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Newark Revival Wears Orange Along the River

New York Times, July 21, 2013

By Michael Kimmelman

NEWARK — Perhaps few places in America represent the urban trauma of the 1960s more than this city. Deindustrialization, corruption, suburban flight and calamitous planning gutted its core, tore up neighborhoods and helped fuel rebellion in the streets. The whole toxic environment was encapsulated in the desecration of the Passaic River, which borders Newark. It became a dumping ground for dioxin from the defunct Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company, which manufactured Agent Orange.

But a quiet upheaval is turning that river, polluted as it may be, into a front line of reclamation. It’s a common approach these days, from Seoul to Madrid to San Francisco: upgrading cities by revamping ravaged waterfronts. Urban renewal strategies from decades past, which did so much to destroy places like Newark, are being turned on their heads. The idea here is to make the Passaic a point of pride. You can see the sign of change in a new stretch of fluorescent orange boardwalk along the riverfront, an eye catcher for passengers on trains rumbling over the bridge into Newark Penn Station.

Phase 1 of Riverfront Park, as it is called, was completed last summer: a $15 million complex of playing fields on formerly derelict land, a couple of miles north of a giant sewage treatment plant, in the Ironbound district. This traditionally Portuguese working-class neighborhood avoided urban renewal 50 years ago and has thrived, partly as a consequence.

The Ironbound also sidestepped the redevelopment movement of the 1980s, which produced alien, corporate sites like Battery Park City. Residents and vigorous neighborhood groups like the Ironbound Community Corporation welcomed the new fields, which, since opening, have become a citywide attraction.

Phase 2 is set to open on Aug. 3, just upriver from the fields: the 800-foot-long, $9.3 million orange boardwalk, designed by the veteran landscape architect Lee Weintraub, in collaboration with the city’s planning office.

In this cash-starved city, nearly half the money has come from the state, the rest from federal and county sources, along with private contributions solicited by the mayor, Cory A. Booker, and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

The ultimate goal, said Damon Rich, Newark’s planning director, is to create more than three miles of greenway, a riverfront ribbon with bike and walking paths stretching all the way through downtown to residential neighborhoods in the north.

Accomplishing that will require decades of political perseverance. “It doesn’t get more challenging than a waterfront park on a brownfield next to a Superfund site,” as Adrian Benepe, the director of City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, and a former commissioner for New York City parks, put it. This is an especially tall order in a poor city notorious for unreliable governance. A timely coalition of environmental groups, Essex County leaders and Mr. Booker came together to complete the first phases. The mayor is now running for United States Senate. Whether early successes with the park will propel the project onward, whoever ends up in charge, is an obvious question.

Another is whether big change can happen here without gentrification driving out the very people the plan tries to help. The city administration says it wants to avoid exactly that. Many residents, accustomed to broken promises and fearful of investments that only produce quarantined office parks, are already wary.

“When the city center was destroyed by urban renewal, it became a place to avoid, a place to pass through,” said Mindy Fullilove, a professor at Columbia University and a New Jersey native who writes on urban affairs. “Now the riverfront can become an urban edge shared by everyone — a point from which to build the city back. The problem of urban renewal has been that when we’ve had an idea, it usually isn’t a good one, and when we have a good one, we don’t put money into it. The hope this time is that things will be different.”

These are changing times. Cities, which banked so much on fancy buildings, are increasingly finding new life and a fresh identity in public spaces that connect neighborhoods and communities. Planning gurus for years preached that waterfronts were no more than working ports and dumping grounds for industrial waste and the poor. Canals were paved with concrete and riverbanks lined with highways, factories, housing projects and railroads. According to this gospel, cars and freeways were good for failing cities, and urban density was bad.

The notion that industry might someday dry up, that economic development and public health would depend on clean, leisure-oriented waterfronts seemed almost inconceivable not even half a century ago. But environmental concerns and digital revolutions have reversed thinking. The proof is on the streets. Downtowns are coming back where residents and cities are stressing public transit over cars, density over sprawl, diversity over suburban flight.

In Newark’s case, repairing the damage will not be easy. Mr. Rich, the planning director, led the way on foot the other morning from the train station to the new boardwalk. The trip required crisscrossing streets with meager accommodation for pedestrians, clambering up the exit ramp of an old bridge and hugging the gutter of a four-lane boulevard that lacks traffic lights allowing people to cross into the park. Along the way, he pointed out a riverside brownfield, the former Market Street Gas Works, now a cleanup project for PSE&G, the utility company. Next door, a grim mirrored-glass office building, headquarters for New Jersey Transit and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, squatted atop a multistory garage.

It’s hard to envision how Riverfront Park will get around those obstacles.

And then there is the river. A state court ruled two years ago that Occidental Chemical Corporation, the successor to Diamond Shamrock, was principally liable for the costs (from $1 billion to $4 billion) of cleaning up the Passaic, but the company has contested the ruling. The next phase of Riverfront Park, to be completed in the spring, envisions the boardwalk stretching toward Penn Station. Restoring parts of the riverfront in the ethnic and racial mix of northern neighborhoods, for equity’s sake, will present a whole fresh set of hurdles.

Still, what has been built so far goes a long way. If a single downtown building like the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters separates the city from its river, a modest stretch of boardwalk knits them back together. At a ball field across the boulevard from the new park, Marcelino Arce, a youth baseball coach, described how some children in the Ironbound neighborhood had no idea the river was even there. Now, they must dodge traffic on the boulevard; but once across, he told me, it’s “a whole new world.”

That world includes a few zigzagging walking paths, with signs, by MTWTF, a graphic design firm, recounting the history of the river and its industries. There is an osprey rookery built into a copse of trees at an overlook onto the river. The city still needs to install those traffic lights and the park needs more seating.

As for the boardwalk, made of recycled plastic, its bright orange can summon up what Christo and Jeanne-Claude called “saffron” to describe the color of their “Gates” in Central Park. But police cones may leap to mind. Or Agent Orange. For his part, Mr. Weintraub said the orange was picked after eliminating various gang-related colors. Whatever. It is not ideal.

Newark deserves an elegant waterfront. That said, the orange boardwalk also acts like a giant highlighter, drawing attention to the park — as the project hopes to draw people from all over the city back to the Passaic, one patch of recuperated riverfront at a time.

© 2013 The New York Times

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