Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Nash Park in West Windsor Needs a Loving Heart

There's a curious park that I stumbled upon in West Windsor called Nash Park, named in honor of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, John Nash, and his wife Alicia. They were longtime residents of West Windsor before being tragically killed in an auto accident in 2015. 

When you walk around this expanse of mostly grass, you may get the feeling that something is missing. What is it? Stewardship? Practicality? Trees?

In reading articles generated in 2017 soon after the park was introduced to the world, I've been able to piece together the original intent. I had been calling it "John Nash Park," but the more powerful story very much includes Alicia. 

As the Town Topics described it in 2017, "Mr. Nash, a senior research mathematician in the Princeton University mathematics department and winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics for his work in game theory, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film, A Beautiful Mind. Mrs. Nash, a mental health advocate, was credited with saving Mr. Nash’s life during his prolonged illness."

The West Windsor mayor at the time, Shing-Fu Hsueh, saw the park as a means of showing appreciation for all that John Nash contributed to mankind. He said that John Nash's story demonstrates how “Even though you have problems, you can be recognized around the world.” 

In a Community News article, township landscape architect Daniel Dobrimilsky described the initial concept, “a town green with gardens along the edges. We decided to make the space in the middle the size of a regulation croquet lawn, about a 100 feet by a 100 feet." Croquet! Now I know that I am not the only person in the universe who has long harbored a sentimental affection for croquet.

Dobrimilsky also talked about the desire to improve social life. “One of the concepts we came up with was a community garden, since it is a nice way to share traditions and understand each other better. So I came up with the idea of having an Asian-themed garden, because we had a growing Asian population, and most of the landscapes in the area really followed traditional European designs." An interview with the mayor describes him as one of the first Asians to be elected to public office in the U.S. Shing-Fu Hsueh left his position as a water quality engineer at the DEP soon after  beginning what would be a 16 year stint as mayor of West Windsor, from 2002 to 2018.

Now, six years after those articles and five years after Hsueh's departure, I see no croquet, nor any gardens beyond a shrub or two. A Grounds for Sculpture-like statue of the Nashes walking through the park side by side, for which $190,000 would have needed to be raised, has not materialized. (Update: As of 2023, a less costly version is still being pursued.)

But a number of features have sprouted on this flat square of land that otherwise has no features of its own. The Lions Club installed this welcoming sculpture.

A donated pavilion stands in the back, with a couple benches facing away from the park.

The most interesting view from the benches is up into the pagoda structure above. A plaque explains that a similar pavilion was built in Mount Emei, China, where Nash once gave a lecture. 

An eagle scout project is another landmark, adding a zig and a zag to the path that circles the park, crossing over what could be imagined to be a sandy streambed. 

And then there's this linear feature, with benches at either end as if for spectators to watch some unknown sort of sports event. 

Nothing is explained, beyond a plaque that describes the park as "A beautiful place for a beautiful mind and a loving heart," a sentiment borrowed from Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, "A Beautiful Mind."
Picnic tables, this one painted with a faded chessboard, sit out in the field, unshaded by trees. 

The few trees, like this golden rain tree, are planted far from the seating, and look stunted.

Take a close look at the base of the trunk and you'll see why the trees aren't growing much. Evidently, the maintenance crew, in its efforts to kill weeds around the trees, has girdled the trunks with its weed whippers. 

Some tree trunks also have badly damaged trunks, whether from rubbing by deer or sun scorch. 

The park appears well positioned between business and residential neighborhoods, and maintenance crews are keeping the park neat and clean--in a kind of holding pattern. But the needs of both plants and people seem to be getting left out of the equation. As a mathematician might say, those are key variables that must be included in any equation for success. The picnic tables are unshaded. The benches in the pavilion aren't oriented to encourage socializing. There's no place for kids to play and explore. Is there a clear place to park, and a water source for anyone wishing to nurture new plantings? 

The park clearly had an inspired beginning, but now it needs someone who loves plants and loves people, and who can create spaces within it where people will naturally want to gather, and enjoy each other and the landscape around them. Like the troubled genius John Nash himself, Nash Park needs a loving heart.

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