Liberty State Park: With Dollar Signs in Their Eyes

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.”

Ellis Island bridge
The bridge from Liberty State Park to Ellis Island is not open to the public. It is used for service deliveries and park personnel.

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.

playground

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.

New York skyline

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.

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.

train shed

— 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.

CRRNJ terminal
CRRNJ terminal

— For the south area of the park: Boathouse and marina;  Field house for indoor sports; Amusement park; Outdoor amphitheater.

picnic area
Picnic area at the south end of the park

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.

Liberty State Park

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.

Liberty Landing Marina
Liberty Landing Marina on the Morris Canal
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Liberty State Park: Nature Reclaimed

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.

Jersey City
Prior to the creation of Liberty State Park much of the area in and around what is now the park looked like this.
Street sign in Liberty State Park

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.

view of State of Liberty


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.

Train platform at Liberty State Park
Many of the immigrants that came through Ellis Island were ferried over to Jersey City where they waited on these platforms for trains to their final destination. Many no doubt took the Crusader to Philadelphia.
Railroad passenger luggage.
Artifacts found left in the CRRNJ 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.

Liberty State Park

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.

Contaminated area of Liberty State Park.
Part of the park that is closed to the public while it undergoes natural restoration. The area suffered environmental damage, including soil contamination.

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.

Ferryboat to Ellis Island, State of Liberty
Ferries to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty leave from here.

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.

Lower Manhattan
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Famous Artists Hang Together at Harvard

Harvard Art Museums

Picasso

Monet

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

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A Scratch on the Earth from Montana to Newark

Wendy Red Star
Wendy Red Star, Apsaalooke Feminist #3

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.

Wendy Red Star

1880 Crow Peace Delegation

Home is Where My Tipi Sits.

Government houses, broken-down cars, sweat lodges and signs on the Crow Reservation.

Crow Reservation
Crow Reservation
Crow Reservation
Crow Reservation

1873 Crow Delegation

Wendy Red Star
Family Portraits-Two Prom Dates
Wendy Red Star
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The Artist as Technologist

Unexpected Growth, Tamiko Theil
Unexpected Growth, Tamiko Theil. The monitor displays digital images overlayed on top of physical reality. This monitor is installed on one of the Whitney Museum’s outdoor decks. In the background you can see the view of Manhattan from that 7th floor deck.

Lorna, Lynn Hershman Leeson
Lorna, 1979-1984. Lynn Hershman Leeson. There is a remote control that can be used to tell the story of Lorna, an agoraphobic afraid to leave her apartment. The story unfolds on the television screen.
Tilted Plane, Jim Campbell
Tilted Plane, Jim Campbell. 100 watt LED bulbs were refitted with a custom-made stem. The effect changes a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional space.
Color Panel, John F. Simon
Color Panel, John F. Simon. Software art displayed on components of a laptop computer.
New York Double Hung, Siebren Versteeg
New York Double Hung, Siebren Versteeg. These are touchscreens. You can scroll through them and see a constantly changing collage that is based on Internet sources.
Magnet TV, Nam June Paik
Magnet TV, Nam June Paik. The magnet which sits on top of this TV interferes with the TV signal and distorts the image, which changes if the magnet is moved.
Baby feat, Ikaria, In Cheng
Baby feat, Ikaria, Ian Cheng. The moving image shows debris coalescing and than disintegrating while three different online chatbots have a conversation.
CodeProfiles, W. Bradford Paley
CodeProfiles, W. Bradford Paley. Looks at code as text, visually commenting on how code is written and read.
Dance
Dance, 1979 and 2014, Luicinda Childs, Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt
Channa Horwitz, accordion-fold book
Channa Horwitz, accordion-fold book

Images are from Programmed: Rules, Codes and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018, an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

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(Nearly) Live at SXSW: The system is broken. Why?

The annual SXSW Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, has three official segments: music, film and interactive. But considering the speakers at this years event which is currently ongoing, they are well on their way to adding a fourth: SXSW Politics. The audiences in Austin this week often found the conversation drifting away from algorithms, AI and coding, to racism, healthcare and income inequality. And if there was a central theme at SXSW Politics, it was that the system in the U.S. is broken.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to the role of moneyed interests in government. “Special interests have taken over our government.” We are, in her view, reckoning with the consequences of “prioritizing profit and accumulation of money above all else and at any human and environmental cost.”

She called the divisions in our society a tool of the powerful. It is a strategy that “pits white working class Americans against brown and black working class Americans in order to screw over all working class Americans.”

Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks who may or may not be running for president in 2020 as an independent, blamed it on a dysfunctional and broken two-party system. “Both parties are steeped in a level of self-preservation and self-interest that overrides their core responsibility to all of us.”

“American people have never been more dissatisfied. The two parties have never been more dysfunctional,” he said. Schultz noted that 100 million Americans didn’t vote in 2016. Some no doubt because of apathy but others because they didn’t think they had a very good choice.

Stacey Abrams

But according to Stacey Abrams, who lost a contentious and controversial Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018, there may be another reason: voter suppression. Abrams lost the election to Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state at the time. According to Abrams, Kemp purged 1.4 million voters while he was in that position. She also noted that not all Georgians have equal access to the voting booth. Some African-Americans had to wait up to four hours to cast their vote.

The problem is not specific to Georgia. There is, Abrams noted, “no uniform Democratic process in the U.S. “

Ocasio-Cortez is too young (28) to run for president and who knows what Schultz will do. In his words he is “seriously considering running for president as a centrist independent outside the two-party system.” But the ideas they presented represent the choices Americans will have to derail Trump.

It not hard to figure out where Ocasio-Cortez is coming from. She is pretty clear and straightforward about her objectives, which are, in her words: “healthcare for all people, save our planet and all jobs paid a dignified wage.”

“It doesn’t feel good to live in an unequal society,” she said. In her home state in New York “there are more homeless than at any time since the Depression while so many penthouses are vacant because they are peoples’ third or fourth homes.”

Schultz, while not naming her specifically, described some of the progressive proposals as an “Alice in Wonderland” approach. “Moving toward socialism is an extreme proposal. The vast majority of Americans are not going to embrace socialism.” Instead he suggested that what is needed is to “disrupt the system with a centrist approach.”

He did add, “I will do nothing to re-elect Donald Trump.”

My conclusion from what I heard at SXSW: we could use some more under-30 Congresspeople.

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(Nearly) Live at SXSW: How to save the internet.

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.

Jonah Perretti
(image by Joi Ito)

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.


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Big Art II: Dia Beacon

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

Dan Flavin

John Chamberlain

MIchael Heizer

Michael Heizer

Donald Judd

Donald Judd

Michelle Stuart

Michelle Stuart

Bruce Nauman

Richard Serra

Richard Serra

Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt

Francois Morellet

Francois Morellet

Dia:Beacon

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.

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They Used to Show Double Features

In April of 2017 Mashable ran a story with the headline “The end is near for cinema. Go to the movies while there is still time.” The author, Josh Dickey, was sounding the death knell for the cinema. “The movie theater is poised to die a slow, mostly peaceful death. But it is certain.” Dickey’s dire forecast was based on the availability of movies on demand on your home TV and personal devices.

Closed Bloomfield theater
Bloomfield, N.J.

It’s not the first time that we’ve heard predictions like this. In the 1950’s, many thought the proliferation of TV’s meant the end of movie theaters. And in the 80’s it was the VCR that was supposed to put the cinema out of business. But now, two years after Mashable printed its obit, the future of cinema is not so bleak. According to an IBIS World industry market report the movie theater industry has grown at an annualized rate of 3.1% in the last five years. Some 1.35 billion tickets were sold in 2018. While that number has had its ups and downs through the years, it compares to 1.22 billion in 1995.  The increase in the box office is more substantial: $8.97 billion in 2018 versus $4.35 billion in 1995. That is due to the increase in the average ticket price from $4.35 to $8.97.

Portland theater
Portland, Ore.

While the outlook for the overall movie industry is relatively stable, that’s not the case for all movie theaters. The old-school downtown movie theater, the grand urban movie palace and the drive-in are all declining. While the number of screens in the U.S. has jumped from 28,000 in 1995 to 41,000 in 2018, the number of movie theater sites where those screens are located has declined from 7,700 to 5,800 over the same period. The downtown movie theater has gone the way of the downtown department store.  Just as the Walmart on the highway knocked out the mom and pop local variety store, the movie chain megaplex knocked out the town cinema with its single-screen double feature.

Closed Portland theater
Portland, Ore.


In New York City two dozen of the grand movie palaces that were built between 1910 and 1932 have been closed down. Some have been razed. Some others have been turned into concert venues or retail stores.

Drive-ins have also suffered a steep decline. If you are in an area with enough people to support a theater business, you need a lot of valuable land to have a drive-in and it’s hardly the most profitable use of that land, compared to say a condo complex. There were 2,084 drive in screens in the U.S. in 1987. There are now 524

Car at drive-in.
Warwick, N.Y.

One of the reasons the Mashable author gave for his dim view of the future of cinema is: “The magic of the movies has been, is, and always will be exclusive content.” I think he’s missing something. For me the magic is the giant screen, the surround sound, and even the popcorn. I am fortunate to live in an area with a few movie theaters nearby and a healthy selection of movies playing. If I didn’t I might feel differently, but when I want to watch a movie, I want it to be in the theater. I want to see and feel the cinematography and I don’t want to have to answer the phone or the doorbell or be reminded it’s garbage night. Personal devices? No thanks. How would you like to have watched Black Panther on your phone?

Closed Kinnelon theater
Kinnelon, N.J.

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Car Trouble and Other Family Problems

Car Trouble book cover

A story of a family as told in chapters defined by the junkers and low riders that the alcoholic dad brings home from poker games and police auctions. There’s no Lexus. No Prius nor a sensible family SUV. This is about widebodies with tail fins, smoking tailpipes and noisy mufflers. And chrome. Lots of chrome. There’s the Green Hornet, the Black Beauty and the Red Devil.

Rorke’s novel is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1960’s. It reminds me of the people Jimmy Breslin would write about. It also reminds me of the working class Italian-American neighborhood where I grew up in northern New Jersey. Until I read this story I’d forgotten about boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king that my mom would serve to me on toast. And I had long since forgotten what a head of hair adorned with Vitalis smelled like.

vintage car
(Image by Alex Iby)

The similarities go beyond such trivial things. Both Rorke’s fictional family and my real one were representative of the gender roles of the time in neighborhoods like these. The dad in Car Trouble, like so many of my friends’ fathers, was a walking time bomb. You tiptoed around them to avoid the inevitable explosion, an explosion that meant a lot of shouting and at least the threat of physical violence. These were the predecessors of today’s angry white men in MAGA hats. Part of it was the alcohol, of which there was always plenty. But it also had to do with being raised in a culture where you were supposed to be the chief provider and protector, the “king of the castle,’ yet finding yourself tied to a dead-end job or profession where you worked like a dog, didn’t really have enough and had little hope of things getting better.

Yes the women were housewives who cooked, cleaned, looked after the kids and did the laundry. But they had an even more important role. Mom was the voice of reason, the voice of sobriety, the sole source of empathy. Most often it was the mother who was chief financial advisor and banker. My dad was in his sixties when my mom died and one of the first things I had to do was teach him how to use a checkbook.

By the late 60’s things were starting to change but in neighborhoods like this it was driven more by economic need than by enlightenment. In both the Car Trouble family and mine the mom ended up as the sole breadwinner.

But back to the cars. This was not yet a seat belt era. Most of the 50’s era cruisers that found their way into the hands of Rorke’s fictional family had a bench front seat that fit three across. The middle seat was affectionately known as the “death seat.” But it had its advantages. The deluxe models had a record player stored under the dashboard and the death seat occupant had control over what 45’s to spin. You can’t really ride in widebodies like these without a little Motown in the background.

vintage car
(Image by Tuce)

This is a great novel. You don’t have to have experienced boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king to enjoy it. It’s 400 pages that reads like 150. I hated to see it end.

And in the end Nicky, the oldest child and only boy in a family of five children, helps his father drive the Blue Max backwards through the Brooklyn streets. Backwards because that’s all that’s left of the transmission. When they find a sufficiently secluded spot, dad, who the other family members refer to as Himself, takes out the pliers, destroys the plate with the VIN number, removes the license plates and that’s a wrap. (The novel doesn’t really end this way but you don’t want me to spoil it, do you?)


old car
(image by Stephen Arnold)
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