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Opinion: West Windsor councilman's criticism of Asian-themed park is divisive, xenophobic behavior

E pluribus unum” appears on the seal of the United States and on our coins. It is Latin for “Out of many, one” or “one from many.” Historically, it conveyed that many states merged into a single nation. More recently, it has come to convey the notion that the United States is a melting pot comprised of people of many races, religions and ancestries.

West Windsor has been my home town for the past 35 years. It is a microcosm of the melting pot that is America. According to, the racial makeup of our 27,165 residents is: white — 54.9 percent; Asian — 37.7 percent; African-American — 3.7 percent; some other race — 1 percent; two or more races — 2 percent; and American Indian — 0.1 percent.

One of the reasons I like living in West Windsor is the diversity of its population. My daughter graduated from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School in 1990. Her closest friends, many of whom remain her friends today, were of Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Italian and African-American heritage. West Windsor’s mayor for the last 11 years has been Shing-Fu Hsueh. He is the first and only Taiwanese-American to be the mayor of an American city. He is enormously popular, having been elected three times by increasingly larger pluralities (75 percent last time). In a 2006 article in The New York Times about West Windsor, Mayor Hsueh took some of the credit for the diversity: “Because they see I am mayor, they say this area must be very open-minded.”

The mayor was absolutely correct when he said that West Windsor has historically been a very open-minded community. However, recent pronouncements by a member of the West Windsor Township Council regarding a preliminary concept plan for a 1.5-acre Asian garden theme for a planned park are not only inconsistent with West Windsor’s historical nature, they are very troubling.

At a Feb. 4 council meeting, Councilman Bryan Maher argued that a proposed ethnically themed park was “crossing the line” when it comes to public property and that the Princeton Junction pocket park at Alexander Road near Route 571 would be “out of place” in the downtown Princeton Junction section.

The preliminary plan was presented by the township’s landscape architect, Dan Dobromilsky. It included traditional Chinese, Japanese and Indian gardening styles and plants. The plan was developed with the help of a renowned Shanghai-based landscape architect and included suggestions for a traditional Chinese gazebo with a roof designed to deflect wayward dragon spirits, traditional Asian vegetation, walking paths, a koi pond and a picnic area.

According to a local news report, Councilman Maher indicated that “A Chinese park in between a 7-Eleven and PJ’s Pancake House — both apple-pie, all-American aspects — you couldn’t get more out of character.” Mr. Maher claimed that some folks in West Windsor had contacted him and were upset with the Asian-themed park.

I find Councilman Maher’s comments divisive and completely inconsistent with the prevailing views of the vast majority of the residents of West Windsor Township. Why is an Asian-themed park not “all-American”? Where does Councilman Maher get the chutzpah to pick and choose what undertakings do not meet his standards for being “all-American”? I’m afraid to ask what his criteria might be. I have no doubt that they would be far less inclusive than those of the vast majority of West Windsor residents, who would not be comfortable having Mr. Maher establish the criteria for them.

Councilman Maher is demonstrating xenophobic behavior. For whatever reason, he seems to be fearful of losing what he perceives as the “all-American” identity of West Windsor’s downtown business community. He fails to understand that what makes America and West Windsor so special is its diversity, not the purity of our identity. We should be celebrating and publicizing our community’s diversity rather than being concerned about whether any ethnicity is getting special treatment. We should be inclusive, not divisive.

I agree with Councilwoman Christina Samonte, who indicated that she was offended by Mr. Maher’s use of the term “all-American.” She remarked that West Windsor is a reflection of the melting pot that is the United States and that the park would celebrate the beauty and strength of that diversity. Likewise, I agree with resident Janet Lerner, who, during the public comment at the Feb. 4 meeting, agreed with Ms. Samonte regarding the undercurrent of prejudice in Mr. Maher’s opposition to the Asian theme for the park. She said she found it “worrisome.”

I find Mr. Maher’s comments more than a little worrisome; I find them outrageously offensive. I believe he owes a public apology to the Asian-American community in West Windsor and to the rest of us who embrace that community.