When the idea of a Parklet was first proposed, I had to search Google images to see what the word meant. I had a vague idea based on last fall’s ‘National Takeover a Parking Space Day’ that popped up in front of small world coffee on Witherspoon Street. Passersby were thrilled and seats were filled all day. But… it came down 12 hours later and like most public art, it left us all wanting more.
One person left wanting more happened to be our Mayor, Liz Lempert. In September 2014, Mayor Lempert contacted ACP Executive Director, Jeff Nathanson, to ask if the Arts Council, with the help of the town of Princeton, could take on the project of Princeton’s first Parklet.
Fast-forward to January 2015, when we began to focus on the Mayor’s proposal. I am fortunate to call Jessica Durrie, owner of small world coffee, one of my dearest friends. She also happens to be married to one of the most capable builders I know, George Akers. So, on a cold winter night in January, I made a big batch of hominy/tomatillo stew, chilled the tequila, built a fire, and invited Jessica and George to dinner to discuss the Parklet plans.
By the end of the evening, we were excited about the project and decided to bring in artist, Peter Soderman, to work his magic on the landscaping. (Think Herban Garden, Writers Block, Quark Park and Eno Terra). I also have the blessing of being the art teacher for a class of students at Stuart Country Day School who wanted to learn about site-specific art. Their input and ideas helped give me the confidence that this concept would be a success. During our first meeting, we decided the Parklet would be built to mimic a front porch — a place where Americans used to connect to their neighbors and community before television and smart phones. We were off and running!
One day I got a message from Princeton’s Town Planner, Lee Solow, asking me to explain “this Parklet project” and how he could help. After looking at my scrawled drawings he squinted and said, “this is cool, but we need an architect who can spec this all out.” Enter Kirsten Thoft, a long-time Princeton resident, and forward-thinking architect, who took my scribbles and transformed them into a precise, beautifully rendered design that made sense to everyone. Next, Princeton Public Works got involved and built the street platform for the Parklet at the Harrison Street Firehouse. George, along with the help of Kirsten, and some amazing men from Revival Construction Company, built the structure over the course of a weekend in early May. Voila…our Parklet was born, looking like a giant float to be rolled out like a Trojan horse for the public!
Jessica from small world had one request of us: could she have this “little jewel” by Princeton University’s Reunion weekend?
We set out to make that happen. We had to install the Parklet on the street guerrilla style, making it appear without a lot of fanfare. The Public Works guys fired up their heavy machinery by 7am and we began rolling the parklet to its new home at 14 Witherspoon Street. The entire structure, including the gorgeous carved Elm tree couches sitting on river rock, was installed by 4pm and the buzz was becoming deafening. How long is this here? Is it just for reunions? How did you get two parking spaces? Is this for people?
I stood in the parklet most of the afternoon, answering questions and explaining the concept. We installed our signs. One of them says, ‘If you like public art please feed the meters to see more.’ The meters were as busy as slot machines in Atlantic City. I took this as a sign of approval and breathed my first sigh of relief.
Back in the office we were glued to Facebook and Twitter looking at the comments and marveling at the remarks. Now, I am all out of favors, pleadings, and bribes, but the public is eating it up, Princeton has its first Parklet and the future looks bright for more.
On Thursday, June 4, 2015, we held a dedication ceremony at the parklet and toasted all of its collaborators, including Mayor Liz Lempert. It was a proud moment for us all.