Parsippany: A Community of Communities
Can we create a sense of community in a town that has so many great communities?
In Parsippany-Troy Hills Township, there is a common complaint: Where is the center of our community? Why isn’t there one?
On a recent trip south, I spent many hours in the car thinking about this. Actually, Parsippany-Troy Hills is several communities, and almost all of them have a center, although only a few have commercial centers.
Lake Hiawatha, developed in the 1930s, has an early 20th-century streetscape that serves as a commercial center, with sidewalks, restaurants, offices, and shops. (Lake Hiawatha, formerly a dammed section of the Rockaway River, has been replaced with a community pool.) Rainbow Lakes uses downtown Denville as a commercial center, and is instead centered on its beautiful smaller lakes.
Lake Parsippany has two small commercial centers, one at the junction of Halsey and Ludlow Road, and a shopping center at Green Hills Plaza, but again, it finds its natural center on the lake itself. Lake Intervale is convenient to Main Street, Boonton, and is centered on the lake. Sedgefield and Glacier Hills sometimes gravitate to stores in Morris Plains on Speedwell Avenue. Mount Tabor is centered on its tabernacle, library and post office, and served by stores and restaurants on Route 53.
The commercial centers we all share on Route 46 and Route 10 have larger stores, but no real streetscape. You can only reach them in a car. There are few ways to bike or walk to them, and they center our larger community, which includes Pine Brook, Montville and Hanover.
So what communities do we have in common?
Churches draw from wider areas of the town. The two high schools mix students from smaller areas of the town. Town-wide organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, VFW, and Elks Club, and other activity-based organizations like historic societies and volunteer groups mix people as well. Scouting and sports activities mix kids from wider areas of the town. The Parsippany Library sponsors a wealth of community activities at its three branches.
We have few truly public spaces where people can mix naturally.
In a “traditional” town, these spaces are on the sidewalks of the downtown area. In a suburban area, created with cars in mind, these spaces are difficult to create after the fact.
On our trip south , we visited three different areas which handle their needs for public space in very different ways. Asheville, N.C., has a true “downtown” that is walkable and has many small galleries, restaurants and a main park at the center. Even on a Sunday afternoon, the streets were full of all ages and types of people strolling and sitting at coffee shops. Hikers from the Appalachian trail, teens and college students and seniors and little kids all were in evidence.
Tuscaloosa, Ala., devastated by a tornado seven weeks ago, has a downtown that is quiet in the hot days of June. Serving as the host city for The University of Alabama, its main focus is student- and university-oriented. On home game weekends (Roll Tide!) its population triples as fans roll in with their RVs and tailgate on the quad.
Tiny Gordo, Ala. (population 1000), was called Crossroads, until veterans returning from the Mexican War changed the name to Gordo. It is so quiet that dogs can sleep in the main street at 6 a.m.
There is a laundromat, a chicken feed business, a florist, a barber shop, a bakery, two galleries, a print shop, two clothing shops, a gym, a library, a town hall, a bank, several churches and a used book store. We visited for Mule and Chicken Fest, which closed down the main street and filled it with citizens in their lawn chairs listening to musical acts, and on Saturday, for the 5K, the flyover and the parade. This is one of four community events held each year. Believe me, people in Gordo know each other, and know if you are only a visitor.
Last stop, Louisville, Ky., which is a metropolitan area of about a million people. An enormous and successful effort is being made to revitalize the downtown area. There are many small, interesting neighborhoods with small independent shops and restaurants. There is an effort to revitalize the Ohio River riverfront and connect bike paths and walking paths throughout the city.
This made me think again about Parsippany. I thought about the visual qualities of all the different areas of town. I wondered how many people actually know about places that are not in their immediate area. Do people from Powder Mill or Glacier Hills ever go to Lake Hiawatha to eat or shop? Do people from Troy Hills know the beauty of the Rainbow Lakes Community? Do people from Lake Hiawatha know about traffic congestion on Parsippany Road? How many of us know our neighbors? How many of us know people from other parts of Parsippany-Troy Hills?
It is easiest to create a “sense” of place in a community with a “downtown,” but Parsippany will never have just one. Parsippany is a community of communities. We should be celebrating each one, and learning about the special qualities each offers all of us.