Taking Back the River in Newark

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All riverfront cities should be seen from the water to really appreciate the full scope of the metropolis. Leaving behind the urban noise and rush, and getting out in a boat adds to the dimension of a place and offers the chance to reflect on the definition of a riverfront city. Really, the river itself should be an integral part of the land-based identity. An urban river is about vitality and peace, commerce and recreation, history and future.

Although Newark’s stretch of the Passaic River has been off limits to the public for many years, headway in the effort to return it to the people has recently been made. For the past two years or so, Damon Rich (shown on right), Urban Designer and Waterfront Planner for the City of Newark, has been overseeing the design and development of the city’s first true riverfront park, and has managed to cobble together millions of dollars of public and private funding to make it a reality.

Today, along with a group of 18 other passengers, I got to share Rich’s vision of park space from the perspective of the river itself, courtesy of Hackensack River Keeper Captains Hugh Carola and Bill Sheehan. Immediately after launching from the Passaic Valley sewage treatment plant that serves all of Baristaville and much of northern NJ (the closest boat launch to City Hall, where the group convened) the trip became fascinating, beautiful and inspiring.

As the two pontoons made their way past industrial and manufacturing sites (both active and abandoned), under bridges, into the downtown and Ironbound (aka “down the neck,”) areas, past exquisitely painted graffiti murals, urban artifacts, environmental tragedies and to our final point of north Newark, the fact that the city has a spectacular and sadly underutilized river front became obvious. I grew up near the banks of the Hudson River, and remember the efforts of Pete Seeger and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. to clean up and protect the river and surrounding wetlands and waterways through advocacy and public education. The mission of the Hackensack River Keeper is in the same tradition. Our trip today, though without the folk music and great wooden sloop, was about enrolling public support in returning the river to a healthy state, and making it accessible to all through parks and public access.

This year, Rich and his Hackensack Riverkeeper partners have shared their collective vision with more than 400  on the Newark cruise passengers, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Funding for next year’s program is uncertain at this time, though Rich is hopeful, especially as his efforts gain momentum through increased public awareness.

Baristanet’s own Wheeler Antabanez, a Passaic River anthologist, will do his part of drawing national attention to Newark’s waterfront — as well as to the rest of the river — with a five-part National Public Radio series for which he served as guide and “urban sherpa.” The first of the series will air on All Things Considered sometime in mid to late October (we’ll keep you posted).

There has been one extra trip added to the schedule for next Saturday — pending sufficient registration. It’s a chance to share in the optimism of Newark’s future, and see this fascinating urban scene from a different perspective. Tickets are $5 each and space is limited to 15 per boat. For information call 973-733-3917 or email newarkriverfront@gmail.com.

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