Liberty State Park, the expansive green space spanning much of the heart of Jersey City, may seem to most people like it was a creation that came about as result of legislation passed in Trenton.
It turns out it was made possible by people in the community, residents who lived only a few short miles away.
By now, the story is legendary. One day in 1957, Jersey City businessman and lawyer Morris Pesin got into his car to drive to Manhattan to take his family to a ferry boat that would transport them to the Statue of Liberty, itself a National Park.
But after a frustrating three-hour trek just to get into the city as well as Pesin’s realization after reaching Liberty Island that when he looked directly across to the Jersey City shoreline all he saw dilapidated rail cars, garbage, and rotting piers, he felt something had to be done.
Over the next 19 years, Pesin, along with his wife, Ethel, and other residents including Audrey Zapp and Ted Conrad fought and eventually succeeded in making over an urban wasteland into an urban jewel that not only provides an access point to Lady Liberty but also a scenic view of the New York skyline.
However, since its opening on Flag Day in 1976, there have been various attempts over the years to bring private development projects into the park including a water park and a race track that advocates have fought from happening.
In recent months, the specter of commercial development has returned after the state Legislature passed a bill to consolidate the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.
Last-minute language added to the legislation had raised concerns amongst supporters of the park as it states: “The commission may avail itself of any plans under review by the Department of Environmental Protection from any source that may promote expanded and diverse recreational, cultural, and educational opportunities for visitors to Liberty State Park and provide greater access to park facilities.”
Since then, the state Assembly had approved amendments to be added to the bill requiring any plans for commercial development in Liberty State Park to be subject to approval by the New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection commissioner.
Yet, those preventative measures did not calm the Friends of Liberty State Park, the group that function as advocates of the park. That was evident in a “picnic protest” they held on May 16 in a recently developed section of the park to make people aware, locally and beyond, that development plans have not completely gone away.
People over Privatization
Sam Pesin, the son of Morris and Ethel, has taken up the mantle of being steward of the park as the president of the FOLSP.
Pesin said the picnic was to remind people that the park needs to remain open, green space, or as it slogan for the event went, “LIBERTY STATE PARK IS FOR PICNICS - NOT PRIVATIZATION!” Visitors are reminded often of the potential of future development by the sight of the Liberty National Golf Club and Liberty Science Center already existing on property directly abutting the park.
He told a reporter that there are no specific plans announced by the state but DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said during an Assembly hearing in April that plans for commercial development could be announced this coming summer. He then said he was worried about a particular type of project that he could see being designated for the park.
“We really don’t know what specific plans will be pushed forward by the state but I feel it is likely there will be a fight against a commercial amphitheater,” Pesin said.
Pesin said since 1986 there has been a push by the concert industry for a permanent venue in the park, which he said could create a problem in terms of access as there would be traffic jams that would prevent people living nearby from entering.
Pesin said those living in the community who would want to get involved to stop it from happening should check the Friends of Liberty State Park website, www.folsp.org, to get updates on this situation and to learn who to contact in the state as well as in local government.
Gail Zavian, a resident of Jersey City’s Heights section who serves as the unofficial photographer of the park, said the park offers people living in the city proximity to the water and to nature that they don’t always get to experience. She said residents can help protect this urban sanctuary for the populace by making themselves heard.
“What we can do is keep our eyes and ears open, and remember that together we are a tremendous voice,” Zavian said. “What it comes down to is that our voice will make the difference.”
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org