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Riding the (regional) Rails: Water views and historic towns on the River Line

A historic home along the River Line

Marcello's in Bordentown City

A mock grave marker at City Hall in Bordentown

The Watch Case building in Riverside

The average Philadelphian can be excused for knowing very little about New Jersey Transit's River Line. Opened in 2004, this 34-mile stretch of track connecting Trenton to Camden is the most recent addition to the region's transit infrastructure. The enormous windows of the cars afford a gorgeous view of the Delaware River and the small towns that line its bank. 

A day trip on the River Line is also extraordinarily cheap: Tickets cost $1.60 and last two hours after they are validated at the station (so try to do so right before you step onboard). 

The River Line grants riders a far different view of the region than most other forms of mass transit. The cars never go underground and, with the exception of the morning and evening express trains, are rarely packed. The small cars that maneuver its course fit 90 passengers max; they get the highest ridership on the weekends when teenagers crowd on to see whoever happens to be playing at the BB&T Pavilion and tourists enjoy a leisurely tour of the historic waterfront townships. 

Among the River Line's 21 stops are a number of industry or parking lot-adjacent stations that are geared towards commuters and aren't particularly tourist-friendly. Flying Kite visited three of the more scenic stations, but there are plenty of other options (including, say, Riverton's stately Victorian homes). Feel free to choose your own adventure, but here is the one Flying Kite can guarantee. 

Bordentown City

The first stop on the River Line outside of Trenton, Bordentown City is as different as can be from the economically depressed state capitol. The median income ($70,507) is among the highest of the municipalities on the route and has actually increased by over $5,000 since 2000. Walking up the hill from the station affords a vista of picturesque houses lining the small grid that comprises Bordentown City (not to be confused with the township that surrounds it on every side). 

The main street, Farnsworth Avenue, is particularly vibrant west of Federal Street. To the east lies an abundance of hair salons and barber shops, as well as the city hall which is distinguished by a mock grave stone for "New Jersey Welfare Bureaucracy" -- an artifact from a former mayor's attempt to remove the township from the state's cash assistance program. 

An abundance of restaurants, boutiques and dessert spots line the street between The Record Collector (358 Farnsworth Avenue) and The Old Book Shop (200 Farnsworth Avenue), a store featuring pricey old tomes, an extensive collection of New Jersey history volumes, and an ample supply of Jane Austen. 

Have a sweet tooth? There are a plethora of pastries on offer, from the homemade pie at Argentinian eatery Under the Moon Cafe (210 Farnsworth Avenue) to "Strawberry and Champagne" cupcakes at the more recently opened Cake Box by Neelma (222 Farnsworth Avenue). 

Bordentown also boasts a high concentration of high-end pizza joints. The Vault at 300 Fransworth Avenue was established in the shell of an old bank building. It features the kind of thin, droopy-but-delicious pies that will be familiar to patrons of Philadelphia's Nomad Pizza. Marcello's, meanwhile, is ideal for the warmer months: The restaurant features an outdoor cocktail bar that offers shelter from the sun but is still open to the breeze. The tomato pies are "Brooklyn style" -- spackled with tomato chunks and topped with cheese (unlike the Philadelphia iteration). 

Vincent Minerva, owner and manager of Marcello's, says that Bordentown's main street is doing "extremely well" and has only improved since he arrived 13 years ago. 

"A lot of nice businesses are bringing in more business," he says.

One tradition that has boosted Marcello's is the periodic River Line bar crawls: They almost always make a stop at the restaurant. 

"It's entertaining to say the least," says Minerva. "People are enjoying themselves and knowing they don't need to drink and drive." 

Burlington City 

To the south lies Burlington City, a small municipality of almost 10,000 that was established in the 1600s. Signs delineate the older neighborhoods, for example: "Welcome to the Historic London Neighborhood, Est. 1696."

Burlington has seen better days. Even the long-standing neighborhoods by the river with their charming, historic housing stock are dotted with a smattering of vacant properties. On the main stretch, High Street, a number of storefronts sit empty. 

But there are still restaurants and shops, and on a hot summer weekend pedestrians stroll the avenue and the riverfront. Longtime favorites such as UMMM Ice Cream Parlor, an old school establishment serving up sundaes and waffle cones, do a brisk business. There are also a number of sports bars clustered close to the River Line Station (which is situated in the midst of a sunbaked multi-lane roadway). 

"In the '70s, [when] it was hopping with high-end and exclusive stores, Burlington was the place to be," recalls Zena Bucci, owner of Attic Artchives, an antique and restored furniture shop on High Street. Though the store is only a year old, Bucci lived in town throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. "In the '80s, people used to come down for the cute little boutiques, sandwich and coffee shops. With the 1990s it started going down and people had a hard time surviving after the recession of 2008. But its a nice location with the waterfront. It has all the right ingredients. There's no doubt it's coming back." 

According to Bucci, millions of dollars in new investments have been announced for Burlington City. The Pearl Pointe apartment complex -- featuring luxury one-to-three bedroom apartments -- is planned for the waterfront. There are other signs of investment as well, including the Brickwall Tavern and Dining Room: When it opened in 2015, NJ.com described the eatery's owners as an Asbury Park "group…known for creating restaurants that are 'hot coals' in an area in need of a shot in the arm."


The gargantuan Watchcase building looms over the River Line stop in Riverside, a small working class town of around 8,000. The former industrial building used to house a pocket watch manufacturing center and has long been the target of dreams for renovation and reuse. 

In addition to the Watchcase building, Riverside is known as an immigrant hub. Since at least the 1960s, Portuguese transplants have settled in the area. Today, the town remains home to one of the largest concentrations of foreign-born Portuguese Americans in the Philadelphia region.

In recent years, that population has been bolstered by Brazilians, no doubt attracted by the existing civic and commercial infrastructure in their native language. Jesus the Good Shepard church, the local Catholic parish, offers services in Portuguese.

Riverside's immigrant-led revival was disrupted by the 2006 passage of a law designed to punish those who rent or employ undocumented workers. Reporting at the time estimated that the town lost almost a third of its population due to that legislation.

"They're jealous of the Brazilians because they're hard workers and they live well," Celeste Martiniano, a Portuguese-American and then-owner of Pavilion Barbecue restaurant told the New York Times ten years ago. 

Today, Pavilion Barbecue (112 S. Pavilion Avenue) is still open. The cheap, delicious BYO is conveniently located next to a liquor store selling affordable wine and beer. The shrimp with garlic sauce is devastatingly delicious and main courses are generous, usually featuring some kind of diced meat mixed with a starch (potatoes or rice), and seafood. The exterior is poorly marked, but the unadorned façade is misleading -- tastiness lies within. 

JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart

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