On June 14, I participated in a march from Newark City Hall to Newark’s riverfront. This long neglected post-industrial city is making a comeback. Having lost over 150,000 residents (37% of its population) in the last half of the 20th century, Newark gained a national reputation for urban decay and decline. With rising prices in nearby New York City as well as Hoboken and Jersey City, this transit hub is seeing an influx of residents and investment. While there is renewed interest in Newark, there is an industrial legacy that needs to be addressed. During the industrial revolution, Newark and New Jersey in general were powerhouses. The Passaic River, which borders Newark as well as other industrial cities such as Patterson and Passaic, became highly polluted as the succeeding waves of industry used it for waste removal. Perhaps the greatest environmental crime against the river happened in the Ironbound section of Newark. Here the Diamond Alkali chemical plant which produced Agent Orange dumped large amounts of dioxin laden waste. Since this part of the Passaic River is tidal in nature, this pollution has spread both towards Newark Bay as well as up river. This part of the river is the site of the largest superfund proposal in the history of the program.
Given the long disconnect between the city and its river, it’s not too surprising that many residents are essentially unaware of its existence. This is beginning to change through the work of multiple projects and several local organizations. One project that brought attention to the area was the proposal to demolish Riverbank Park and build a minor league baseball stadium. Riverbank park is one of several parks in Newark designed by the Olmsted brothers. The park itself is a beautiful urban park and accounted for roughly 50% of the recreational space in the Ironbound. Opposition to the new stadium was organized as SPARK Friends of Riverbank Park. Fortunately the opposition was successful and the minor league stadium (which now sits empty) was developed near the Broad Street Station of New Jersey Transit. Later SPARK Friends of Riverbank Park, the Ironbound Community Corporation, the City of Newark, Essex County, and the Trust of Public Land worked together to develop Riverfront Park. Riverfront Park currently consists of 15 acres of open space including sports fields, playgrounds, a river-walk and a boat dock. Further plans aim to extend this park past Newark Penn Station into downtown Newark. The park opened in August 2013 and has been very popular with local residents; it offers a particularly great place to view downtown and to see planes flying overhead on their way to Newark International Airport. Part of the success of the park has been excellent programming by the City of Newark, including the Newark Walks to the Water & River Day.
The Walk to the Water started off from Newark City Hall and traveled to Four Corners, the intersection of Broad and Market and at one time, the busiest intersection in the world. Broad Street is ridiculously wide; it has 3 lanes in each direction with an additional lane of parking and a median. In front of City Hall, it has a roughly 90 foot wide cartway. Leading the way was the Malcolm X Shabazz Marching Band. Walking towards 4 Corners, we marched past crowds of onlookers going about their Saturday shopping in downtown Newark. This area is an incredibly vibrant urban area. Street vendors abound and the sidewalks are almost always packed with people. The march turned down Market Street. Market Street is a primary east west route through downtown to Jersey City. Though the street isn’t as wide as Broad, there is enough room to make the traffic more friendly. This part of the march traveled through one of the worst streetscapes in Newark: Market between Newark Penn and Mulberry. Here the Gateway Center turns its back on the street and focuses on the skyway system. The march continued past the rail hub of New Jersey, Newark Penn Station and continued onto Ferry Street in the Ironbound. The Ironbound is a dense and thriving immigrant enclave with large numbers of people from Spain, Portugal and Brazil as well as Central America. Once again, the inherently busy street life of Ferry Street guaranteed an audience for the march. The march turned and passed through River Bank park on its way to the new Riverfront Park. At Riverfront Park, there were speakers, music, food truck and boat tours of the Passaic River (which from my experience last summer is well worth the time). This return to the river is great for the city of Newark. With renewed investment in the city, the desires of developers may conflict with the desire to connect the city to the river. Ideally, the city will be able to work with developers to ensure that access to the river is guaranteed in a way that actually improves the value of riverfront developments. Nonetheless, this is a great start and the Walk to the Water was a great event.