In Bloom: Van Vorst Park’s Volunteer Gardener, Marc Wesson, Digs Deep

Marc Wesson (pictured above) takes the concept of ‘volunteer’ to the extreme. Nearly every morning for more than a decade, Wesson can be spotted in the early sunlight at Van Vorst Park wearing a large white t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and aviator sunglasses. He toils there 30 hours a week, pruning, watering and mowing.

Though he grew up an Air Force brat, constantly moving, he hasn’t taken a vacation for more than a week in over ten years. He worries too much about the park’s upkeep when he’s gone. Three weeks – that’s all it would take for the stunning Van Vorst Park to become overgrown.

Wesson doesn’t work for the city, but many local residents assume that he does. He’s a semi-retired commercial photography studio owner. He lives Montgomery Street facing the park and has his own backyard. However, he comments that, “[My] garden is a mess. There are some interesting plants, but it’s overgrown… much to my wife’s chagrin.”

Instead, he spends all of his time across the street, in what he affectionately calls his “front yard.” There, he tirelessly applies knowledge gleaned from a master gardener course he completed at Rutgers University.

Van Vorst park, located between Montgomery St. and York St. downtown is home to lush gardens which feature hundreds of species of flowers and plants including thirty-one tree roses, plum, cherry and pear trees, crimson hibiscus flowers, thick bluish-purple hydrangea bushes and even rare deciduous redwood trees.

The park hosts numerous community events, including Shakespeare in the Park, a weekly farmers’ market, the Not Yo Mama’s Craft Fair, films in the park, live music and more. Its beauty has served as a backdrop for photographing memories on numerous special occasions.

The dog run at Van Vorst Park

The dog run at Van Vorst Park

The park also has a dog run (seen at above) so unique that New York City officials took note: The new Tompkins Square Park dog run in Manhattan’s East Village copied some elements of the Van Vorst dog run, which Wesson helped design and install in 2007. Garrett Russo, the volunteer manager of the Tompkins Square dog run, called the Van Vorst dog run “the best dog run in the Northeast.”

Wesson created a structural design for the dog run after extensive research that utilizes a unique three-level drainage system. The detail-oriented Wesson spent a year visiting dog runs in Manhattan before deciding on the final plans, he said.

While several residents have revealed that they moved to the neighborhood because of the park, most neighbors have no idea the park’s upkeep is almost entirely the work of one man.

The story of the Van Vorst Park makeover starts in 1991 when Wesson and other community members founded the Friends of Van Vorst Park. In 1999 the group decided to renovate. At the time, it was a wasteland of drug dealers and off-leash dogs. Initially, they planted flowers, but thieves yanked the fragile stems.

Working tirelessly, Wesson helped to transform the park from a barren dirt patch dotted with trees to an urban paradise. His dogged will to beautify has no doubt lifted real estate prices in the Van Vorst area. And Wesson has spent about $50,000 of his own money.

Jersey City’s Public Works department supports Wesson with equipment and materials but leaves Wesson largely to himself. “The city knows exactly what we’re doing. I contact the head of public works every time we do a new planting” and they contribute mulch, he said.

Or, for example, if he needs a lawn mower, the city donates the mower but Wesson pays for the gas, he said. The city has sixty-six other parks to take care of and could never assign a worker to devote as much time as Wesson does to cultivating Van Vorst Park.

Park maintenance is largely funded through the personal bank accounts of members of the Friends of Van Vorst Park, which Wesson is the president of.

The fountain at Van Vorst Park

The fountain at Van Vorst Park

Aside from his out-of-pocket contributions, Wesson maintains the roughly $17,000 annual park maintenance budget through fees from farmer’s and flea markets, a small annual donation from Goldman Sachs, and donations from local residents.

One man who lives near the park sends Wesson a $50 check every month. Wesson and the man have never met.

Another resident, a doctor, donated what is now Wesson’s favorite tree in the park: a Copper Beech, which stretches its limbs and proudly displays its canopy of brownish-green leaves along the walkway in the park’s northeast section.

“I’d put this park up against Gramercy Park (a famously lovely private park on Manhattan’s east side),” said Wesson. Not that he ever sits down to admire any of the living things he nourishes. “I very rarely get to see what this looks like – sit on a bench and look at the park the way other people see it,” Wesson reveals.

Besides the beech tree, Wesson’s favorite plants are the stately rose bushes surrounding the dog park that bloom in colors including butter and lavender.

He was anguished when the roses were attacked by a rare affliction known as Rose Rosette Disease, which annihilates them. He asked the city to pay for a pesticide company to spray the roses in late June as an attempt to stop the spread of the ailment. This disease causes the tops of the trees to turn brown in what professional gardeners refer to as “witches’ brooms.” He watched until late July to see whether the treatment was successful.

When he confirmed the bad news, Wesson was inconsolable. “I couldn’t come to the park for two days, I was so beside myself,” he said. “They’re my babies.”

The gazebo at Van Vorst Park

The gazebo at Van Vorst Park

In terms of accolades, the most Wesson has ever received for his volunteer public gardening services doesn’t even involve Van Vorst Park. Last year, Wesson helped the city win a $10,000 national prize for the Jersey City Parks Coalition’s efforts to assist youth in planting 10,000 daffodils citywide for an event called The Big Dig. USA Today as well as other, more local, news organizations covered the feat including JCI. (This year, on October 27, in typical Wesson fashion, he plans to increase the effort threefold to 30,000 flowers.)

The planting was a rewarding experience in many ways, but mainly because the 600 volunteers who helped the effort included “kids that had never seen a worm or a bulb before,” he said. Fortunately, accolades do not motivate Wesson. Simply, he loves the calling.

So what’s next for Van Vorst Park?

Wesson secured $80,000 in state grant money from the Green Acres program and $40,000 from Hudson County’s Open Space initiative. With it, he intends on building a new children’s water park behind the playground in the roughly 10-foot space of dirt between the fence and benches.

He was inspired to construct this “spray-ground” when he set up a sprinkler system and the kids in the park “were going nuts,” said Wesson, who has two grown children and no grandchildren. “I hope to break ground this spring with completion by early summer.”

Wesson is trying to earn the park a botanical garden designation. He’s in discussions with groups called the British Community Gardens International and the American Public Gardens Association.

In addition, he is trying to gain permission to set up a “memorial bench” program, like the one in Central Park. In Central Park, the plaques command whopping fees, he notes.

He’d like to work with new volunteers, especially each October when leaves start to fall. And he could always use more thank yous, he said. Wesson sometimes wears a shirt with “VOLUNTEER” on the back so people realize he doesn’t work for the city.

Ultimately, however, Wesson enjoys his post. “If I were getting paid for this,” he said, “I wouldn’t like it. It doesn’t have the same feel or reward… it has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and brings so much pleasure to see others enjoy our efforts.”

For more information or to volunteer, visit fvvp.orgThis article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of JCI Magazine.

Photos of Marc Wesson by Karen Keller all other photos by Steve Gold

 

a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Star-Ledger, amNY, AOL News, The Daily, The Herald News and other publications. A California native, she has lived in Jersey City since 2005.