Looking to the Future in a New Newark Park

September 2, 2009

In today’s blog entries, we are bringing you two interconnected and moving stories from Tuesday’s field day in Newark. The first from Michelle Knapik and the second from David Grant.

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director

TPL sign

mayor w kid

Jesse Allen Park burst onto the Newark scene with high flying recreation options of nearly every stripe. The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the City of Newark have once again worked their magic in transforming a long time neglected park into an oasis for community gatherings and activities.

bball area

park entrance

On this brilliant sunny day, the outdoor recreation magnet seemed to be the skate park – the City’s first! I’m no expert, but I think I saw quarter pipes, decks, grind rails, pyramid boxes, stairs, benches, and ledges to challenge the novice and seasoned skate board enthusiast.

skate park

David Dowd, the obstacle design consultant and owner of the Division East Skate Shop in Montclair, was on-hand to witness and support the skate show!

skate action1

kid w board

Onlookers congregated on the stadium-like seating, and it seemed many were out to learn the ropes.

skate crowd


Other hot action was happening on the brightly colored basketball and volleyball courts.

bball action

v ball action

Then there were the entry-to-graduate level tennis courts.

quick start court


The US Tennis Association’s Outreach and Advocacy Director Barry Ford noted that this is the first urban park to include the three different sized regulation tennis courts from the outset of the design phase. Youth eight years of age and under play on the 36 foot “Quick Start” courts, then graduate to the 60 foot courts until the age of ten, and then make their way to the full size courts. This progression is designed to capture and keep youth involved in the game. A note to aspiring tennis pros: I heard Roger Federer got his start on a Quick Start court. Newark can also stake a claim to fame by boasting that Jesse Allen Park is the first in the state to have Quick Start courts.

councilman james2

City Councilman Oscar James injected a story about being met by some interesting stares as he carried a lacrosse stick through the streets of Newark in his youth. It was clear he relished the “diversity of recreation facilities” in the park.

His vision includes people “finding common points of interest through activities and recreation,” and he is waiting to see the intergenerational tennis lessons and youth mentoring youth in the skate park. There may be well-placed obstacles to challenge the skaters, but clearly the intent and hope is that any impediments to relationship building will fall away.

If after this flurry of activity you need to catch your breath, not too fear, there is plenty of budding green space to enjoy and any number of inviting park benches to sit upon.

park view

park trees

park bench

The story of Jesse Allen Park, however, is much deeper than the amazing array of contemporary design features and program opportunities.

rev west

Reverend Levin West reminded us that he was an aide to Newark’s public and civil rights leader Jesse Allen, and he pointed to Grace West Manor, the senior tower he built next to the park. Even with the completion of phase-one of Jesse Allen Park, he sees a “mecca of opportunity” in a place that for too long presented more challenges that opportunity.

david g

David Grant, President and CEO of the Dodge Foundation, spoke on behalf of the many philanthropic partners that contributed to the park (including the Victoria Foundation and the Kresge Foundation) and applauded the City and TPL for their vision and ability to get the job done. He also talked about the future (as is the role of philanthropy) and asked us to think about the world that our youth will be in fifteen years from now and who they will be in that world. He then turned to the role of Newark’s parks and noted that they are connecting youth to nature and to each other “for fun and stewardship.” In essence, he said that Newark’s parks are “rising up” to set the stage for a positive future.

mayor speaking

The Mayor’s reflections about the park started with Jesse Allen and other strong public leaders in Newark who long ago had and “never gave up their vision” of a positive Newark. This is about “celebrating . . . and elevating ideals,” the Mayor continued. He also noted that it is “a beginning of an era” and that the City must “care, feed and sustain” the park, its programs and its community supporters (e.g., the Friends of Jesse Allen Park and the team of landscape laborers trained by Project USE).

It was clear that the preservation of open and green space is also something near and dear to the Mayor’s heart. He thanked the State for the park support that came through the Green Acres office and urged voters to support the open space bond referendum that will be on the November ballot (see the Keep it Green Campaign for details). Why the emphasis on green space? The Mayor said that New Jersey has had a “heroic commitment” to green space and that these physical spaces are places where people come together. Jesse Allen park will bring school kids from Louise A. Spencer Elementary School together with youth from the Boys & Girls Club and the “strong elders” from Grace West. This park, he said, “brings together the past, present and future.” Our eyes are privileged to see today what Jesse Allen envisioned – what do you envision for the Newark ahead?


Click here for more details about TPL’s partnership efforts at Jesse Allen Park and the Newark Parks for People Program.

Progress Tempered by Fire

David Grant, President and CEO

I was reminded yesterday how quickly joy can turn to sorrow.

At 2 p.m., I participated in the ceremony celebrating the renovation of Jesse Allen Park in Newark. The weather was perfect. Mayor Booker and half the City Council were there. The neighborhood was out in force, and kids were everywhere – playing tennis, testing the new skateboard area, standing in line for cookies.

It was impossible not to see the gorgeous new park through the eyes of the kids, and it was impossible not to think about what it will mean to their lives. After the ceremony, the Mayor strode around the playground beaming, with a young boy of four or five riding his shoulders (as Michelle Knapik so beautifully captured in the picture above).

It was a day when Dodge’s multi-year investment in Newark’s parks through the Trust for Public Land seemed perfect to me, when City government seemed to work, when Newark’s renaissance felt palpable, not just in the galleries of its great Museum or the halls of NJPAC or The Prudential Center, but in the neighborhoods.

I drove home, worked for a while, then went to the gym. There on one of the televisions, under the banner “Breaking News,” the news crawl read, “4 Year-Old Shot in Newark Playground.” The shooting had happened a half-hour after our ceremony had ended. It had happened off Irvine Turner Boulevard, which runs a block from Jesse Allen Park.

I thought of all the people I had spent the early afternoon with – the Mayor, the Reverend of the local church, the staff from Trust for Public Land, the Director of The Boys and Girls Club that borders the park, the Police Commissioner standing in the background – all these people who are working so hard for the children of Newark and for their City. I thought of them hearing this news, and my heart went out to them.

Thankfully, it appears the little girl will make it through this. Her shooting, though, is a stark reminder to all of us basking in the sunshine and joy at Jesse Allen Park that the work is never done. For me, the picture of the little boy on the Mayor’s shoulders will last for a long time as a reminder of why it must continue.

All photos by Michelle Knapik