“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”– Margaret J. Wheatley
For over a decade I have been a bit of a transient. At the end of my first major life chapter I was a divorced Dad sleeping on couches and traveling down to Maryland (or vice-versa depending on the day/month/year). When I wrote Reflections on Being Single I had just moved into an apartment in Bradley Beach, NJ. I slept on a floor mattress in Elkton, Maryland, and kept clothes in my car. Suddenly I went from seeing my then 5 year old daughter every day, to seeing her three nights a week and every other weekend. 12 years later I find myself married again, my daughter is now driving, and soon I will be changing diapers for a second time. Life has been good, exciting, and fulfilling. Yet living a life of moving every few years (I lost count over 10) the one thing I have missed is a community to call my own. Not just a place to live, but a place to settle down and grow roots. A place where you clean up a park together (as I type this it is Earth Day and I am headed to do just that), join a local theater company, know a local shop owner by name and care about their futures, and work to make yourself and your town a little bit better than it was the day before.
With the pandemic (for those historians reading this wondering which massive pandemic…it was called COVID-19) many things changed for a lot of people. Fortunately, my life changed in a positive way in that not only did I get to work from home, I stopped traveling down to Maryland three times a week (see Being fake is a now a full-time job for a rant on that), and I bought a home. With a new home came another dog (he was throwing up everywhere a day before the wedding), and I got married in my backyard (as is tradition in a pandemic). It was a beautiful ceremony and I even got to celebrate with friends a year later after vaccines were plentifully available. After all of the moves and driving, I had officially started my next chapter in Eatontown, NJ eagerly looking to grow those roots I had been missing.
A town without community is just a place on a map
There are two things I need in life when it comes to a hometown. First, I need access to some body of water. It could be a pond, stream, river, lake, estuary, reservoir, or ocean, it doesn’t matter as long as it is H₂O based (on this planet at least). And look, I know that sounds pretentious, but you live long enough, you start to determine what makes you happy. Water, whether looking at it, swimming in it, or on top of it via a paddle board, canoe, or kayak, is a must for the very essence of me.
The second thing I need in a hometown is an actual downtown or traditional main street. That means you can’t drive faster than 25 mph through it, and it’s made up of small businesses driven by local entrepreneurs who have put their sweat equity into a dream to get them there. To me having a downtown with local businesses in it is the foundation of creating a strong connected community. OK, sure, you can create a community through local fundraisers, town festivals, chatting with people on Nextdoor, or even joining a local club or community garden, but there is a connective tissue to buying your coffee at a local coffee shop, eating at a local restaurant, or buying goods from a local entrepreneur that is the lifeblood of a community. The future of commerce is a combination of high tech delivery systems, and low tech local businesses. In the future we won’t need to drive anywhere to get anything, but we’ll want to drive to a business in our community for the experience and support it provides.
I’ll have an order of “Getting Involved,” hold the politics
I’m what you would call a fair weather runner. I’m not about to run in the rain or when it’s cold, but when the weather starts to warm up I enjoy lacing up some sneakers and going for a long jog (I feel like an 11 min mile is more jog than run). For the last two years I jog, what I know as, the Avenue of the Memories through the heart of Fort Monmouth. I worked at Fort Monmouth from 2006-2010 before they closed it down and moved everyone to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland where I still work today (now the beginning makes sense right?). It is a surreal experience. What was once a bustling collection of Military organizations is now a strange wasteland that is only starting to see some forward progress a decade after closing its doors.
Yet like a house with “solid bones” I don’t see just a futuristic wasteland when I jog through Fort Monmouth. I see a 25 mph road with local restaurants, shops, breweries, and entertainment for families. I see ample street and lot parking with walking routes where cars can’t access, but families can roam free to shop and enjoy local coffee and eateries. I see a little theater where some streaming giant (if they decide to invest in the town) can exclusively show their new releases (maybe even give a discount to those loyal paying subscribers to incentivize new ones), and provide a destination spot for tourists. I see a place between Red Bank and Asbury Park that middle-class families can afford to go out to dinner, a true destination spot, not just a place you drive through to get to some other town.
This is the future of Eatontown to me. It is why I moved here, and in order to officially get involved I’ve decided to put my hat in the ring and run for Town Council. Part of laying down roots is ensuring the soil is also ripe for growth, and that doesn’t happen by hoping and waiting to see. That means getting involved in the community directly. I’ve been waiting since 2010 to see that potential realized, and I hope to add some value in seeing that it actually gets done. I didn’t set out to get involved with town politics. My neighbor wanted me to meet with another person who was passionate about improving the town, and now suddenly my name is going to be on a ballot along with hers. She was just that impressive (thanks Jasmine).
I have had many adventures in my life so I’m going to try and make a small difference in my next one. Yet I have to warn you (the very few people that stumble across this blog). I really do not like politics or have any aspirations beyond trying to help out my town. I mean who does really (if they do they probably aren’t in it for the right reasons), but I’ve worked for the government for over 15 years, I get enough bureaucracy at my day job.
The Politics of Problem Solving
To me political parties are like sports teams. For some reason fans of one team don’t like the fans of the other team, and they don’t even really know why, just that they’re supposed to root against them (this sentiment is now deafening at the national stage and adding to a general mistrust of our political system overall). I am not sure what the team someone roots for has to do with adding a stop sign to a busy road, or ensuring your local parks are clean, but I am also not naive enough to think that politics, local or national, doesn’t play a part unfortunately.
So if you want to know my politics, I am solidly in the politics of solving problems, which means I will work with everyone to do that. That is where work gets done in every other field, except current day politics apparently. In the real world you don’t take out advertisements on your colleagues if you disagree with them. You also don’t achieve anything if you spend time fighting over extremes. You have a general vision of what you are trying to achieve, you listen to people who want to get there, analyze various ways to achieve it using data, and work with all parties involved to try and move in the direction of that vision.
There should be nothing extreme about wanting to improve the town you live in, wanting to see less trash on the sidewalks you walk on, or eat and shop at local establishments run by residents. The key to transforming a town into a community is having that desired end state and a vision to get there. My town should not just be a place to go to a mall or a big chain store (as someone who grew up in Point Pleasant Beach and lived in many small towns that was my general outsider opinion of my new home town before moving here). That isn’t a vision for a community, that is a temporary destination for someone on the way to another community. If Eatontown wants to be a true community, then the people working on that vision need to give people a reason to move to Eatontown, raise a family here, and grow their own roots like I’m finally doing.