Despite being the proposed site of lavish plans ranging from thousands of luxury condos to a 100,000 seat Formula 1 racing facility, Liberty State Park today remains exactly what it was originally intended to be. That is a recreation area open to all with green open spaces and unobstructed views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and lower Manhattan.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a strong advocate of commercial development of the park, often quipped that most of the 5 million annual park visitors are only there to hop a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Having lived for several years within three blocks of an entrance to the north end of the park, I can assure nothing is further from the truth. While the images here were taken on a sleepy weekday morning in March, summer weekends see the park teeming with joggers and cyclists, fishermen and picnickers, frisbee throwers and cricketers.
There are no big money interests supporting the status quo. Instead it has been defended by grassroots organizations and some sympathetic local elected officials who for years have fought off one commercial development plan after another. At the forefront of these battles has been a 30+ year old volunteer organization, the Friends of Liberty State Park. Its president is Sam Pesin, the son of Morris Pesin, a local civic leader who is widely regarded as the father of Liberty State Park. They have been supported by other local and environmental organizations including NY/NJ Baykeeper, a Matawan, N.J., based organization that calls itself the “citizen guardian of the NY/NJ Estuary,” and the Sierra Club. They have also frequently been able to count on the support of the Mayor’s Office and the Jersey City Council.
One example of the resistance to commercial development of the park occurred in late 2018 during the final days of the Christie Administration. A company called Suntex, which operates the Liberty Landing Marina at the north end of the park, submitted a proposal to build another marina on the south end, an area Pesin refers to as “the people’s side of the people’s park.” The proposed marina would accommodate 300 yachts in an area that now has a large picnic area and an open plaza directly across from the Statue of Liberty. In December, less than a month before Christie was to leave office, the DEP agreed to terms on a 25-year lease with Suntex for a 45-acre marina.
Friends of Liberty State Park organized a protest in the park that drew a couple hundred people and gained widespread area media attention. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop was one of the speakers. Shortly after the New Year, Jersey City filed suit to stop the project. That suit resulted in a restraining order with the judge ruling that no decision should be made until Governor-elect Phil Murphy took office. Murphy’s DEP killed the plan.
At about the same time, in January 2018, the DEP announced that the remediation of the 240-acre closed section in the center of the park would proceed using funds from natural resources damage recovery settlements. That part of the park has been closed for natural recovery from environmental damage, including contaminated soil.
The New Jersey state legislature is now considering a bill that might offer a more lasting plan for the preservation of Liberty State Park. The Liberty State Park Protection Act would ban large scale commercial development in the park while allowing small-scale activities like kayak rentals, food concessions and a temporary winter skating rink. At time of writing the bill had just been approved by the State Assembly Agriculture and Resources Committee and is awaiting scheduling of a full vote of the legislature.
Pesin was one of the those who testified during the committee hearings. He commented: “The park is ‘God’s Country’ in the heart of a crowded and concrete region. The park represents the spirit and magnificence of America. I urge you to be visionary and caring leaders and preserve this iconic green space neighbor of Lady Liberty on behalf of future generations.”
Developers have not been the only threat Liberty State Park has faced. In 2011, the hurricane that has come to be known around here as Superstorm Sandy, caused an estimated $20 million in damages, including rendering unusable the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal and a Nature Interpretive Center located in a nature preserve within the park. The railroad terminal has since been restored and was reopened in 2016 while work continues on the Nature Interpretative Center.
At a time when we have seen so much evidence of the influence of big money in politics and the power that large corporations wield in our government, the story of Liberty State Park is a story of democracy. In the words of Baykeeper CEO Greg Remaud, “This is our park, and we already paid for it with public tax dollars. What’s more symbolic of America? What’s better than having this great democratic place, where anybody can come, rich and poor, black and white, every religion, all just park-goers enjoying it?”