“We need another pink and another white over here,” Cori Fisher says, plunging a shovel into a raised flower bed on the sidewalk as other volunteers arrive with flats of brightly colored vincas.
It’s a sunny morning in the heart of Palmyra, a solid old Burlington County river town that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
But a new group, mostly made up of younger residents and called the Palmyra Improvement Association, wants to change what boosters insist is a “negative perception” of their diverse, densely populated, two-square-mile community.
“I love Palmyra,” says Fisher, 31, a professional gardener. “It’s a tight-knit community, and we all kind of feel the love.”
On Saturday, about 25 association volunteers demonstrated how they feel about the borough by fanning out for several blocks on either side of Broad Street at Cinnaminson Avenue, planting flowers to brighten up downtown just in time for Palmyra Day. The annual event is set for Saturday.
“We have a lot of good people here,” says association founder and president John Casparro, 32, who grew up in the borough of 7,300 and bought a house there two years ago. He and his wife, Danielle, are expecting their first child in July.
“I like being able to walk to Broad Street from my home,” says Casparro, the chief operating officer of a real estate development company.
“We’ve got the river, we’ve got the RiverLine, it’s an easy commute to Philly or New York. We’ve got it all,” he adds.
“There’s so much more to our town than some test scores on a website.”
He’s referring to greatschools.org, a private organization that analyzes test scores and other data to evaluate public schools nationwide. It gave Palmyra High School a 3 (out of a possible 10) rating, and helped spark the formation of the PHS Foundation for Educational Excellence in 2016.
“We have a lovely community high school, and we have to support it,” says Jody Demas, a mother of two sons, one a graduate, the other a student, at Palmyra High. “Rating a school like that hurts children, and it hurts property values.”
Palmyra High soon will soon bask in more flattering spotlights. An installment about the school on NJTV’s Classroom Close-up series will be celebrated with a red-carpet premiere showing at the Palmyra Community Center on May 17.
And on June 6 and 7, the veteran civil rights activist, lawyer, and writer Clarence B. Jones, the valedictorian of Palmyra High’s Class of 1949 and the co-author of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, will visit his alma mater for the first time since graduation.
The library at the school will be renamed for him, and a new program called the Dr. Clarence B. Jones Institute for Social Advocacy will be dedicated in his honor.
“It’s long overdue, and we’re thrilled about Palmyra being associated with the civil rights movement,” Demas says. “Most high school kids don’t have an opportunity to be involved in an institute like this -- with a direct connection to Martin Luther King.”
Demas lives in Riverton, an adjacent, more affluent borough that is a Palmyra High sending district. Casparro credits Paul Grena, president of the 20-year-old Riverton Improvement Association, with providing advice and technical assistance that helped get the Palmyra group off the ground.
“There’s a lot of potential in Palmyra,” Grena, a Philadelphia cardiologist, tells me. “Our town has more resources than Palmyra, but whatever you have or don’t have, you’ve got to get people involved, and you hope to inspire some community spirit.”
Spirits were high at Saturday’s flower-planting event, which was held at the same time local veterans and volunteers from the Explorers program of the Burlington County Sheriff’s Department spruced up the park around the borough’s war memorial.
“We’re tired of people thinking that Palmyra is something insignificant,” Mayor Michelle Arnold says.
"It’s a good town,” adds Pam Golas, who brought three family members along to plant flowers. “And we’re trying to prove that.”
To Casparro, the fact that Palmyra pride has taken root in a new generation of borough residents is proof enough.