Three women, one mission, and an entire community to unite. It’s a huge undertaking, but Diane Shelton, Nina Summerlin, and Pamela Major are up for the challenge; willing, able, and ready to shepherd a project that is near and dear to their hearts.
Next year, on July 4th 2020, it will be 50 years since the civil uprising in Asbury Park. We’ve come a long way since then, or have we? Some things have changed and some things haven’t. But there is something noteworthy about this occasion, something to commemorate. Before we delve into the minds, and hearts, of these extraordinary women and what inspired them to take on this momentous initiative, let’s learn more about them.
Diane Shelton was born and raised in Neptune, although she has always been more a part of the Asbury Park community. She received her Master’s degree in Social Work at the School of SW, and Simmons College in Boston, then came back to Asbury Park because she wanted to be part of the community she grew up in.
Although her degree was in clinical social work, she has been more involved in prevention and community relations. She has been the outreach specialist for Interfaith Neighbors for the past 3 years. Prior to that she was the Drug Free Communities Support Program Director at Prevention First.
Nina Summerlin, also originally from Neptune, has lived in Asbury Park for 41 years. She has two grown children, Rahmel and Jacquel, both of whom went through the Asbury Park school system. She is the president of the Westside Citizens United organization, and has been for the past 5 years. WSCU holds events and activities for seniors and youth. She is also the Director of the Alliance for a Healthier Asbury Park, now 4 years in existence.
Pamela Major grew up in Englewood, NJ and has fond memories of her home town. She relocated in 2014 and has been living in Asbury Park for the past 5 years. In 2016 she started her own business, a consulting company called Melia Bloom, (meaning: “Honey, be the best, most mature expression of yourself.”) which builds people, places, and purpose.
She speaks, trains, and coaches’ women in Her Harvest Women’s Outreach Program, a 4-month long women’s outreach and coaching program. She supports women who are interested in personal and/or professional advancement, “I help women who are interested in going to the next level of living, no matter where they are in their lives.” At the end of each program they do a community service project. This year it was a Fashion Show fund raiser for victims of abuse and trauma.
Their initiative is called, “Springwood Avenue Rising.” I sat down with them recently and here’s what they had to say.
Tell me about this initiative you’ve created; how did it get started and how did the three of you come together?
[Diane] “I was talking to Pamela at Kula Café back in March and we realized that next July will be 50 years since the civil unrest in Asbury Park and we wanted to do something to commemorate the event.
I was a sophomore in High School at the time. I don’t remember too much of it personally, but I decided to do some research and found an article titled, “From Riot to Revolt” by Duke University. It gave me a lot of information. Then I did a survey with the residents in town. I spoke to people of all age groups to see if the community would be interested in participating in commemorating the history of Asbury Park. Fifty percent of the people I surveyed said they would be interested and provided their contact information so I could reach out to them when the time came.
In doing my research I knew the Westside Citizens United was an important part of not just the community but the history as well, and I knew Nina would have a lot to offer this initiative. When I spoke to her about it, she was excited to come on board.”
What is the purpose of this initiative; what do you hope to achieve?
[Nina] “The purpose is for the community to understand where we’ve been, what we’ve done and where we are going, in a positive way. To understand the history of Asbury Park the way they should and feel a sense of pride. And also, to learn what the struggles were in the community at the time.”
[Pamela] “There’s something to be said for people who are still here. While I’m not from Asbury Park, I’ve been working here for the past four years. I want to honor and pay tribute to the people who have stuck it out all these years. They stayed and they believed. They’ve been faithful to their community. Even though the community itself might not be resilient, this is their community and they’re not leaving. There’s a lot to be said for that. I also want to recognize the businesses that were here. What’s most important is being able to be part of the growth and positive change that’s occurring now and to acknowledge that. “
What happened back in 1970 to cause the civil unrest?
[Diane] “Through research I found that, between Saturday, July 4th and Friday July 10th it has been described as a ‘riot, a revolt, or a civil unrest,’ depending on who was doing the interviewing and who was answering the questions. It’s my understanding that on the evening of July 4th, 1970 due to the lack of jobs, recreational activities, and decent living conditions, things came to a head. Some say it was out of towner’s that had an influence on the community. The unrest lasted for 6 days. On July 10th, Mayor Joseph E. Mattice ordered a curfew, which got things under control.
Within that period community representatives provided a list of 21 grievances to city officials. On the list was unemployment, poor housing conditions, not being heard by the city, and not being fully involved on the east side.” Some of those community leaders were: Ermon Jones, Donald Hammary, and Willie Hamm who became the voice of the ghetto.
In the past, west-side residents worked on the beach, and for the city, then they started bringing in people from other towns, it took jobs away from local residents. ”
[Nina] “When speaking with community members one story of how it started was feeling frustrated by all the assignations that were happening at the time; Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, John F Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. There were different versions about why more than how. We’re not focusing on the how, it’s the why that’s important. There was a lack of representation within the city from the west side, a divide of east and west. And the Hotels were bringing in their own people instead of hiring local.”
[Pamela] “There’s been recent growth in the community, particularly when The Asbury, a boutique hotel, came and iStar’s SALT Hotels offered a training program. They came to look for youth in the community that they could train and employ, and stopped employing from within. It speaks to the nature of what this is all about. I want to highlight what is happening now, and the growth that has taken place within the past 5 years, the positive changes.”
Do some of those feelings still exist?
[Nina] “At the pace the development has been happening over the past 15 years or so, people have lost faith. They don’t believe promises will be kept. It’s become an attitude of ‘show me instead of tell me.’ They’ve gotten a bad taste from the past and things not happening as promised. As a result, they’re not getting as involved as they should. But with everything that’s going on: the new housing development, Springwood Park, the Kula Café, more jobs, it’s beginning to bring light to people that things are changing. They’re seeing changes.”
[Diane] “People are starting to see a difference. Although, from 1973 to 2011 not a single business permit was submitted, that’s nearly 40 years with no growth whatsoever. There was more development happening on the east side, along Cookman, but nothing going on here. The Springwood Avenue corridor played a significant role back in the day. It was a main avenue direct from Route 35 that would bring you straight down Springwood and take you right to the beach. Not to mention the music that was here. Bruce Springsteen came here and played with musicians on the west side. We want to restore what Springwood Avenue once was.”
What is your vision for this initiative and how do you plan to facilitate the unfolding?
[Diane] “We want to highlight the positive changes of Asbury Park and the surrounding vicinity through collaborative efforts and community partners that will honor and pay tribute to former businesses. One of the ways that’s being done is at the Kula Café. They’ve named some of their menu items after past local businesses. “
[Pamela] “With community engagement, we want to listen to the community and find out what they want to see happen, what they are needing and wanting. Our vision is to see just one Asbury Park, a community that’s together, with no division between east and west. The midtown section of Neptune needs to be a part of this initiative as well, they were also affected.
They’ve started building things, but it really took a solid 4 decades. Habits are hard to break, as an individual you have to be very disciplined, and consistent, and intentional – to talk and dream about what you want to do and what your life is going to be like – but that’s good for one person. How do you do that for an entire community? It takes time; rebuilding relationships, buildings, communities, it feels heavy.
With the people, and the passion from community members and city officials, they are seeing the desire for the community to move along. When you see things happening it starts to spark hope. Now people are more willing to be involved with the growth of their city. You can’t help but have positive growth when people want to be involved.”
What other changes would you like to see happen?
[Nina] “More commercial space. As you drive down Springwood mostly what you see are boarded up buildings. We need a developer who will bring in businesses that meet the needs of the community. Also, the community must know what they want. Surveys were done, but they were too long and they city couldn’t get a good voice from the community. Right now, there’s only enough commercial space for two businesses. People want Springwood Avenue to look the way it used to, with lots of businesses and living space above.”
[Pamela] “My hope is that as it gets redeveloped, the community will begin to have a voice. They want the new businesses to be in line with a design esthetic that suits the community. Having it be family friendly, with a focus on history and the arts would be a tremendous asset to the community. Like Kula farms, where food and resources are healthier.
Instilling pride comes from culture, art, history, and music. Murals bring back a sense of pride in a community. It would be wonderful to have a mural on Springwood Avenue, let the community get involved in the process, allow them to be responsible for the outcome of their community. Citizenship is responsibility.”
Tell me about the 4 P’s?
[Nina] “The Springwood Avenue Rising committee intends to create a variety of opportunities that honor the past, celebrate the present, and prepare for the future by using the 4 P’s concept – People, Purpose, Pride and Progress: People is about honoring, paying tribute to and giving accolades to those who made a difference; Purpose is about educating our youth so they learn the rich history of their culture; Pride is about acknowledging achievements from both the past and present; and Progress happens when you heal and grow. When you feel a sense of Pride, you Progress as a human being and as a community; it’s the beginning of an upward movement.”
What are some of the activities you’re planning?
[Diane] “We created an events committee, some of the ideas we’ve talked about are creating a tour with pictures of old businesses that used to be on Springwood Avenue.
We’d also like to get the schools involved by having a logo contest, letting the kids design a logo for the event. We want to teach them about the history, let them make art projects and put them on display, perhaps in the transportation center, where we can showcase the student’s creativity.
Darrell Willis, founder of Dunbar Production Company wants to put on a play called ‘Ivory over Ebony’ written by Kevin Franklin years ago, who is a native of Neptune and has family in Asbury Park, and has given his consent. Although we’ll need to do some fund raising to produce the play.
Some other ideas are a panel discussion, a gospel brunch, porch talks, and a parade. That used to be one of the highlights of Springwood Avenue with Majorettes walking down Springwood, along with drill teams, and marching bands. It would start at Midtown Park in Neptune and end at Springwood Park.”
What message do you want to give the community about this initiative?
[Nina] “Change is happening. Now is the time to get involved. We want the whole community to be involved; individuals, businesses, and non-profit’s as well. “
[Pamela] “You are valuable, your presence and participation changes things, be a part of Springwood Avenue Rising. Let this event become a movement that lives long after July 2020, the community needs it.”
I also want to thank the people who have been involved in the planning thus far, it’s been a joy to work with the committee and interfaith neighbors.”
[Diane] “My message is simple, ‘From uprising, to rising up’…that says it all.”
For more information, to donate, or to get involved contact: Springwood.Avenue.Rising@gmail.com
This article was edited on 9/13/19