Elijah Dixon points to a design being prepared to mark the facade of his soon-to-open shop in downtown Trenton. “It’s a ghost orchid,” he says of the shape featuring wing-like petals. The flower also gives Dixon’s building at 134 East Hanover Street its name — The Orchid House — and spirit.
“The flower only blooms under certain conditions,” Dixon says one recent afternoon amid the renovations for the opening of a shop in March — the first stage of Dixon’s urban pioneer project.
“I believe what is going on at the Orchid House is exactly what people need,” says the 24-year-old entrepreneur about his plans to open a consignment shop of Trenton-made products and then slowly expand from there and eventually use the building’s back area, yard, and two floors above the shop. “It’s grassroots, it’s going to be run by people in the neighborhood, it’s going to provide jobs. It’s a collaborative, and it’s a welcoming and safe space of communication and dialogue.”
Pointing out the window to the Trenton School’s Daylight/Twilight Alternative High School, Dixon adds, “And we’re looking to provide positive examples to the students across the street.”
Dixon’s current and more visible plans are part of a series of soft activities that involved a SAGE Coalition Graffiti Jam. “The SAGE Coalition was a major asset to what I was doing on Hanover Street,” he says of the group that helped put the Hanover Academy district on the cultural map.
Dixon then lists a series of active downtown Trenton artists and activists: Bruce Lindsey, the sculptor who moved his operations from Grounds For Sculpture to nearby Allen Street in downtown Trenton; Wills Kinsley, an artist and Z Sign employee who is making another sign for the door; the A-Team artists — the collective of “outsider” artists headquartered at the Trenton Soup Kitchen and a studio on nearby (Stockton) Street — had a painting party to help prepare for the downstairs for the opening; and Graham Apgar, a force behind the establishment of the Gandhi Garden down the street and a staff member for the Trenton Urban Farm.
“I am not an artist, but I value art what it brings,” says Dixon. That included creating a buzz in the community and putting the small Orchid House events on websites and in newspapers.
What Dixon is connected to is the city’s past and future. “I lived on Beechwood Avenue, off Stuyvesant Avenue, right across the street from (Cadwalader) Park,” he says.
“My dad’s side of the family is from Trenton. My dad and his dad owned barbershops. He sang in the men’s choir at Shiloh Baptist Church. My grandmother was a long-time principal of Village Charter School. I come from a family of educators and entrepreneurs, so it is natural for me to want to aspire and to learn.”
He says little about his Brooklyn-born mother, whom he lived with for a time in Ewing. He graduated from Ewing High School.
“I’m focused on grassroots economic and political organizing,” he says about his decision to put a stake in Trenton’s future. “I was a student at Rutgers in New Brunswick after I did two years at Mercer County Community College. I was in the cognitive science program and studying behavioral economics. I was doing well. I was interested, but my heart was back here.”
Dixon deepened his connection to the city through working for more than two years at Isles, a nonprofit community development program founded in 1981. “I served as community engagement coordinator. My official title was community liaison. I served as the official face with the community and city officials. We worked collaboratively for certain results in the community here (around Hanover Street).” He mentions historical research projects related to the Trenton’s historic districts and the Carver Center.
Dixon’s decision to purchase the shop with multi-family units next to the YWCA started in 2014. “I was 21 when the initial offer was put in (for the building). I’m a listed referral agent and was looking for retail space for someone, and I came across the building. It had everything: new kitchen and new bathroom, pipes were here.”
Dixon says he decided to see if he could make a go of out and sought out help. “I had two prospective partners, but it ended up being just me.” He purchased the property for $45,000 in January, 2015.
Yet he says there was an unexpected twist. “The building was in great shape, but before we was closed (on the sale), it was broken into and all the refrigeration, pipes, and heating were taken. That was discouraging. But I kept pushing.”
The push includes an FHA loan to renovate the upstairs, support from the arts community, and support from others invested in the region, including contractor Mike Hollywood. “He’s responsible for teaching many of us home improvement skills,” says Dixon.
‘There isn’t an arts place like this in Trenton — you’d have to go to Philadelphia or New York to find a 70-foot backyard.’
Talking between fixing the windows on a glass door and conferring with a plumber, Dixon starts on his vision. That includes renting the upper floors and moving into the building (he currently stays in West Trenton). He also talks about a creative co-op, a space for meetings, and the plans for a cafe adjacent to the shop. He understands it is a slow process and wants to make sure all his activities conform to city codes.
For the first phase, the consignment shop, he is focused on Trenton-made products, eco-friendly and arts and craft products similar to those at the pop-up shop run by the Trenton Downtown Association.
Although he is unsure of what products will be leading sales, he says he is developing a formal relationship with the vendor. “If you just want to sell your product you sign a consignment agreement.”
He is, however, certain of one component: the shop’s air will be filled with musicians who can be heard at Trenton venues such as Championship Bar, Mill Hill basement, Trenton Coffeehouse, and the Candlelight.
Dixon looks at the features of the building and says, “There isn’t an arts place like this in Trenton — you’d have to go to Philadelphia or New York to find a 70-foot backyard,” and whose long and tall walls can easily handle dozens of graffiti artists.
“I’m investing all my time and resources on this. My girlfriend (Christien-Nicole Brown) is a management consultant. We build things from upcycled materials and are looking into selling things — furniture,” he says.
While artists working in that district have referred to it as rough, Dixon is not alone in seeing the district as something to upcycle itself. “Isles has been a supporter of projects here. Isles and Passage Theater are championing a creek to canal cultural district. What they’re doing here bodes well for the city’s plan for the neighborhood — creating an arts district here. That is our goal, and we believe it is needed.”
The Orchid House, 134 East Hanover Street, Trenton. Find them on Facebook.