Van Vorst Park could not be more typical of a 19th century park. Surrounded by brownstones, the small square is filled with shade trees, gardens, walkways, a dog run, and a gazebo, and is alive with activity. Depending on the season, there could be a farmer’s market, a Shakespeare play, a film, live jazz, a book festival, or neighborhood folks walking, playing with their kids, or just passing through.
The Friends of Van Vorst Park oversee the activities of the park itself, while the Van Vorst Park Association, which was established in 1975, promotes the quality of life in the neighborhood. It’s the oldest neighborhood association in downtown.
The hood is roughly bounded by Christopher Columbus Drive, Monmouth, Grand, and Marin, and encompasses both Ward E and Ward F.
Current president, Marlene Sandkamp, has been involved with the Van Vorst Park Association since 2003 and president since 2009.
“The neighborhood is constantly changing,” she says. “It is a mixed, diverse crowd that lives here. Now it has migrated to more families. From 2001 until now it has exploded with children, young couples starting families. The big draw is that it is quiet and residential but close enough to the action. We like it that way.”
A staple of the park is the farmer’s market which appears in the spring and stays through November. “It’s exploding with artisanal foods and crafts and keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Sandkamp says. (She likes the word “exploding.”)
The purpose of the association, she says, is to “make the community a better place to live through activism and keeping the lines of communication open with the city councilmen and women.” In the fall, for example, the association was fighting City Hall over a proposed development that would bring 87 micro-units to the neighborhood. The general feeling among Van Vorst residents who protested at a City Council meeting was that the development was designed to bring a young single crowd as opposed to the families who currently live there. “It’s going to be a permanent frat party,” complained one resident.
But the association isn’t always fighting City Hall. “It’s a great place to bring problems or concerns or what they are happy about, like a new restaurant or business, and get community support,” Sandkamp says.
The concept of working together spans the generations. Sandkamp says that a young woman in her 20s is helping the association with its website.
Sandkamp points to Newark Avenue and Grove Street as places with lots of shops and restaurants. “We’re away from the action but close enough to enjoy it,” she says. “We’re fighting to keep and maintain that. Every area has its own vibe. We’re a cool, hip, quiet residential area.”
In 1999, Sandkamp and her husband were living in New York City, but they needed a bigger space. Her husband wanted her to look in Jersey City, but she said, “I’m not living in Jersey.”
Well, that attitude changed soon enough. “I’ve grown to love my neighbors,” Sandkamp says. “I met my four or five best friends through the association. I want to stay, live, and grow old here. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to come and I’ll have to be dragged kicking and screaming to leave.”—JCM