On January 1, 2024, Nancy Adams was sworn in as mayor of Maplewood after being elected unanimously by the five-member Maplewood Township Committee. Mayor Adams is only the second woman to lead the township since Ellen Davenport, who served as mayor from 1994-1997. In her first annual State of the Township, Adams thanked Davenport for her years of service almost three decades ago. “I hope I’m just the beginning of more women coming forward to serve as mayor,” she said.
Adams was first elected to the TC in 2015 and is currently serving the last year of her third term. Also notable is newly-elected Deputy Mayor Jamaine Cripe. This marks the first time in township history that both roles have been filled by women. Along with Committeeperson Deborah Engel, the three women now make up a majority for the TC.
“It is exciting that Maplewood has a female mayor again,” says Engel, who served as Deputy Mayor in 2023 during her first year on the TC. “Nancy has worked so hard for our community for so many years and has paved the way for women in government.”
While she may be involved in a lot of recent firsts, Mayor Adams has been a long-time resident of Maplewood. Since moving here in 1989, she has played pivotal roles as an environmental activist, a champion of economic redevelopment, and even put a name on one of Maplewood’s well-known neighborhoods.
Maplewood house hunting in the 100-degree heat
Born in Philadelphia and the youngest of four siblings, Adams lived there for five years until her father got a job and relocated the family to Irondequoit, New York, a suburb of Rochester.
Adams recalls an epic day of house hunting when she was considering the Maplewood area. “We looked at about 25 houses in one day. It was my birthday, it was 100 degrees, and I was eight months pregnant,” she says. Adams has lived in the same College Hill home ever since.
While studying at Susquehanna University, Adams caught the theater bug, playing Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” during her senior year. She later acted in summer stock theater as well as local theater in Rochester. After moving to Maplewood, Adams put her theater background to work. While her children were attending Tuscan Elementary, Adams revived the school’s theater program.
“The theater there had been dark for 30 years,” she recalls. In 1990, Adams directed and produced “Really Rosie,” a musical with book and lyrics by Maurice Sendak and music by Carole King. She also enlisted her then-neighbor and Broadway musical conductor Vicki Carter to work as the musical director for the cast of 40 students. “I just loved those kids,” Adams recalls.
Putting the “College Hill” in College Hill
Adams’ interests in community building grew out of the pragmatic issues of being a mother and simply looking for a place to stroll her child through the neighborhood. She recalls discussing her concerns about the state of Springfield Avenue with Deb Cochran, her close friend and neighbor at the time. “Deb and I kept wondering why the street looked so bad. Why is Springfield Avenue two lanes in each direction? It was really abrasive to try to walk a stroller on the sidewalk,” says Adams. She and Cochran also joined the League of Women Voters. “They work really hard to look objectively at issues. I found it fascinating and I learned a lot.”
Adams and Cochran began going to economic development committee meetings in order to gain momentum to focus on the avenue. “We decided that we needed more political weight behind us. We went door to door with flyers, signing people up, getting their addresses and phone numbers – of course, there wasn’t email at the time,” recalls Adams. Famously, her living room was the birthplace of the “College Hill” name – as well as the newly-minted College Hill Neighborhood Association.
“Now we had a neighborhood association that was asking the town to do something about it. And we joined with the Hilton Neighborhood Association, where [former mayor and long-time TC committeeperson] Vic De Luca had moved here during this time. Together, we started a movement on Springfield Avenue,” says Adams. Although currently living in St. Louis, Cochran (formerly named Deb Trumper) flew out to attend Adams’ swearing in. “[Deb is] my co-conspirator and partner in crime,” Adams said in her inaugural speech.
“I met Nancy in 1995 when we led our respective neighborhood associations to join forces to improve Springfield Avenue,” says De Luca. “She cares deeply about Maplewood and I’m glad to see her as our mayor. For more than 30 years, Nancy has given her time and talent to our community, from PTA leadership to the Planning Board to the Township Committee.”
Adams and De Luca formed a strong bond as they worked to establish the Springfield Avenue Partnership, which became Maplewood’s first Special Improvement District. De Luca would also serve an important role when Adams remarried. He officiated the wedding of Adams and her husband, Sal Renda. The couple share a blended family of five grown children.
A Career in Revitalization, Redevelopment, and Environmental Activism
Adams’ work on Springfield Avenue served as a launching pad for her career of over 25 years as a professional in downtown revitalization and redevelopment. Between 1996-2003, she managed Main Street South Orange – which is now called South Orange Downtown. She later worked on revitalization projects in West Orange, Red Bank, and briefly served in a similar position in Newark under Mayor Sharpe James. Since 2017, Adams has worked in Summit, NJ as the Executive Director of Summit Downtown, Inc.
Adams believes that her relevant experience will come in handy as she hopes to create a plan for the Maplewood theater block redevelopment. “I’d like to get something started successfully,” she says. “There have been a lot of stops. I don’t know if it can or will be a theater.”
“I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist,” says Adams, who has been an outspoken leader in the effort to create a year-round ban on gas-powered leaf blowers in Maplewood. In addition, Adams was opposed to the use of artificial turf in Maplewood’s DeHart Park, which was put to a referendum vote in 2021. In a joint statement released at the time, Adams and Cripe wrote: “We support an increase to the annual $20,000 currently spent on the DeHart Park field to create a better and more reliable player experience while providing environmental protections to the community and equitable governance for all.” After a contentious campaign, the referendum did not pass.
“I’m hoping that with the title of mayor, I can have a little more weight behind me as far as context in the state. There are two bills to ban the dirty gas-powered leaf blowers on the state level, but they can’t seem to get out of committee,” says Adams. “I hope to get that back on the front burner at the state level and want Assemblywoman Garnet Hall to help me with that. She’s already said she wants to be involved and I’m hoping the two of us can work to get something moving.”
During her inaugural speech as mayor, Adams said that she “want[s] to assure each and every one of you that I am committed to working tirelessly for the betterment of Maplewood.”
Her tirelessness and work ethic were evident back in 2017 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer while serving as Deputy Mayor. “I had major surgery in the beginning of December [that year],” she recalls. “I didn’t miss a single township committee meeting, even though I was in the hospital for five days.”
“[Nancy] is a quiet and determined leader who sees herself as a public servant rather than a politician,” says De Luca. “She has accomplished much over her eight years in office and has become a role model for women and girls in MAPSO.”