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?”
Warner LeRoy was a New York businessman who created and owned the amusement park Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J. At one time operated restaurants in New York City that included included Tavern on the Green and The Russian Tea Room. In 1981, he had a plan to make a bundle at Liberty State Park. His proposal, as reported by the Herald News on Dec. 13, 1981, called for “8,200 living units for 15,000 people on 199 acres, an aerial tramway over the Hudson River to Ellis Island, an open-air amphitheater, a museum of transportation, a yacht club, and a structure containing restaurants, shops and displays.”
Leroy submitted his proposal after the State of New Jersey placed notices in newspapers around the country seeking development proposals for Liberty State Park. That notice sought plans that would “provide a variety of uses compatible with the recreational purposes of the park and which use existing facilities…” Like 8,200 condos? Brendan Byrne was governor of New Jersey at the time and the Herald News story suggested that he was buddies with LeRoy.
Nor was LeRoy’s the only proposal. The same Herald New story reported that another proposal came in from the French-based Sperry Group calling for 3,700 housing units, a 275-room hotel and a series of canals and bridges done in the style of a 19th century Dutch village. Neither of these proposals were ever realized. As you can see from the images here, Liberty State Park looks neither like Great Adventure, nor like a 19th century Dutch village.
What you can see are beautiful and sometimes stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and lower Manhattan. It is that setting which has attracted scores of schemers, developers, entrepreneurs and their political allies who saw in those views a pretty robust profit center. The schemes have included marinas, golf clubs, amusement parks, water parks, hotels, strip malls, a race track, a performing arts center, even a doll museum. This has been going on for 43 years, ever since the same Gov. Byrne dedicated the park on Flag Day of 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial.
A new wave of development plans arrived with the administration of Gov. Chris Christie from 2010 to 2018. Christie trumpeted a “sustainable parks” plan through which he hoped to raise $15 million. As part of that initiative the Department of Environmental Protection hired a consultant to prepare a report on the potential development of Liberty State Park.
Here are some of the suggestions that came from that consultant, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures:
— For the train shed: A low-rise hotel within the envelope of the train shed; Re-creation of famous restaurants (past and present) from all over New Jersey; A museum tied into the historic use of the space and its location, such as a national museum of immigration or a museum of transportation and technology.
— For the terminal building: Restaurant/bar with indoor and outdoor seating to take advantage of the incredible views of Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor, along with shops and stores. Event/conference center, small event/catering hall combined with smaller cultural uses (artist studios, art galleries), theater Lease the building to an adjoining hotel in the Train Shed.
— For the south area of the park: Boathouse and marina; Field house for indoor sports; Amusement park; Outdoor amphitheater.
But perhaps the most audacious of all proposals came from a group called Liberty Rising. Their plan, according to a report in Bloomberg, was to build a Formula One racetrack with a 100,000 seat grandstand. The principals of Liberty Rising were for the most part keeping their heads under the table, but Bloomberg was able to identify one of them as Tom Considine who had been the banking and insurance commissioner in the Christie administration.
The issue of whether to exploit public lands for commercial purposes has been a controversial one in the last couple years in the U.S. The Trump administration has shown a preference for surrendering public lands, including the national parks, to commercial interests for the extraction of fossil fuels. The situation at Liberty State Park is perhaps summed up best on the Web site 6sqft:“even as the public land is enjoyed by the public for which it is set aside, private interests see the taxpayer-owned waterfront parkland as a jackpot waiting to happen in the form of luxury resort concepts.”
There is a marina at the north end of the park in the old Morris Canal. And there are two restaurants nearby. Those are the only pieces of commercial development the park has undergone in its 43 year history. In my next post I’ll look at the park’s protectors, the people who have kept it looking like it does in these images.
When you think of national and state parks, the first thing that comes to mind is natural beauty. So many are based on features like mountains, rivers, waterfalls and forests. Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., is a different kind of park. It is a park built on what was primarily landfill and crafted from an industrial wasteland.
The story of Liberty State Park starts with what is a familiar theme for those of us who live in the area. Gridlock. Morris Pesin, owner of a children’s clothing store in Jersey City who later became a city councilman, was visiting the Statue of Liberty with his wife in 1957. Thanks to traffic in the tunnel and long lines at the Battery Park ferry terminal, the trip took 2-½ hours. One year later, Pesin set out on a canoe ride with a Jersey City Journal reporter onboard. He went from the south end of Jersey City on Upper New York Bay to Liberty Island. That trip took 9 minutes. Pesin’s canoe ride is regarded as the start of a campaign by him and a couple other civic leaders in Jersey City to create Liberty State Park.
The land that was to become the park was at one time a transportation and industrial hub. The property includes the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal. The rail station, in operation from 1892 to 1954 is near Ellis Island (A Place to Celebrate Immigrants). It is estimated that of the 15 million or so immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island, about two-thirds headed over to the CRRNJ terminal to hop a train to their destination. Another defunct railroad company, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, also operated out of the terminal.
With the construction of the tunnels going from New Jersey to New York City, the rail terminal lost its importance as a primary gateway to Manhattan. With the growth of automobiles, railroad passenger traffic declined. By the 1960’s, the railroad companies were bankrupt. The terminal was closed and soon fell into serious disrepair. The surrounding industrial area, built as it was around the transportation system, likewise was abandoned and became something of a wasteland.
It took some 18 years after Pesin’s fateful canoe ride before Liberty State Park was dedicated by New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne on Flag Day 1976, part of the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration. During those 18 years, Pesin and the other park advocates were able to obtain funding from Green Acres Bond Funds and Land and Water Conservation funds. The City of Jersey City donated 156 acres to be included in the park. The DEP and Army Corps of Engineers participated in the cleanup of the harbor. The National Park Service undertook the restoration of the old railroad terminal. The cleanup continued even after the 1976 dedication. In August of that year the Asbury Park Press reported the awarding of a $1+ million contract to Cross Bay Wrecking to remove the hulks of 96 derelict vessels, 25 shore structures and “miscellaneous drift sources.” That gives you some idea of the condition of the site that the park was built on.
The park that Gov. Byrne dedicated consisted of 35 acres. Today Liberty State Park includes more than 1,000 acres. That includes a restricted area that is closed to the public as it undergoes a natural restoration. There is a 35-acre nature preserve of tidal salt marshes. But large parts of the park are open to the public and include a magnificent walkway along the coast with views of the State of Liberty, Ellis Island and lower Manhattan. It is a favorite spot for cyclists and joggers and just plain strollers. There is a large picnic area in the shadow of Lady Liberty with barbecue facilities. And it has become a destination for birders with more than 300 species having been identified on the site.
From the docks near the CRRNJ terminal, ferries fulfill Pesin’s original vision by carrying visitors to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. This in the same area where Dutch settlers in the 1600’s ferried people across the river to Manhattan.
What sets Liberty State Park apart is the setting, the view, lower Manhattan, the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. But no sooner had the park been created than that view put dollar signs in the eyes of various developers and politicians. In my next post I’ll describe some of the many schemes past and present to turn this idyllic recreational facility into a profit center.
Other European Masters
20th Century America
19th Century Folks
Out to Sea
These Landmarks Once Looked Like This
Greeks and Romans
Religion on Canvas
All in the Family
Wendy Red Star is a 38-year old multimedia artist based in Portland. She was born in Montana and raised on a Crow reservation. She is member of the Apsaalooke (Crow) tribe. These images are from her exhibit A Scratch on the Earth on display at the Newark (N.J.) Museum.
1880 Crow Peace Delegation
Home is Where My Tipi Sits.
Government houses, broken-down cars, sweat lodges and signs on the Crow Reservation.
1873 Crow Delegation
Images are from Programmed: Rules, Codes and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018, an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
For as long as there have been digital conferences, online conferences, or as they call it at SXSW, interactive conferences, a standard agenda item has been a discussion of the “future of the media.” And one of the most heard voices in that discussion has been Jonah Peretti, co-founder and CEO of Buzzfeed. Not that long ago, Peretti seemed to have all the answers. It was about digital content, about SEO, about social network distribution. That was what traditional media had failed to recognize and why they were struggling.
But things changed along the way. Earlier this year, Buzzfeed laid off 200 staffers. It hasn’t been a good year for digital media and what was once seen as the way forward it now viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism. So when Peretti stepped to the podium at this week’s SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, he was taking on more than just how to save the media. His talk was about how to save the internet.
We have, in Perretti’s words, “never been more connected but never felt more divided.” And the source of the problem is what he called the internet’s ‘dumpster fire.” That is the racists, the anti-vaxxers, the trolls and scammers and pedophiles who have overwhelmed the internet platforms with dangerous, dishonest and generally mean-spirited content.
The approach of the platforms has been to try to police the content, at Facebook for example, that means hiring as many of 20,000 people to try to keep a clean feed. Peretti sees this as a Sisyphean task that will never achieve success.
His suggestion is that rather than focusing on the bad content, focus on good content. He called on platforms and digital media to join together to accomplish this. How? By having platforms pay digital media to produce the kind of high quality content that will keep the internet “weird and magical.” Funny how this might also be the answer to Buzzfeed’s financial woes.
Peretti claims Buzzfeed received $84 million in revenue from platforms last year. While that in itself does not support the kind of news operation that his company has put in place, he talked about other revenue streams that digital media need to develop. Examples he pointed to that are being used at Buzzfeed are a brand safe advertising network (presumably to keep your ad for men’s underwear from showing up on toxic sites like Infowars), product showcases that drive traffic straight to Amazon, and the launch of consumer products with brand partners.
Peretti also talked about making the kind of quality content that takes advantage of the internet as a medium. In his words, “make good internet content, not shitty TV.” Among his Buzzfeed examples is a morning show where the hosts and guests connect directly with the audience during the show.
“We need more joy and truth on the internet,” says Peretti. Will that drive away the trolls and the scammers? Probably not. But who can argue against good content and I think we have all come to value what digital media companies can provide.
The Dia Arts Foundation maintains exhibition spaces in Chelsea and in Beacon, N.Y., a small Dutchess County town on the east bank of the Hudson River. The Beacon space is a former Nabisco box printing factory.