It takes a village

Why getting Trenton to where it needs to be will require all hands on deck

From left to right, Jacqui Dent Ivey and Washington Elementary school teacher, Laurie Barslow, at the Conservatory Mansion community art bundling event.

I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and how it impacts life. When I cast my vote for the New Jersey Gubernatorial election earlier this month at the Cure Arena, I felt an immense sense of responsibility since I now live in the capital city and view the political landscape with a different lens. As I stepped inside the arena, it appeared that there were more poll workers than voters casting ballots. I wasn’t sure if it was because I decided to vote early or the result of a generally low turnout. As I stepped in front of the machine to cast my vote, I paused, which was a first for me. I hesitated before placing my vote because I knew that I was making a choice that was going to play a part in impacting more than just my life. No more voting for a candidate, just because they are affiliated with a particular party. I need to see more than just flyers in the mail, signs on lawns, and campaign commercials. I need to know how any candidate I vote for is going to help push forward the values I believe in, such as good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean streets, and afterschool programs.

The abandoned homes, high crime rate, and food desert make me wonder why more isn’t being done for the city. Talking to city residents, stakeholders, and government officials, I realize that one of the biggest landlords in Trenton is the State of New Jersey. The state doesn’t pay property tax on the buildings they own, so that creates loss revenue for the city that could be used to lower property taxes, improve schools, and create safer neighborhoods.

I also know that there is a disconnect between the power moves that take place within Trenton and the neglect I see in the streets when I walk out my door. It is easy to ask what the politicians are doing for the city, but we can’t just leave it up to them to be responsible for the change we want to see. There are many people in the city who aren’t elected officials doing extraordinary things, making life better for the community without legislation or debate, such as Elijah Dixon, a long-time Trenton resident and the owner of the community hub, Orchid House, located on 134 East Hanover Street. Dixon and his partners have competed against big investors to purchase residential and commercial properties in Trenton to revitalize the neighborhood.

Jacqui Dent Ivey, co-owner of the Conservatory Mansion, located at 540 East State Street, is another person who is doing extraordinary things in the capital city. The Conservatory Mansion is home to the Any Given Child Trenton, a non-profit that promotes education through the arts. I met Ivey a couple of weeks ago where she and a group of volunteers assembled over 10,000 art supplies to donate to Trenton Public School students as part of a two-day community bundling art supply event. As a young girl growing up in Trenton, Ivey took music lessons at the same building she would later purchase to use as an event venue and community hub. “The key to achieving collective success when working towards a common purpose entails understanding and respecting one another’s role(s), and then being willing and flexible to fill in the absence of another when needed,” Ivey said, referencing, the importance of Trenton residents working together.

Throughout the past couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to connect with amazing folks and Trenton-based non-profits that opened my eyes to how special the capital city is, and how equally resilient people are. What drove home the point was when I toured Sanford Street with Mayor Gusciora and city officials. Thirty homes will be demolished on Sanford Street as part of the fight against the blight initiative. I’ve never seen anything like that block in my life. Almost an entire block of homes was bordered up with plywood and marked with an X. So many thoughts ran across my mind, namely what happened? What caused the blight? Why did people leave their homes? Given the tight housing market, why are there so many unoccupied homes in Trenton? I was told by city officials that the decline on Sanford Street started around 20 years ago, stemming from factory closures, but I suspect the root cause is more nuanced than that.

“There is one home on the block you have to see,” said Director of Housing and Economic Development, C. Andre Daniels. As we walked further down the street, we stopped in front of this house that sat at the corner of Sanford Street; which stood out like a rose growing from a crack out of the concrete. Amidst decay and bordered up homes stood a house that was obviously well-maintained, with its autumn floral motif and freshly painted exterior. To me, it was symbolic of the hope I see in Trenton. Mayor Gusciora and C. Andre Daniels knocked on the door to speak to the homeowner about living in the neighborhood, but no one answered.

There are major plans for redevelopment that are in the works from both private and government institutions. Trenton residents are asked to give their input to Trenton 250, a community-driven consensus for the redevelopment of Trenton by 2042. The mission is for the capital city to be known throughout the region as an attractive, resident-friendly urban environment, where students are well-prepared to make economic and social contributions to society, where business and industry stimulate innovation, and where people are active in the arts. 2042 seems like a long time away, but the Mayor suggested that Trentonians will start to see a different city in five years.

Trenton is home to a variety of nonprofits that serve many people in Mercer County who need assistance. Examples such as, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, ArtworkTrenton, and Arm in Arm, which are always looking for volunteers to help out in some capacity. Don’t just write Trenton off without being a part of the solution that will help push the city forward. Like the well-maintained home on Sanford Street, stand out and be a part of the change you want to see.

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