NEWARK, NJ — Newark Department of Public Works officials and neighbors of a longtime South Ward community member made a show of what it means to keep Newark clean on Tuesday when the group surprised the 97-year-old woman with a golden broom for her efforts to brighten up her neighborhood.
Rain, hail, sleet or snow, since moving to Newark in 1967, family and friends say Louvenia Owens has swept the curb in front of her South Ward home every day faithfully for 53 years. Owens’ daughters, showing off a mangled broom their mother is currently using, say Owens wears even industrial-strength brooms down to the handle.
Doug Freeman, Owens’ neighbor and president of Weeqhuaic Sports Authority, said it was time for someone to recognize self-driven Owens’ initiative. He called Newark DPW Director Khalif Thomas, who usually holds “Dunk the Junk” events and golden broom award ceremonies at local Newark public schools, but has been unable to due to COVID-19.
“I hope the people who see this are inspired by this and continue to keep the front of their property clean because it’s very important. A lot of people rely on the street sweepers to keep the front of their properties clean, and we have this young woman keeping it up with a broom every day,” Thomas said.
Owens, who remarked that the honor was “shocking,” never anticipated that something as simple as her chore routine would earn her recognition from the city. But in a municipality of mostly renters who rarely maintain the outside of their homes, Thomas said DPW needs more people like Owens to share the burden of making Newark’s neighborhoods presentable.
Over the years, Owens said she has noticed her neighborhood change as she swept through the decades, with fewer homeowners and more vacant properties over time.
“I didn’t know nobody was noticing me!” she said. “It’s not like it used to be. New people moved in, and some of the new people don’t care.”
Resident participation in reducing Newark’s waste and urban decay is an essential piece of uplifting communities, Thomas said. While DPW does it’s best to meet the needs of the city, COVID-19 and an increase in illegal dumping across the city have put an undue burden on trash collectors who work day and night.
In the East, South and West Wards, construction debris tied to new development has turned up again and again in parks, at bus stops and on street corners, creating a strain on DPW.
“It’s very frustrating, very frustrating. Even on Sunday nights, when we’re out there at 10 p.m., they take the opportunity when they think it’s dark and it’s an easy place to get away,” Thomas said.
The department has reinstated its illegal dumping task force, which has taken measures like picking up trash at popular dumping sites like Weeqhuaic park. Thomas said that even though the city provides 10 free dumpsters every summer and fall in the community to provide a place for people to get rid of waste, it has not helped reduce dumping.
“To have people dumping after (DPW employees) are out there lifting couches, lifting refrigerators, it feels like someone just stabbed you in the heart and just ruined your day,” Freeman added.
Thomas has since started shifting more of his attention on empowering locals to keep their city clean, even residents without addresses, he said. In those like Owens, he sees someone who embodies Newark pride.
“We get complaints all the time motor brooms haven’t come through, and we have to tell residents, they only come through once every seven days. (Owens) is a good homeowner who has been here a long time and wants to keep her neighborhood clean,” Thomas said.
Maggie Freeman, Doug Freeman’s sister and another neighbor of Owens, said Owens does more than just clean when she chases away debris with her broom. She educates her neighbors about Newark’s history and serves as an example of what it means to be a Newarker.
“No one is exempt, Mrs. Owens is in her 90s. To know that she is still out here, she lives it every day,” Freeman said.