Drivers pass by Brill Street without even a glance at this ragged post-industrial riverfront, perfect only for a Soprano’s episode. Cars curve along Raymond Boulevard swiftly, so swiftly that five people died here a few years ago after their cars flew into Passaic River. The city then settled with the families of Monique Hawkin (39), Nicole Floyd (34), and Gail Williams (43) for $5.8 million and another $3.1 million for the families of Ceneida Zapata (52) and David Torre (54). Seemingly, there have been other curses at this sadly storied spot. For instance, a 21-year-old Harry Ryan dove in for a summer swim in 1934 and disappeared forever. The following year, Harry Keenan (40), a barge captain, was drowned while unloading stones.
On Wednesday, the Essex County police directed cars to a large white tent on the graveled riverbank to celebrate a new chapter of the place. Last July, the Port Authority allocated $7 million through its Hudson-Raritan Estuary Resource Program to purchase 12.25 acres along the Passaic Riverfront for a future county park. Now, in an election season, the check should be delivered. The ceremony hostess State Senator Teresa Ruiz reminded people, mostly county and city officials, “With a vision of dream, we, come together as winners.” Then, the Chief County Counsel James Paganelli talked about his “non-stop, roller-coaster, behind-the-scenes” funding effort. Then, Bill Baroni, a Port Authority deputy director for just two months and a former Southern Jersey State Senator, happily announced, “I, bring greetings. I, bring congratulations. I, bring $7 million.” The County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, who promised “the safest park in the land,” was all excited, “This is huge, Jo D! This is huge, Jo D.” Assemblyman Samuel Gonzalez, (Ruiz’ husband,) staged yet another round of thanking each individual politician’s vision. The local Democratic Party boss Bonnie Watson proclaimed to preside over “the best Freeholder Board in New Jersey, “We, did it! We, did it! Open space for the county! Open the air to breath fresh air!” Ah, fresh air, on this beautiful spring day without the familiar garbage incinerator odor. Two hours flew by as quickly as the cars on Raymond Boulevard. “That was brutal,” remarked my veteran journalist companion, relieved after ten politicians’ small talk. To me, the best was Mayor Booker’s joke: “The great park builder Divincenzo wishes those thousands of newly planted cherry trees can all vote, and I am going to do what politicians do in an election year, to claim credit for everything.” He quietly disappeared with his staff soon after his joke.
The Ironbound Community Corporation’s director Joseph Della Fave was the last to speak. “After all this, I ask for a little attention for the history of the park.” He gently reminded the audience that people’s struggles could be traced back to spring, 1991. An Ironbound lady in front of me whispered to her friend about a video that Nancy Zak showed her yesterday: “School children demonstrated for our park as early as 1983.” Ruiz, Gonzalez, Coutinho, and even Mayor Booker were around the age of those Ironbound school children. Fave’s subtle message was, Who really should be claiming credit? On April 16, 1998, another beautiful spring day in an election year, on the same Brill Street spot, a park had already been celebrated after a huge public outcry against a planned conversion of the nearby River Bank Park to a baseball stadium. The stadium was moved to the Broad Street Station and an additional park of 8.2 acre was promised with $4 million for soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts, and in-line hockey and roller skating space.
When Toni Griffin reviewed the city’s recent planning history, she found over 400 large and small development plans, almost all unexecuted. I cannot help to mention about another cheered development on this very Brill Street location. On November 15, 1977, the city revealed “the largest private industrial re-development project ever undertaken.” The Ironbound Plaza by then-Newark’s J.I. Kislak Realty planned to invest $21.5 million for a shopping center of 85,000 square-feet, as well as various industrial and residential buildings. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the First National Bank were all involved. The celebration specifically discussed “symbols” of the past, incomplete demolition for projects even earlier, which created a painfully scarred appearance.
After the Morris Canal brought traffic in 1832, the New Jersey Zinc and Iron Company and Passaic Chemical Works settled along the river. By 1872, the chemical factory on the very land for the proposed park became the largest sulphuric acid supplier for oil refiners and match factories all over America and Canada. In the early last century, Christian Feigenspan brought his beer fortune to the Brill Street waterfront soon before World War I against his native Germany and then the disastrous Prohibitionist era against his business. On October 1, 1927, he opened spigots of 26 huge vats to drain 303,552 gallons of pre-prohibition ale and beer into the Passaic River, the largest storage in the country worth $1 million. The New York Times reported that the lathery fluid poured into the river, “diluted with the tears of old brewery employees” and the dirty river water. Feigenspan’s misfortune did not end there. In a cold November night in 1932, the bootleg gang sneaked into the boiler room to shoot five bullets into a potential witness, with a protecting police officer nearby. In 1943, Robert Ballantine bought the brewery and operated it for a few more years before weeds swallowed the riverfront.
Mayor Booker told the crowd that he will meet with President Obama and Interior Department officials this Friday. I think that he does not need to go as far as Washington D.C. Next time when the Governor is in town, they should together call the Port Authority’s chairman Anthony Coscia. People in Newark want to know why the agency can spend more than $100 million for the waterfront in Queens and millions in Brooklyn and Hoboken, but not enough here, where money is generated from the seaport and the airport. For the next election year, all freeholders and senators can simply go to nearby Fleming Avenue, like they did on Wednesday, for a steak lunch at Fernadez’s even with our money. Cory Booker alone is enough to cut the ribbon, “This is all Newarkers’ credit. Enjoy the park!”