Date: 05-01-2012

August 12, 2009
By Tom Meagher

ORANGE — Most teenagers are ill-equipped to plan a city, but 19 Orange and East Orange students presented a proposal Wednesday that wowed state politicians and suggested a path to put a neglected park on track for its first renovation in decades.

Lined up in formal business suits in the Orange council chambers, middle and high school students in the summer program at Community Technical Assistance, an East Orange urban renewal organization, presented a plan for Military Commons Park. The students spent seven weeks this summer on plans for the park, a war memorial on Main Street at the East Orange border that served as a training ground during the Revolutionary War and a recruitment ground for the Civil War.

The students argued that the park is often overlooked due to unclear signage and intersections.

“I walk by there every day, and I didn’t even know it was a park,” said presenter Molene Ogany, a 9th grader at Orange High School.

In a Powerpoint presentation delivered to local and state officials, including Orange mayor Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., Assemblywoman Mila Jasey and a representative for U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, students pointed out problems such as diseased trees, unpaved walkways and a stone memorial that resembles a cemetery.

The students suggested that the park be transformed into a welcoming gateway into Orange, flanked by banners and solar-powered floodlights and that the war memorial take the form of a wall, inspired by the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

While the plan is not funded, officials took it seriously. Director of planning and development Valerie Jackson said that Orange has about $47,000 of county funding to redevelop the park, but she has been missing a design plan to acquire further funding and a timetable.

“We want to put out a request for a design that will incorporate the students’ vision,” Jackson said. “They did great research. They made it environmentally-friendly. They appreciate the history of it…. They took it much further than we can ever envision.”

The children also charmed state officials, including Blake Johnson, a representative for Payne, who invited the students to the congressman’s office to present the plan again.

“You have made it so much easier for us to go forward on this,” Johnson said. “You really did an excellent job, and I want to get you down to Newark to talk to my boss.”

Roland Whitley, executive director of Community Technical Assistance said the students underwent a competitive process to take part in the presentation. The seven-week summer program includes intense urban planning training, site studies and Census studies under the mentorship of design students at New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Cassandra Ogbozor, an 8th-grade student at the Washington School of Music in East Orange, said she felt more prepared for the professional world after the program.

“I learned how to spend my time wisely, and I learned that a kid can make a difference,” she said.