Gardening and sprucing up the neighborhood is Newark man's passion

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on April 07, 2015

Wilfred Wade, 80, doesn't live in this Newark neighborhood, but he comes to the area of 16th Avenue and Camden Street everyday to clean up and take care of his garden. Here he's on 15th Avenue sweeping up litter.

 

The older guy who takes care of the garden on a 16th Avenue lot in Newark is a familiar, if not well-known, sight.

Wilfred Wade never lived on 16th Avenue, between Fairmount Avenue and Camden Street. He just showed up one day 15 years ago and started planting collard greens, tomatoes, cabbage and string beans, then he'd give them away when they grew big enough to harvest.

If that wasn't enough, Wade began doing other neighborly chores, such as picking up trash and litter, sweeping the sidewalks and the streets, and the crevice at the curb. During winter months, he shovels snow and chips ice to clear a path on the sidewalk.

How many people do you know - neighborhood resident or not - who would do something like that?

Not many and probably next to none who are 80 years old, with a nonstop, blue-collar workman's engine like Wade.

He lives more than a mile away, about two blocks from downtown Newark on Court Street. But he gets on a city bus just about every day and heads to 16th Avenue to clean up and take care of his garden behind the CityPlex movie theater. The land is not his; it belongs to the city. However, through a city program, residents can rent lots for $1 a year and plant gardens until the property is sold. This is Wade's third garden and third neighborhood.

"I just don't want to stay home and do nothing," he says.
It's that simple for the man with grayish blue eyes, a steady gait and sturdy hands from years of working construction.

If he doesn't take the bus, he'll walk on a nice day; he's also been known to ride a bicycle with a broom lodged in the frame. He's out there for hours, taking a break only to go home and eat lunch, and watch his favorite program, which could be the title of this column - "The Young and Restless."

And when the show is over, he'll get back on the bus and come back to the neighborhood, where he'll clean until dusk.

"I have never seen anybody like him," says Curtis Dorch, who owns an insurance business around the corner from the 16th Avenue garden.

"It's hard to come by people like him."

The two have been friends since Wade gave a bag of tomatoes to Dorch's wife, Yolanda. Dorch says he tried to offer Wade money for all that he does in the community and so has the staff at Camden Street School, where he cleans the front sidewalk every day.

Wade won't accept it, but maybe he should, since derelicts have stolen his equipment over the years.

He's replaced lawn mowers, shovels and garden tools without complaining. Never discouraged by the thefts, Wade just keeps coming, even when his car was stolen and when he eventually stopped driving. His ritual is more than just about staying busy and not wanting to be home. He's told a few in the neighborhood, including the Dorches and resident Bernard Stephenson, that he would probably keel over if he wasn't doing this.

"I told him that you're a blessing to us, and I'm not going to stop you," says Yolanda Dorch. "If that's what keeps you alive, you can clean up all you want."

Wade doesn't want any help, preferring to work alone and at his own pace.

Stephenson has pitched in to shovel snow, but he can tell that Wade would rather do it by himself.

"I'll say, 'Let's knock this out,' " Stephenson says. "He doesn't want to do it fast, so I just leave. I tell ya - that man - he's something else. He's the real deal."

As the weather changes, Wade will be out there as early as 7 a.m., with a broom and garbage can. He doesn't stray from his territory, sticking pretty much to a square grid. He'll gather his stuff from a shed and walk up 16th Avenue, then hang a right on Fairmount Avenue. From there, he'll sweep his way past Camden Street School and make a right on 15th Avenue. Then, he'll cut through an entrance in the rear of the building and head back over to where he started.

When I caught up to him, he was doing his thing dressed as if he was still on his construction gig. He was wearing work pants and work shoes, a heavy jacket. On his head was a emerald green cap with letters that make him smile.

"You see where I'm from," he says, pointing to the word that reads "Bermuda." That is where he learned how to garden as a boy. It's the place where his parents had goats, chickens and pigs.

Wade, who has a son and a daughter, came to Newark in 1957 after working in the kitchen of the Queen of Bermuda cruise ship. On one of its many trips to New York, Wade got off and made his way to Newark. He moved in with a friend until he found a construction job, from which he retired in 1999.

Another planting season is here and Wade will start up again. He'll give away the crops when they are ready, but continue his one-man cleaning detail that deserves praise.

He doesn't think that what he does is a big deal, or that anyone should want to write about it.

I wouldn't make such a fuss, Mr. Wade, if there were more people like you.

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