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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.

parhome June 23, 2011 at 04:28 PM
Lake Hiawatha feels like one town .. their downtown is what anchors it. Wish there had been one person who some town planning experience years ago.
Sharon Maroldi June 23, 2011 at 04:29 PM
I personally think it is very confusing regarding what is available in Parsippany. Even municipal services are oddly scattered - Town Hall is on Rte 46, yet the Public Health Nurse is in the Community Center (which is not really a community center, it's really a Senior Center). There is a town pool somewhere by Knoll Country Club. The Recreation Department is in a separate building from anything else. There is another building hidden in the woods, which is the Activity Building. For the life of me, I can't figure out how it makes sense to maintain little separate buildings like the Rec Office and the Activity Office (heating, cooling, maintenance, etc.). As to the communities - it's urban sprawl and requires better planning. Living near Parsippany High School, I'm within walking distance of Lk Hiawatha's downtown, but poor sidewalk planning means we take our life in our hands or trudge through the grass of the school behind RiteAid, which is limited to non-mushy days when school is not in session. Since there seems to be no urgency to piece together the town in ways that make it easier to navigate (i.e. grouping some of the services into one building, creating sidewalks that lead one towards areas of interest in linear and efficient manners), one would hope the Town website would be used to perhaps offer a map showing where all town services are, as well as guide maps of the different Parsippany areas you noted, including restaurants, entertainment, etc.
Julia Peterson June 24, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Community guide maps would be a great idea!!! Most of the lakes are private, except for the public streets that go around them. I agree that the sidewalks that exist are virtually no help... they are not continuous in a way that helps people walk places.
Sharon Maroldi June 24, 2011 at 01:24 PM
Thank you for agreeing with me on the sidewalks! I can't stand it! I've called so many times about them. In my neighborhood, they "fixed" the sidewalks where tree roots had pushed them up (their trees). The rest they said were the homeowners' responsibility. The areas that they fixed they widened for handicap accessibility, so the sidewalk now meanders - thin to thick, thin to thick. It looks absolutely insane. Plus, mixing new with old created unintentional speed bumps. It's such a mess that I walk my baby stroller in the road, because the wheels get stuck in the ruts they created. My poor toddler often trips on our walks, too. The sidewalks don't get us where we want to go and even casual walks are difficult due to the condition they are in. This is my big pet peeve about our town. We have nearly everything in our town. We just can't get there (or, find it, as you pointed out).
clyde donovan June 29, 2011 at 06:30 PM
If the people of Mount Tabor want to protect their neighborhood, they should strongly object to attempts by the Mount Tabor Historical Society to create state and national historic districts out of most of their neighborhood. Historic district status will turn Mount Tabor into an urban tourist destination and a very expense place for people to maintain their houses. If you don't fight to preserve Mount Tabor the way it has been, you'll be crying about the changes later!

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