Oral History with Peter Epstein

Interview with Peter Epstein conducted by Lew Gantwerk on April 26, 2023. Recorded at the Princeton Public Library. Part of the Voices of Princeton partner project with the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Mercer County.

Peter Epstein was born in 1941, moving to Princeton 18 months later with his family shortly after RCA (where his father worked as an electrical engineer), had moved its basic research operations from Camden, New Jersey, to a complex near the intersection of Washington Road with Route 1. He grew up in Princeton, but on graduating from Princeton High, could not wait to leave town –in large part because Princeton University (circa 1959) still did not accept women as students. Subsequently he attended Harvard University, receiving both a BA and a Masters degree (the later in City and Regional Planning), with an interlude of service in the US Army. 

His parents, Jess and Marion, spent the rest of their long lives in town.  Jess served a number of terms as President of the Jewish Center, including the years during which the its Nassau Street property was acquired and the initial synagogue and center facilities constructed. During the 1950s Marion served as President of the League of Women Voters, and later as Chairman of the Princeton School Board and on the State Board of Education. In mid-life, after Peter had left the nest, she switch from being a a part-time, Educational Testing Service (TS) employee, to full time, ultimately becoming the head of math test development and then Senior Vice President in charge of the College Board nationally.

During the first 25 years of his career Peter worked on urban development and housing policy here in the US—serving  as, Director of the Office of Local Development for the State of Massachusetts, as head of land acquisition/coastal restoration for the California Coastal Conservancy, as vice president of a commercial real estate development firm in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, and as a policy consultant to federal, state and local governments. 

Since 1992 he has worked on the management of large scale, international development and technical assistance projects technical assistance projects, to technical work with central and local government counterparts in more than 20 countries (in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucuses, Eastern Africa, and Central American). Most of this work was performed through the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, with funding from the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development. Substantively, these projects centered on decentralization (strengthening municipal governments in relation to central governments), the strengthening of property rights, and (in the countries of the former Soviet Union) the creation of private housing markets and finance institutions. 

Mr. Epstein mostly retired and returned to live in Princeton (on Jefferson Road, somewhat perversely, just a block further from Wiggins Street than the home in which he spent his elementary school years). He has a sister, Barbara Vilkomerson, a long term local resident, and another sister in Boulder, Colorado. His son resides in Austin, Texas, and a daughter (with son-in-law and grandchild) in Denver.


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