One of my colleagues entertained everyone at the office the other day when she brought in a list of polite expressions that are used everyday in the workplace, along with their practical — and not so polite — underlying connotations.
“Oh, I love a challenge,” someone might say as they are handed a new task. Translation: “This job sucks.”
Or if the task is handed out at the last minute, the response might be “I’ll try to schedule that.” Translation: “Why the f— didn’t you tell me sooner?”
I wish I had had that list with me the other day when I was covering a West Windsor town council meeting and a gentlewoman from the Friends of Open Space gave a brief presentation on a “pocket park” being planned for a 1.5 acre tract of township land near the corner of Alexander and Princeton-Hightstown roads. Rebuilding of the adjacent gas station and 7/Eleven store had just been completed and now was the time to begin work on the park, which had been on the drawing board for years. The money would be raised privately, and the park was expected to be designed “on an Asian theme.”
Up until that moment this was just another “wake me up when it’s over” moment in the course of West Windsor town meetings. I day-dreamed a little about Asian-designed landscapes and what I imagined would be minimalist features, ground cover instead of grass, and zig zag walks that would create an inviting sense of mystery in what would otherwise be a barren spot of useless open space.
But the mention of the word “Asian” caused Councilman Bryan Maher to have a concern. “To have any certain theme of ethnicity,” he said, means “you are dancing on thin ice.”
OMG, I thought to myself. Maher needs the list of polite expressions. How about saying something like “That’s very interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing the details before we move ahead.” Translate: “I’ve got some problems I want to raise in private.”
But Maher didn’t have the list of euphemisms. Since then the councilman, who serves a useful role as a watchdog on items such as change orders on contracts that drive up the cost of some projects without review, has doubled down on his objection. “I have a big problem with this park because it has an ethnic theme,” he said at another meeting. “It is on public property, plus, think about its location. It is between the 7-Eleven and PJ’s Pancake House. This is an apple pie, All-American part of town. This Asian theme is over the top.”
His objection, he explained in a letter to the editor is that “public parks on public land should not be ‘themed’ toward any particular ethnicity. It is simply bad public policy, in my view, and there are reasons why it is not widely done. People of all races in the U.S. should peacefully co-exist and not feel as though any other ethnicity is getting some special treatment.”
Maher insisted to me that he has traveled far and wide in his business dealings (he is an MBA who early in his career worked for Donald Trump) and that he hasn’t seen an ethnic theme in any publicly funded open space. Well, maybe he should travel across Route 1 and visit Pettoranello Gardens in Princeton, dedicated to the town’s sister city in Italy and to the Italian immigrants who helped build (literally and figuratively) the town.
In this great melting pot of ours, Maher has set up an impossible dream. All those parks in West Windsor that now accommodate soccer fields — I don’t think the native Americans invented that game. Those village greens in New England — hmm. And how French-Americans must glow when they visit Liberty State Park in northern New Jersey, and stare in awe at the French-designed and constructed Statue of Liberty.
Asian influences abound in architecture that has formed our all-American landscape: Chicago’s John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower, designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan; the World Trade Center, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the Woodrow Wilson School on the Princeton campus; and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin.
The city of Portland, Oregon, boasts the Lan Su Chinese Garden, where a poem etched into a rock reads “Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic.” It was written by a 16th century poet, Wen Zhengming.
That part of town that Maher holds up as all-American includes the Valero gas station, owned by a family of Sikhs. And the parent company of that all-American 7-Eleven is a franchise in a chain owned by a Tokyo company.
A word about West Windsor. According to the most recent census, West Windsor’s population is now around 38 percent Asian. The mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh, is an immigrant. The mayor’s son, a Princeton University graduate and investment advisor, has — in the great tradition of the American melting pot — changed the spelling of his name to make it easier for the rest of us to pronounce: Steve Shueh.
And in the 2011 election, in his first run for town council, Bryan Maher came in second in a six-person race for three council seats, earning 2,063 voters, just eight behind the front runner. But the fourth place finisher was only 20 votes behind Maher. If I were Maher and thinking about running for re-election, I would choose my words carefully before knocking the idea of an Asian park. Mitt Romney’s stance on immigration comes to mind.
I am confident that some sort of park will bloom at the corner of Alexander and Princeton-Hightstown Road. And the ethnic influences may be even more than we imagine today. At the ribbon-cutting Maher should be there with the other elected officials and smile broadly when asked for a comment.
Bryan, here’s a suggestion: “If you want to be happy for a lifetime create a garden.” It’s a Chinese proverb, of course, but borrowing from other traditions is truly an all-American thing to do.