This past Saturday, I took a boat tour of the lower Passaic River and the port section of Newark Bay. This trip was organized by the City of Newark through the Newark Planning Office’s Newark Riverfront Revival initiative. The tour was joined by Isella Ramirez from the Ironbound Community Corporation who is working with the Coalition for Healthy Ports and Robert Harley, Supervisor of Intermodal Operations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Cities in the industrial world have seen changes in the way that waterways are viewed. During the early years of industrialization, they were used primarily as transportation corridors and waste removal systems. Industry sprang up along riverfronts and the waters became highly polluted. The Passaic River did not escape this fate. Currently, the largest EPA Superfund site is in the Passaic River and is the result of years of illegal dumping of dioxin laden materials from the Diamond Shamrock facility.
A newer view of waterways is emerging with them being seen as vital sites for recreational use. Pedestrian access is being emphasized and cleanups started. Many of the old industrial sites are now vacant. Some are no longer dependent on the river for business, but rather are used to store old trucks and containers. At the same time, there are many uses that are dependent on their waterfront location. This tour particularly explored these uses. In the upper part of Newark Bay is the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s waste water treatment facility. For efficiency’s sake, this site needs to be located as close to sea level as possible so that gravity can push sewage through the pipes to be treated.
Another water dependent site is the Port of Elizabeth/Port Newark, the third busiest port in the country. This port has a mixed legacy in Northern New Jersey. It is a critical piece of economic infrastructure allowing goods from around the world access to the United States. It also employs roughly 10,000 people a day. Though it provides thousands of jobs and increased connections to the world, it has some negative impacts. Diesel trucks serving the port create large amounts of pollution. The Port Authority has set up a program to assist truck owners with purchasing new trucks, though this program hasn’t had as large of an impact as it should due to labor issues with the truck drivers. Many of the truck drivers working at the port are treated as independent contractors even though their relationship with the companies they work for resembles that of an employee. The take home pay for these truckers is so low that affording a new truck is prohibitively expensive. While all of this plays out, Newark suffers high asthma rates and poor air quality, much of which is exacerbated by the diesel fumes coming from the ports.
The ports are essential to the economy of the New York City metro area and the country as a whole. They also out of necessity, must be situated along the waterfront. Other old industrial land no longer has this need for water access. The City of Newark is working to reclaim these spaces and convert them to public access. Riverfront Park which opened in 2012 reclaimed industrial land and now contains sports fields, a playground and lawn space that can host live music. The “Newark’s River: Redevelopment & Public Access Plan,” which was named by New Jersey Future as one of the 2014 Smart Growth Award winners, envisions this river access being extended past downtown, reconnecting Newark to the Passaic River. The implementation of this plan will help further Newark’s revival and bring more people and investment to this city.
This was a great trip to see an area of Newark that is rarely seen except by those that work on the water. It highlighted the economic significance of some of the waterfront industry while pointing out the environmental and social troubles that accompany the economic activity. Tours of the waterfront are wrapping up soon for the season, but there are still some dates available. More information can be found at Newark Riverfront Revival.