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Citizen of the Week: Jacqueline “Jax” Cusack of Roxborough Development Corp

The new-ish head of the neighborhood group grew up caring for and communing with the region’s parks and waterways. Now she’s bringing her lifelong passion for the environment to bring more green to the Northwest Philly neighborhood

Citizen of the Week: Jacqueline “Jax” Cusack of Roxborough Development Corp

The new-ish head of the neighborhood group grew up caring for and communing with the region’s parks and waterways. Now she’s bringing her lifelong passion for the environment to bring more green to the Northwest Philly neighborhood

As a child growing up in Sharon Hill in Delaware County, Jax Cusack, now 46, spent most of her time outdoors. She splashed, waded and built dams in Ridley Creek. She spent every summer at the Jersey shore. And she planted a garden, selling the vegetables she grew door-to-door. She loved nature so much that, when she was 10 years old, she first began advocating for it.

“There was a huge movement, in the late 80s and early 90s, of environmental action,” she recalls, “and it all just kind of kept with me.”

Cusack’s first campaign was persuading her family to stop eating at McDonald’s. “When I found out about how McDonald’s caught all their fish in nets, and all the [other] animals that would get stuck in them, I convinced them to stop eating [there],” she remembers. Cusack also introduced her family to recycling.

She dreamed of saving even more animals from fishing nets by becoming an oceanographer when she grew up — until she learned that “it’s less than 1 percent of people that study marine biology or oceanography that get to actually play with dolphins.” She chose instead to enroll in the environmental studies program at Temple University.

The major was fairly new at the time, and therefore highly customizable. Cusack took classes in community development, urban planning and the geography of tourism. Little did she know that, 20 years later, she’d be utilizing these exact subjects in her new job as head of the Roxborough Development Corporation (RDC).

A windy path

Cusack’s career has taken a lot of twists and turns. After graduating from Temple in 2003, she spent a year living in Germany, where she worked at a resort. When she returned home, she began volunteering at The Alliance for a Sustainable Future, an umbrella non-profit organization that worked to bring smaller sustainable nonprofits together to pool resources. Through this volunteer work, Cusack found a job as a project manager in the trade show industry, a role she stayed in for nine years.

“It sounds, I know, completely counterproductive to all of my environmental stuff … because it’s one of the most wasteful industries,” Cusack admits. “But the organization I went to was starting eco-friendly construction. They were starting to build trade shows with thoughts of how to continuously utilize them in the future; [using] more sustainable materials that last longer, [rather than] just trashing them at the end of the show.”

Cusack graduated with a Master of Business Administration from Eastern University in 2010, spent a year working for Philadelphia Gas Works in a role that dealt with energy efficiency, and spent the following year working for South Kensington Community Partners. In this role, she helped support neighbor-led efforts to build on social, economic and environmental issues in South Kensington.

Cusack received her second master’s degree in sustainable design from Philadelphia University (Thomas Jefferson University) in 2015. The multidisciplinary program combined elements of engineering, architecture, construction management and sustainability movements.

“There was a huge movement, in the late 80s and early 90s, of environmental action, and it all just kind of kept with me.” — Jax Cusack

Though Cusack loved the program and was excited to implement what she’d learned into a career in sustainability, she took an unexpected hiatus from the field after a friend asked her to help out with a brewery they had just opened. Before she knew it, she ended up spending five years in the beverage industry. Then, she spent another four years at Candytopia, a traveling immersive exhibit that harkened back, in some ways, to her trade show days.

Though she departed from her environmental dreams for nearly a decade, she never outright abandoned them. “It’s a pretty windy path of how I got to where I’m at … [but] I always thought I would come back to this. You know, this [environmental work] is what I went to school for, where my passion is. But I just never found the job that fit,” Cusack says.

Then, last year, the job at the Roxborough Development Corporation became available. Cusack leapt at the chance, knowing that the position would utilize all of the knowledge and skills she’d gained in her varied work history with environmental work, community development and business management.

“Some new ways to look at things”

Since 1992, the RDC has managed improvements to the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor, including cleaning the street, recruiting new businesses and helping existing businesses to expand. In 2003, the RDC became one of 14 Philadelphia Business Improvement Districts, allowing the RDC to more concisely focus on Ridge Ave.’s revitalization. While the RDC aims to help the Roxborough neighborhood at large, the BID concentrates on improving commercial areas, increasing foot traffic, initiating cleaning and beautification programs, and providing marketing opportunities for the corridor.

Cusack doesn’t actually live in Roxborough (she’s been in Fishtown since 2009), but she sees this as a benefit, not a detriment. “I can see outside of issues — both good and bad — along the corridor,” she says. “I [am] bringing some new ways to look at things.”

One of Cuscak’s first orders of business when she began her role nine months ago was noting an opportunity for collaboration between her new job and her former sustainability program at Jefferson, basically right around the corner. She reached out to Robert Fryer, the director, professor and cofounder of Jefferson’s sustainable design program, who had also been one of her professors nearly 10 years prior. She specifically remembered his “Design of Resilient Communities Class,” a studio where students work with a town to design approaches to environmental, social and economic challenges as a result of climate change. When Cusack was herself in the class, she worked with Frenchtown, NJ to incorporate more native plants into the borough’s landscaping.

“Do you have a community picked out for your next studio project?” she asked Fryer. “Because I have some projects we could use some vision on.”

“A place with roots”

Fryer’s students addressed four sections of potential improvement: housing, community spaces, greening and wayfinding, and branding. The students looked at improvements that could be made to Central Ridge Avenue and proposed ideas to State Representative Tarik Khan and a small group of community members whom Cusack gathered to offer feedback. Many of the students’ suggestions focused on greening the borough. (Roxborough’s current slogan, developed with community input several years ago, is “a place with roots.”)

One of Cusack’s favorite proposals from the students, which she is working on implementing now, is the inclusion of more “pocket parks” (small parks that typically occupy one to three municipal lots) along Ridge. Cusack is also taking the students’ suggestion to plant more trees along the corridor, in particular using a design from the class to seek grant funding for the work.

One of Cusack’s favorite proposals from the students, which she is working on implementing now, is the inclusion of more “pocket parks” (small parks that typically occupy one to three municipal lots) along Ridge. 

“Studies that say that [increased shade] can increase property values and shopping anywhere from 3 to 15 percent, and that people will visit tree-lined streets and business corridors more than they would un-treelined streets,” Cusack explains. Shade also decreases the heat island effect — the rise in air temperature as a result of streets and sidewalks reflecting the sun. It also lowers the energy needs of buildings and helps reduce noise and air pollution.

Beyond greening, Cusack has other plans in the works. This month, she will submit a grant to help the corridor to expand street cleaning and beautification services. The RDC leases and operates two parking lots in the city; another grant opening up soon would allow Cusack, should she receive the funds, to put in electric vehicle chargers. She’s also hoping to put more planters along the corridor. And, in the coming months, a small cultivation grant she recently received from the Pennsylvania Department of Arts and Culture will allow an 8-week pop-up market for local artists, which Cusack calls “Art on the Ridge.”

It can be tough to have the implementation of projects so dependent upon grant funding. “The challenges that we’re dealing with right now are challenges all nonprofits have: limited pools of funding that everybody is going for,” Cusack says. “Just finding creative ways to get work done is our biggest challenge.” Though progress can sometimes be slow, the RDC sticks with their plans until they come to fruition. For example, three years ago, Cusack’s predecessors began the process of improving the streetscape in front of Roxborough’s Gorgas Park.

“It’s really not safe. People are parking up on the sidewalk, which has broken the sidewalk,” says Cusack. The RDC will be putting in recessed parking and fixing the sidewalks to increase safety. After many hurdles, the construction will kick off soon and finish by the end of October.

Cusack knows that neighborhood change and development can be scary. “You look at other places that are going through large scale development on their corridors, and you see the headaches that it’s caused, and you don’t know if that’s going to be what happens here to your community or not,” she sympathizes. And yet, Cusack cannot wait to make a neighborhood she already loves even better.

Thanks to the help of the Jefferson students, Cusack has already started talking to the owners of two locations where she hopes to put in pocket parks. She also just oversaw an inventory of the trees along Ridge Avenue last week, with new trees being planted in the fall. “There’s a lot going on up here,” she says. “I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out.”

MORE GREAT PHILADELPHIA CITIZENS

Jax Cusack, executive director of Roxborough Development Corporation. Photo courtesy of Jax Cusack.

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