On a crisp, sun-dappled early fall day, John Sullivan sits at a cafe table in downtown Montclair, NJ to talk about the town’s parklet project. Several neighbors greet him as they pass by, and one man, a public official from neighboring Bloomfield, stops to snap a photograph. Still others stop to read the sign that is propped up against a bike rack near the curb. It reads, “Come on in. This is a public space.” The wooden parklet structure straddles two parking spaces in the street and represents the culmination of years of collaboration between Sullivan, town government officials, local shop owners, artists and Bike and Walk Montclair, a group that advocates for a pedestrian- and bike-friendly town. The table is a weather-worn, repurposed wooden cable reel donated by a neighbor.
“I love the idea of spontaneous interaction,” Sullivan said. “Placemaking and rehabbing public spaces is getting at this huge social deficit that we have.”
Sullivan is a 2018 Certificate in Creative Placemaking program candidate. The program is jointly offered by The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking and the New Hampshire Institute of Art. He is also a high school science teacher and father of young children. The program is mostly online, and students interact with each other and their instructors through writing and video conferencing. Certificate candidates are required to complete a capstone project, and the parklet was Sullivan's. His favorite aspect of the course work was the ability to troubleshoot project challenges with classmates and instructors from around the country.
A man riding a motor cycle in the street sidles up to the outside of the structure to greet Sullivan, sitting on the other side of the half wall. The man is Israel Cronk, Executive Director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District and one of the key players in the collaboration. The parklet looks like a front porch with unpainted wood that could yet serve as a canvas. It appears to be a work in progress, Sullivan said, because it is. He said he hopes that passersby will assume stewardship of the space and continue to finish it, decorate it, enjoy it, refinish it and redecorate it, so that it continues to evolve into something so unique there could only be one on the planet. “It’s a living thing, and I expect it not to look the same a month from now,” he said.
Already the site has served as a stage for a local band that played during the city’s weekend jazz festival. On a weekday morning, at least a dozen people animate the space: a couple pushes a baby in a stroller and stops to read the sign; another woman allows a toddler to climb the decorative block of hay at the base of the entrance. Two men occupy the bank seats in a corner and lean in for conversation. Another man opens up a laptop at a table on the opposite corner to look at the screen.
A local carpenter, Matt Mulvey, built the structure with the help of volunteers in a local park a short distance away. When it was finished eight volunteers lifted it and carried it to where it is now at the corner of Walnut and North Willow Streets in front of the Red Eye Cafe. They intentionally paraded it through the farmer’s market to get shoppers’ attention. A platform floor supports half walls on all sides, and a pergola holds up strings of party lights. The slanted pergola is a decorative element, but Sullivan said he hopes an artist can think of a creative way to cover a portion of it to shield visitors from the rain and sun. Already the Northeast Earth Coalition donated planters of yellow mums and bright red miniature peppers. A local artist painted the sign at the entrance on an upcycled pallet panel. Sullivan said he doesn't even know where the chairs came from.
Montclair is a “railroad suburb” 14 miles west of New York City in Essex County, New Jersey.
Commuter trains slice through the 8-square-mile town on a daily basis and stop at six stations within town limits. It already has so much going for it, Sullivan said. The Walnut Street Business Improvement District includes coffee shops, restaurants, a bakery and a brewery, and business owners dress up their storefronts with planters and chalkboard signs that beckon the passerby to stop and get a bite to eat. One of the city’s train stations is less than a quarter of a mile away, and hundreds of commuters trod the streets during the morning and evening rushes.
Sullivan said he recognized the potential to improve on what existed. Fast moving automobile traffic detracts from the quality of life. The placement of the wooden structure in the street is meant to “calm” traffic, he said. It also serves as a public meeting space that he hopes will inspire residents to participate in civic life and feel a sense of agency over their public spaces. The project required that the municipal government approve the repurposing of the two parking spaces through a formal ordinance, and the idea did meet with resistance, Sullivan said. Skeptics feared that vandals and homeless people would deface the structure. Others worried it would be vulnerable to automobile collisions, and some residents simply did not want to relinquish the two metered spaces. Sullivan said he hopes the project serves to inspire others who want to reclaim spaces that were built for automobiles.“Public space is seen as a thing nobody has control over, and I say, ‘Yes, you do have control if you’re willing to fight for it enough.’