This article was originally published in the September 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
‘He deserves a raise!” shouts a woman spotting Derrick McEady at the edge of Mill Hill Park on humid summer afternoon. “He’s great! Just look at this park,” the unidentified Mill Hill resident says, gesturing as she passes through the park’s manicured pathways and bright flowers.
McEady, 47, stands by his mower, nods, and says, “Thank you.” And while he shows a practiced stony expression, he can’t help but to break into a smile.
The first and only member of the Trenton Downtown Association’s (TDA) grounds crew division, McEady is credited with changing the downtown Trenton landscape by turning his job into a self-professed “labor of love” — something that has transformed the 2.9-acre Mill Hill Park into a refuge for neighbors and welcome mat for visitors attending the weekly Capital City Farmers Market and Levitt Music Series.
It has also attracted attention from all over the city. The nonprofit organization I Am Trenton — which recently featured McEady on one of its billboards celebrating unsung Trenton heroes — sums his efforts up with the following: “A few years ago, downtown Trenton’s green spaces were neglected, and people avoided Mill Hill Park, which was overgrown, unmaintained, and under-used. Enter Derrick McEady. With constant attention and an eye for detail, Derrick singlehandedly reclaimed Mill Hill Park into the breathing, beautiful heart of downtown.”
McEady describes his job this way: “I take care of Mill Hill Park, basic landscaping at its best: mulching, weed control, trimming, pruning, anything involving basic landscaping. I’ve been doing it five years.”
More than Mill Hill, McEady also attends to West State, Montgomery, and Warren streets. “I put flowers on the West State Street planters. Everybody sees them when they come to Trenton.” And it is more than just one season. “Winter, spring, summer, fall,” he says. “I do leaf removal, snow removal, all through Mill Hill Park, including Clay Street Park” — located a few blocks away.
At the end of every day, McEady says, ‘I like to see people smile.’
His connection to Mill Hill Park and bringing life downtown is the fruit of a personal journey — one with ups and downs and discoveries and help.
“I was born in Trenton,” he says about his early life, the youngest of three children raised by a single mother who worked a variety of jobs to support the family. “When I was 10 or 11, we moved to Hightstown, and then to Jackson. I was doing bad and my mother moved me to Waycross, Georgia” (where his mother came from).
“I spent a year down in Georgia with my grandfather, my uncles, and a bunch of cousins. (My grandfather) straightened me out for a year. (But) I couldn’t stand the pressure of my grandfather. I came back north and my mother took care of me.”
There was also a move back into Trenton, where he has lived since. “I wanted to come back home,” he says.
“I’m not saying it was good boy all my life,” McEady says, but some of his grandfather’s lessons started to make sense and help guide him through some uncertain times. And after years of doing construction work and carpentry, he hit pay dirt. “I stared landscaping when I was 24, and that is when it all came into play,” he says.
He is quick to credit and thank others who gave him the tools to build his life. “Steve Gleason — of Gleason Digney Associations in Ewing — taught me everything about planting and construction. (I learned) landscaping maintenance from (partner) Ron Digney — and Kevin McKelvey from Greenleaf Landscaping (a regional company). All the things I learned I took with me.”
Then after about 20 years of “working here and there,” something new entered his life. “It started with Pete Abrams at the atelier. If I hadn’t met Pete, I wouldn’t have met the people that I’ve meet now.”
Princeton-based Abrams had partnered with two other artists and social innovators to purchase a derelict building on Allen Street and create an open workspace — the “atelier” to which McEady refers. The space attracted mainly young street artists who in turn created the S.A.G.E. Coalition and launched a downtown arts movement.
McEady says he was attracted to the atelier for a few reasons. “It was in the neighborhood,” and there was Wills Kinsely, who was creating bicycle art and tall bicycles. McEady not only became part of that bicycle movement, he also put his know-how into a new project launched by community activist Graham Apgar, the Gandhi Garden, a beautification project that involved murals, found object sculptures, and landscaping on East Hanover Street, where McEady lives.
I Am Trenton credits McEady with being “instrumental in turning a vacant lot” into “an arts and community green space carefully designed to be both lush and low-maintenance.”
It was also during this time he became the TDA grounds man. “I was working with Doerler Landscaping at the time. (Former TDA director) Christian Martin offered me a job at the Gandhi Garden, part-time work. The following year I lost the job at Doerler and landed a fulltime job at TDA. Christian bought my work shoes and work related equipment. He did a lot for me.”
Other changes in McEady’s life included him obtaining his GED and forming his relationship with Joan Givens. “My sweetheart,” he says, slapping his chest. “We’ve been going on for six years. She was in there in beginning when everything started going for me. She is my backbone.”
Yet there was a loss that he still feels in several ways and says he has a spiritual strength that he equates with his mother, Rosemarie McEady, who died in 2007. “In my prayers every day,” he says about his mother and his grandmother. “That’s where my strength comes from. I don’t go to church, and I don’t have any beliefs. Even though it was 10 years ago, she never left.”
He pauses for a few seconds and then continues in a faltering voice, “I turned out okay. She did her job.”
Talking about his work and what he hopes for his home town, McEady says, “Just trying to make it pretty. Cleanliness is next to godliness. I’m just trying to make it clean.”While his efforts are easily seen by the eye, there are personal results below the surface, “I am happy to be part of that change. I love what I do. I can say that with a smile. I thank God I’m part of something and able to make a difference.”
Looking forward, McEady has a few hopes. One is personal. “I’m trying to move into a bigger and nicer place. You know you have to crawl before you walk, but now I’m trying to run.”
Another is for the park. “You have out-of-towners used to everything being manicured. They see how (Mill Hill Park) is, but they don’t see how it was. And they have seen better. And that’s how Mill Hill Park should be, better. Make it better. I’m already a one-man army. Give me a crew. It will be up to par on everything.”
McEady then smiles and says, “I love it when (people) come up and thank me. I’m approachable, communicative. I may wear a black fist necklace, because that connects to who I am. But I respect everyone. You have to respect everyone.”
At the end of every day, McEady says, “I like to see people smile.”