‘I determine to push on.”
That defiant statement reflects the attitude of Trenton’s long-beleaguered business and cultural leaders.
It is they who have consistently demonstrated their determination to make something of the capital city despite an ongoing sea of troubles ranging from state political leaders who ignored the city while they sought higher offices to crooked and inept city officials to “I know better than thou” outside businessmen to news media that pounces on the obvious negatives and squeezes the life from the city.
Yet, despite it all, Trenton residents and others who care about the city’s population and potential struggle every day to build a community.
And now after attempting to recover from economic and political decisions outside of their control — such as the Great Recession of 2008 — Trenton’s business and arts leaders are being challenged beyond their wildest imaginations.
And in many ways they are in the same position of the original Trenton-connected guy who, despite despairing over lost opportunities “determined to push on,” George Washington launching the Battle of Trenton.
While it is old hat to mention Washington and this battle, it is also something to seize.
At that moment the Revolution was failing, the army was on its last legs, and the winter weather was hostile.
The moment also promised certain disaster for Washington (who would probably be imprisoned or killed) and his army, if the general didn’t “push on.”
Like a variety of other pushing on and determined moments in history, he and his army prevailed.
Now against a backdrop of state- and city-decreed mandatory closures to prevent coronavirus exposure, national uncertainty, and a universal explosion of funding needs, Trenton leaders are attempting to face fate as demonstrated in these notes from the front lines of this new Battle for Trenton.
As longtime business community member, realtor, and Trenton Downtown Association board member Anne Labate says, “After many years into a long running period of economic growth, confidence by investors in Trenton was belatedly, but finally more and more in evidence.
“Driving around, we could clearly see crews working on renovations and property upgrades — mostly for small-scale projects scattered through the neighborhood business districts. The city’s most recent auction of properties generated unprecedented interest and bidding. The majority of these investors are from our vibrant minority and immigrant communities.
“In my South Trenton neighborhood in just the last few months, we welcomed a new coffee house and a new ice cream parlor and were awaiting the imminent opening of a new coffee roaster.
“Just as it was beginning to feel as though Trenton was attracting the kind of investment we have so long sought, in the blink of an eye, those new businesses are now shuttered. These small entrepreneurs, who have largely bootstrapped their way thus far, will not have the deep pockets required to weather extended closures.
“While State employees will continue to collect their paychecks, the money they typically spent in Trenton will be diverted to the surrounding communities where the vast majority of these employees live.”
Arts organization on the front lines of enhancing the life for Trenton residents and attracting positive attention and thousands of visitors to the city have been patchworking funding to keep alive. But now it is an unclear future.
For example, Artworks Trenton — the organization that presents the highly visible and popular Art All Day — uses a City of Trenton property as its center and receives state, foundation, and corporate funding as well as individual donations.
So with public projects and engagement as part of its reason for existing, how are they pressing forward?
As artistic director Lauren Otis says, “While Artworks is basically closed until further notice, we have been putting up things virtually and on social media to maintain some forward momentum. We posted virtual tours of both our current exhibits in the main and community galleries, as well as slideshows of our recent Art Making Day.”
Otis says that he is in touch with several members regarding the fate of future exhibition and the annual June Art All Night.
“We will be able to put out some kind of online programming, such as maybe a live online drawing class and youth art making (kids are going nuts cooped up in the house),” says Otis.
The Trenton resident who led the organization through another disaster — the 2018 Art All Night gang shooting — adds that Artworks has “lost $2,500 in professional development programming and other rental cancellations. Prospective sponsors don’t really want to talk about anything at this point, and say ‘let’s touch base in a month or two.’ I don’t blame them, no reason to sponsor something that may not exist. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts is the only funder we have seen which is collecting information to help arts organizations specifically, seeking to make them a part of any national or state bailouts.
“Beyond that, we’re watching and waiting. We hope to open the doors to Artworks as soon as we are able to. We have no plans to cancel Art All Night 2020, although we will be developing a plan for postponing the event until later in the year if we have to.”
The Trenton Music Makers are one of Trenton’s arts success stories and an oasis that grew in strength several years ago when Trenton was financially hit and the music programs in Trenton schools were cut.
TMM uses El Sistema, the Argentinian program using music as a platform for social change: including cooperation, academic achievement, and an interest in art and culture.
Involving several hundred students from 12 Trenton schools, participants used to meet after school for three to four days per week and take tuition-free classes or play in an orchestra.
The program has attracted national attention, including last year’s involvement with famed Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who appeared performing with Trenton students on CBS Television in January.
The group uses a variety of funding, including a grant from Carnegie Hall, and uses Westminster Presbyterian church as a base. TMM’s director, Carol Burden, says, “Over the next couple months our greatest challenge is finding the right way to engage our kids and their families so that they can stay connected to us and to each other. Our goal is to continue to offer the teaching and learning, knowing that there will be a wide range among our families in personal bandwidth and the availability of technology.”
She says the New Jersey-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation “has offered us some great resources in distance learning best practices, and their help in navigating this unfamiliar terrain is extremely helpful. Our funders at Carnegie Hall have reached out to offer the same. The El Sistema USA membership has met to share approaches, and we got some great information there as well.”
Burden says she is in communication with the Trenton Digital Initiative and Comcast to help make sure that participating students have the equipment and wifi service to continue to participate.
Looking ahead, she says, “We are funded for the rest of the current year, and there’s no question of keeping everyone fully employed. What I’m losing sleep over is what we can plan for 2020-’21. Our institutional funders might see changes in their portfolios due to the recent volatility in the markets, and I think it’s safe to say that individual fundraising will be significantly down because of everyone’s personal volatility. Some of our growth plans might need to be adjusted.”
Damion Parran, managing director of Trenton’s only nonprofit professional theater, says, “Like many nonprofits arts organizations, Passage Theatre’s mission is being undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic. We expect this to have a profound effect on our fiscal health, and we are working out how to survive.”
Parran says while the company complied with the State of New Jersey’s stay-at-home order and postponed the last third of its current season, it is now looking to address the aftermath.
That includes problems with monies coming into the theater through season subscriptions where subscribers pre-paid for tickets. “Because we are unable to provide them the last two productions of this season, we are not yet sure how this will affect our relationship with our patrons.”
Parran points to another situation. “The livelihoods of our actors, directors, designers, and teaching artists will be hit the hardest by the show and school workshop cancellations. They are paid based on services provided. Without any shows or in-school sessions, they will be left without pay. We are exploring ways to honor our commitment to the artists by paying each a percentage of their contracts.”
He is also “concerned by recent news reports projecting that more than 2 million workers will apply for unemployment in the coming weeks. We expect most of our artists will be included in this figure.”
Parran says in order to make goodwill payments to artists and other related administrative costs, they will be looking at a variety of ways to raise several thousand dollars to cover the potential loss of earned revenue.
“Over the next several months, our board and staff will be making calls to longtime supporters to get assistance with meeting our fiscal challenges, he says. “We are encouraged by the recent data collection led by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Princeton Area Community Foundation, the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, and the Americans for the Arts. In the past they have served as the life-line for Passage and other nonprofits in our community.”
At Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, board president Joan Perkes, says, “We have rescheduled the Ellarslie Open 37, our main fundraiser, unthinkable at any other time.”
However, she adds, “Since the unknown of uncertain times is our new reality our board of trustees has been encouraged to look forward and to utilize this time productively — a moment of reflection and creativity — a moment of development.
She says the board is remaining engaged with both artists and “our beloved community” through e-mail and social media notifications and using and updating their website to show highlights from past exhibitions, lectures, and video tours.
Perkes adds, “We want to support our city — one that has been supportive of us. One of the ways to do so is to make ourselves as viable as possible. We also have an outreach program in the works and we already have pledges. Hopefully our idea can be utilized by others in the community.”
Perkes concludes with a thought that is perhaps the key to the city and region’s collective future, “We look forward to working with our community neighbors to get through this difficult period.”
In other words, “push on.”