.A. just in lessons learned from his mistakes.

“Yes, I need to pay my bills and I want to make money, but this venture is not purely bottom-line oriented,” he says. “What’s gratifying in this world of globalization and corporatization is to have a place like this—locally owned, with a local clientele.”

The neighborhood remains a work in progress, Pott says, but he’s optimistic.

“Whether a community grows and succeeds has a lot to do with how its people and institutions communicate,” he says. “This is a place where connections happen.”

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2001