This past weekend, April 24 and 25, over 400 Montclair residents came out to 15 parks and green spaces across all four wards to celebrate Montclair Earth Day Parks Appreciation Weekend.
Coordinated by the Montclair Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee led by Alliah Agostini Livingstone, this town-wide effort also capped off Northeast Earth Coalition’s Earth Day Celebration Week led by Jose German-Gomez.
With an estimated 175 acres of parkland and preserves in the township, there was plenty of ground to cover.
Over the course of the weekend, volunteers of all ages (2 to over 72) collected over 350 bags of green debris and trash from the parks, wooded areas and waterways. At the Nishuane Park cleanup, a tribute planting of a dogwood tree was also held, to honor Montclair resident Jordan Tassy, a local hero who recently succumbed to complications from COVID-19, Livingstone said.
Most of the town’s park groups and nature advocates opened up the spring season by getting to work through community volunteer cleanups. At Glenfield Park, Robert Crook of the Glenfield Park Conservancy said, over 50 people participated in the cleanup, many of them school-age children. The park is a 19-acre space on the line between Montclair and Glen Ridge.
As an avid advocate for the park, Crook encourages interested parties to look beyond some of its more prominent amenities, including its newly renovated playground and ball fields. “Walk through the glen,” he says, about a portion of the park in the southeast corner formed by Toney’s Brook and home to natural stream-side vegetation.
The conservancy, Crood adds, is always looking for volunteers and board members to help spearhead preservation and cleanup efforts.
To the north, on the border between Montclair and Clifton, lies the Alonzo F. Bonsal Wildlife Preserve. At 19.8 acres with the Third River running through it, the preserve presents visitors with hiking and running trails and an array of bird species, according to Jonathan Grupper, a co-founder of the Friends of the Bonsal Preserve.
In 2020 the group could not hold its annual spring cleanup for the first time in nearly two decades. But they more than made up for it this year when about 40 people came out and gathered 30 bags of trash. “We had a smaller turnout this year [compared to two years ago]. Probably because of the virus, but it was substantial enough to get a reboot of the preserve,” Grupper says.
Thanks to his group’s partnerships with the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and the township, Grupper says over a ton of construction debris will also be removed from the preserve as part of this year’s cleanup. Grupper, who has been an active member of the Friends of the Bonsal Preserve for 20 years, has helped to convert the preserve over time from “half industrial space and half junkyard” to something that “really feels like a preserve and a place to get away and where you’re part of nature.”
Tuers Park, which lies between the Bonsal Preserve and Yantacaw Brook Park, received a significant facelift this past year, including new playground equipment installed over the summer. Tonja Isola, president of the Friends of Tuers Park and a member of the Montclair Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee, says 51 volunteers arrived on a sunny Saturday to get to work and ready the park for guests and visitors.
Isola, who works as a teacher at Watchung School, says that getting students involved is one of her favorite aspects of the projects.
“If kids take ownership of planting flowers and helping to clean up, if they see someone throw a bottle or wrapper, they’re more inclined to say, ‘I just cleaned that up and you’re littering. Can you please take that to the trash can,’” Isola says. “We give them some agency where to them it’s OK to say, ‘Hey, there’s a garbage can over there.’”
From April 17 to 24, the Northeast Earth Coalition held a weeklong Earth Day Celebration with the theme “Restoring our planet.” Combining virtual and small in-person events, the celebration utilized local community gardens, parks and the internet to educate people about the virtues of composting and gardening from a bird’s perspective, among other things. In-person activities included the weekend parks and open spaces cleanups.
For the past four years, NEEC, in partnership with May in Montclair, has organized hundreds of volunteers to plant tulips, says NEEC founder German-Gomez. The organization, which is passionate about native plants and pollinators, has worked in community gardens, green spaces and at Crane Park, a triangle-shaped green space at Glenridge and Greenwood avenues and Lackawanna Plaza that serves as one of the crown jewels the coalition has polished over time.
“The park has 90 different species of native plants of the northeastern U.S.,” German-Gomez says. “Most of them host plants for butterflies.”
He says that with pollinators in decline, it is essential to note that “native bees only pollinate native plants. European bees are not pollinating them. If we lose the population of native bees, that will be an ecological disaster. All the plants that rely on pollination from native bees will be extinct.”
To combat this looming threat, the NEEC has worked to make the community part of a national pollinator pathway stretching from Maine to Virginia.
“We started connecting parks many years ago in Montclair,” German-Gomez says. “From the Bonsal Preserve to Yantacaw Brook Park to Brookdale Park, and we continued connecting through schools and residents’ households. Pollinator gardens connect to Crane Park.”
The next plan, which COVID-19 derailed, will be to continue working with business owners and storefronts to encourage them to plant native plants out front.
Some of the parks beautification efforts are formally organized, while others are impromptu. Last year when Brookdale Park reopened, Helen Paxton, a fan of the rose garden there, noticed that it had become overgrown during the pandemic. The garden, which Essex master gardeners usually maintain, became overgrown because the group was on a pandemic-related hiatus. Together with Don McLoughlin, Paxton and several volunteers have stepped up to bridge the gap until the group reconvenes.
“It has been so satisfying to see the change,” Paxton says.
Several gems, including Brookdale’s rose garden and Van Vleck House & Gardens, as well as Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, serve as stand-alone attractions for locals and visitors to enjoy. In the past, parks such as Nishuane have provided the venue for events like the Jazz Festival, families and friends have gathered for free concerts and fireworks at Brookdale Park, and, in the fall, many locals have turned out at the pond in Edgemont Park for the Duck Derby, a fundraiser to benefit the Montclair Ambulance Unit.
While it is still somewhat unclear what events might safely return for the coming outdoor season and what they might look like, what is clear is the dedication of community members and organizations to continue to ensure that all can enjoy the parks.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis said this year a handful of local parks and green spaces, including Essex, Nishuane and Canterbury parks, will receive some much-needed improvements.