It's not just about cutting the grass

by Jonathan Gordon

This past weekend I visited downtown Trenton and walked through Mill Hill Park. Some of you may have also noticed that the lawn is dead. This is because the field had been cut below 2 inches, and in a week that had constant high temperatures — something I haven't seen in years — so the grass dried out instantly.

I know what you're thinking: grass will grow back. But it's not just about cutting the grass. The Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) recently laid off its Landscaping Manager / Caretaker in favor of contracting a "lawn care service". Most of you know Derrick McEady as D — he was the steward of Downtown's public green spaces, and everyone knows him by the quality of his work and the pride he took in it. Walk around and look for it: ask yourself, for example, who took the time to make topiaries on Warren and Hanover. It wasn't the miraculous power of Mother Nature: it was a Trentonian.

In one of the photos, you see D sitting in a downtown park. Even though it is not Mill Hill Park (I don't have that photo, sadly), the conditions you see, such as grass growing 18 inches high, were the conditions of ALL the downtown parks, including Mill Hill Park, when we started this endeavor in 2013. Tony Mack was in office, and the Department of Public Works was greatly understaffed. (If you remember, one of Tony's signature moves was cutting away all the middle managers, leaving city services with a void of leadership and institutional knowledge.) This meant that the City wasn't maintaining the parks, and people stayed away from them.

At the time, I had just started as TDA's project manager, and we had a dilemma: the merchants and the State wanted us to move the farmers' market off of State Street. We decided to attack both problems – the location of the market and the condition of the parks – at once. We decided the park would be a great place not just for the market, but as a place for all sorts of activities that could connect those who work and live in the Town. I walked into the office of then Director of Public Works (Luis A. Mollinedo), and told him to have a mower at Mill Hill Park for us to use by 3 pm, joking that if he didn't, I would cut the field with scissors. He said, "Sure, no problem, we can use the help" and brought us a mower. TDA appointed D, who had been volunteering with us on gardening/beautification activities and had years of work experience with landscaping, to be the caretaker of Downtown's green spaces. From then on, TDA and DPW had each other's back whenever anything needed to be done, and we were in constant communication. This strong collaboration continued throughout D's stewardship of the park, and it's a key reason the park became a beautiful, vibrant space for so many people and so many activities. But a strong collaboration requires people, and it breaks down when you take out those people. This is the first reason that it's not just about cutting grass.

Secondly, if you look at the section on Mill Hill Park in the Capital City Renaissance Plan from 1989 (D-1, p. IV-5 ), it's clear that the park has had the same problems for over 30 years, all of which tie back to the need for consistent stewardship. Everyone knows that Downtown Trenton has challenges. There are as many opinions and opiners as blades of grass in the park about how to fix those challenges. But here's a little secret: while you're fixing all the other challenges with solutions from whatever podcast you heard, you can ALSO, with minimal resources, say "No, not today" to having human waste, hypodermic needles, trash, and dead and/or knee-high grass in a public space that is the heart of Downtown. You can say: "We WILL have a nice thing here," even if there are still bad things to work on. You can keep that park a little bit nicer and a lot safer for our visitors, families, friends, and neighbors.

And the thing is, a service contract might seem to accomplish that with less resources than a salary, … except that it doesn't. Anyone that knows D knows they could let him know of an issue, and he'd get on it right away. That simply doesn't happen with a service contract. A contractor cannot and will not be that present, cannot and will not stay on top of those issues the same way, cannot and will not be as familiar with all the details, issues, and assets of the public space, and how to engage with each. Unless you are there, unless you have relationships with the community, unless the community has the confidence in you that if they inform you of an issue, it will be taken care of — unless someone who actually cares is consistently working on that park — the nice park will stop being nice. The community needs bonds and a sense of confidence in its public servants. D had those bonds and that confidence. Neither the landscaping contractor, nor the other contractor TDA has contracted to manage the landscaping contractor and TDA generally, has a shred of the understanding, presence, or confidence that D had. (Again, this is not just about cutting grass — these glaring gaps are already visible in every aspect of what TDA is currently doing.)

This is already a very long essay, so let me wrap up. Trentonians deserve nice things. Trentonians can accomplish great things. And Trentonians deserve a TDA that understands this.

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