Maplewood celebrates Pride

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Cheers echoed across Valley Street in Maplewood on Thursday, June 7, not from a Little League baseball game at Memorial Park, but from the lawn of Town Hall as Maplewood Township unveiled New Jersey’s first permanent rainbow-striped crosswalks at the intersection of Valley Street and Oakview Avenue, adjacent to Maplewood Town Hall and Memorial Park.

Residents, activists, religious leaders, and township and county officials gathered to celebrate the unveiling with speeches, music, face painting, balloons and ice cream.

All four crosswalks at the intersection have been permanently painted the eight colors of the original LGBTQ pride flag, which was designed by Gilbert Baker in the 1970s. The crosswalks were painted Wednesday, June 6, a day before the ceremony.

“It was the right thing to do,” Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said at the event. “We wanted to show that Maplewood is inclusive, it is welcoming and it is diverse. We wanted to make it permanent, so what better way than to paint a road to let people know what our values are?”

The idea to paint the crosswalks came from Maplewood Committeeman Dean Dafis, the first openly LBGTQ elected official in Maplewood, and local LGBTQ activist Steve Mershon. Dafis and Mershon are both members of SOMA Action’s LGBTQ Committee.

Dafis brought the idea to DeLuca in February, just four weeks after being elected to his inaugural term on the Maplewood Township Committee. DeLuca liked the idea and they worked together to make it happen.

“I wanted to do something and give back to the community that honored me, that trusted me as their public servant … in a really big way,” Dafis said at the event. “I wanted to create a permanent marker of who we are — of our inclusivity and our affirmation of all people, all minorities, and all vulnerable communities.”

Dafis said a crosswalk is the right way to accomplish this because it is something everyone can use and interact with on a daily basis.

“I wanted every single young person to use it,” Dafis said, “and cross over any self-doubt that they might have about who they are and who they can be.”

As Dafis addressed the crowd Thursday, he emphasized that the action is for more than LGBTQ pride.

“This is yours,” he said. “This belongs to everyone. This is not just for LGBTQ. We used a rainbow because it represents unity for all.”

Installing the permanent rainbow-striped crosswalk required multilevel cooperation between township, county, state and federal officials to ensure the crosswalk would be fully compliant with all regulations. Valley Street is a county road.

During this process, Maplewood officials learned that the project would make the crosswalks safer by making them more visible to drivers and more interactive for pedestrians. According to DeLuca, this means drivers are more likely to slow down during their approach, and pedestrians are less likely to jaywalk.

DeLuca and Dafis both indicated that the new crosswalk could lead to additional artistic crosswalks being installed around town to enhance traffic safety.

“We’re making history today,” Essex County Freeholder Vice President Wayne Richardson said at the event. “Essex County is always first, but right now Maplewood is on the top of the pie.”

To celebrate the milestone and the beginning of Pride Month, the June 7 event also included a family-friendly celebration on the front lawn of Town Hall. The Scoop dished out rainbow sherbet, North Jersey Pride sold T-shirts and flags, and children enjoyed colorful face painting.

Corey Ayala-Fagundez, a Maplewood resident who attended the event, expressed pride in the township for its decision to create the new crosswalks.

“It’s indescribable,” Ayala-Fagundez told the News-Record. “It’s important to me so people know that they and their families will feel safe and accepted here.”

Dafis said he hopes the crosswalks leave a lasting legacy for the people of Maplewood.

“I want today’s youth to feel empowered,” Dafis told the News-Record, adding that the crosswalk is a show of Maplewood’s diversity in many respects, allowing all members of the community to feel accepted.

“I hope it continues to tell people that Maplewood is about inclusion … and we respect everyone,” DeLuca told the News-Record. “Our values are to have everybody feel that they have internal value, and that we love them all.”

Photos by Peyton Smith