If you’ve trekked the towpath through Frenchtown recently, or strolled Bridge Street, you probably noticed a small tent at the foot of the bridge. It belongs to the Frenchtown River Ambassadors, a new initiative by Sustainable Frenchtown.
Volunteer ambassadors will be camped out there each weekend through the end of the summer. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, at 11 AM, they host an interactive environmental program for kids. And in the afternoon, at 4 PM, they lead a clean-up along the Frenchtown bank of the Delaware.
In between, they hand out brochures that include a map of the borough’s restaurants and shops and exclusive coupons for many of those places.
The group was formed in response to a surge in visitors to the riverside town last summer as a result of the pandemic and the toxic response to their presence on social media.
“Frenchtown has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, but during summer 2020, the community experienced a dramatic spike in river visitors, due in part to the pandemic,” reads a statement issued by Sustainable Frenchtown. “The borough managed the increase in garbage and parking issues, while complaints about crowds, parking, and litter – as well as hate speech directed at river visitors – piled up on the local social media page.”
In response, Frenchtown residents Susan Quackenbush, a biologist and member of Frenchtown’s environmental commission; Jorge Sanchez, a photographer; Holly Low, a former Frenchtown Borough council member; and Alleigh Sobey and Maggie Cooke, both local activists, designed and launched the Frenchtown River Ambassadors.
In a statement released by the group, they said the ambassadors are “committed to the philosophy that public parks, biodiversity, and open spaces are held in the public trust, and should be accessible to residents and visitors alike, free from discrimination.”
“We decided to take the initiative to do something positive for a healthy coexistence among the people who visit us, our own neighbors, and, above all, for the care and respect of the natural treasure where we live, the Delaware River,” Sanchez says.
In addition to the founders, six more Frenchtown residents serve as “volunteer captains,” including Pastor Peter Mantell of the United Methodist Church. And another 20 people volunteer with the group.
Beyond ensuring accessibility to the river and the town, the ambassadors are also promoting the stewardship of natural resources – amid a summer when the effects of climate change have gone from theory to devastating reality on a number of fronts.
“Balancing the needs of humans and nature is difficult during the best of times, and rarely are there any simple answers,” Quackenbush says. “It can be easy to default to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. It can be easy to blame litter on people who don’t live on the banks of the mighty Delaware, people who don’t look like or speak like the majority of Frenchtown. And yet this very thing is at the core of FRA’s mission. As important as it is for us to pick up litter, it is equally important for us to tear down the barriers that separate us.”
“What I appreciate most about the River Ambassadors project,” says Cooke, one of the group’s founders, “is that it has been codesigned by members of our community focused on community-building, responsible stewardship practices, and promoting local businesses, all while remaining true to our core values of being inclusive and welcoming.”