Martha Larkins may not be many people’s idea of an activist.

The 61-year-old Larkins, one of the founders of the South Greenville Neighborhood Association (SGNA) in her hometown of Jersey City, was moderating the group’s monthly meeting on October 28.

Her role, as it is been for every meeting since the SGNA was formed in the summer of 2013, has been akin to a den mother as she goes over the agenda for the evening that ranges from a Halloween gift basket giveaway to a report from the local police precinct, standard fare for a neighbor association meeting. However, such a simple overview of the gathering obscures the fact that it also hosted a question-and-answer session with Jersey City schools superintendent Marcia Lyles and included an update about the city’s plans to change its ambulance service contract.

Since its inception, the SGNA has been able to chalk up accomplishments small and large, whether it is getting garbage cans placed on a stretch of road near the Jersey City-Bayonne border, or more importantly, stopping the city from allowing a waste management company to transport trash to its facility in an industrial section of Greenville. The city’s Greenville section encompasses much of the southern part of town with the SGNA presiding over a 14-block portion.

Larkins said in an interview a few days after the meeting that she has felt more like an activist since the neighborhood association has become part of her life.

“When [the founding members] started the association, we looked to a vision instead of just complaining,” Larkins said. “We are activists in that we are active in wanting to improve the quality of life where we live because we love the area.”

Getting started

Jeanne Barrett looked back at the summer of 2013 to a barbecue held in the backyard of Rafael Orellana, another founding member like herself, where Jersey City Mayor Fulop spoke to the small group who gathered there as all present had campaigned for him during his run for mayor.

“When we got started, the six of us all had the viewpoint that we wanted to make our neighborhood better,” Barrett said.

Barrett got involved because she wanted to start a community garden for kids in the neighborhood and she had just seen a popular library branch a few blocks from her home close down.

By August of last year, Barrett, 57, was among 50 people who came to the inaugural meeting of the SGNA where she got to hear the new public safety director James Shea outline what he planned to do on the job and the recently elected councilman for Greenville, Frank Gajewski.

Over time, seeing the association pursue various initiatives such as having a block party at a much-overlooked pocket park, working with the city to get murals to cover an ugly concrete wall running along a major thoroughfare, and leading a tour of Ocean Avenue - at one time a shopping hub in the community - to bring attention to its potential revitalization has heartened both her and Larkins as these efforts have been pivotal steps in the SGNA growing into a formidable organization.

As Larkins put it, “It’s been impressive to see how we started as this small group, who didn’t know each other, and now we have seen the results of our work come to fruition that has enabled us to make a difference in our community.”

Those impressive results have also won the support of newer members such as 32-year-old Jay Gorrie, who joined about five months ago, calling the experience up to this point “awesome.”

He also said he was inspired enough by the SGNA’s efforts to decide to volunteer at the local Liberty Humane Society Animal Shelter. He also sees people like himself being inspired enough to start their own neighborhood group in the much the same way that the SGNA began.

“Go for it, get the people on your block together. Don’t be quiet towards anyone, fight for what’s right,” Gorrie said.

Councilman Gajewski also recommends that residents in the Greenville area looking to make their neighborhood better should start a neighborhood association and do everything possible on their own to maintain a presence in the community as the SGNA has done so far.

“If they’re willing to do it, they got to be willing to do the work,” Gajewski said. “They also have to form a core group to carry things through.”

Even Mayor Fulop has been impressed by the neighborhood group that sought him out for support in the beginning despite their recent disagreements with him about the garbage transfer issue.

“I welcomed the difference of opinion as part of being in a healthy democracy,” Fulop said. “Ultimately, they serve an important role as the eyes and ears for government to better serve the needs of the people.”

Ricardo Kaulessar is a member of The Citizens Campaign's Jersey City Storyteller Bureau, dedicated to telling the stories of citizen leadership and showcasing civic innovation. To read more from the Jersey City Bureau, visit Focal Point JC.