By Heather Gibbons | FBW | November 2, 2017
The Friends of Liberty State Park will be honored with the 5th annual FBW Riparian Award at FBW’s Connect the Waterfront annual fundraising party on November 16th. This event will take place at the Kolo Klub in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“So many people, when they see open space, they see empty space” said Bill Kadish, a Hoboken resident and volunteer with the Friends of Liberty State Park. “And they want to fill it.” At our benefit fundraiser on Thursday, November 16th at the Kolo Club in Hoboken, FBW will honor the Friends of Liberty State Park, a grass-roots, all-volunteer citizens group that has spent their nearly 30 years defending the 1,200-acre urban oasis (600 of those are dry uplands) from privatization attempts.
On a recent sunny Saturday morning in Liberty State Park I sat down with both Bill and the President of the Friends, Sam Pesin, to talk about public waterfronts, open space, and the many battles the Friends have fought over the years resisting commercialization. We met inside the historic CRRNJ Train Terminal, where at one time more than 70% of the immigrants from Ellis Island passed through,and today visitors can buy tickets for the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, two landmarks that grace the park’s remarkable waterfront.
“As much as I love the urban life in Hoboken, I need the connection to the sky and the water and the open space” Bill continued. “But people see this open space as empty space and they want to fill this empty space with their ideas, their development. A golf course, an amusement park, a luxury hotel, are just a few things the Friends have fought over the years. The park can’t defend itself. The officers of the park are not allowed to be advocates. So the Friends are an important protector of this urban jewel.”
Indeed, the Friends of Liberty State Park have been called upon to defend the park from privatization dozens of times. Many of those plans emanated from the Liberty State Park Development Corporation, a thorn in the side of the Friends for years. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had entered into an agreement with the Development Corporation in 1986 to “promote public- private partnerships toward the development” of the park, but the plans proposed by the corporation –including commercial concert venues, a shopping mall, a golf course, and a water park – met with ferocious opposition from the Friends and other community groups, and the LSPDC was long plagued by concerns of fiscal and operational mismanagement.
In 2003, after a vigorous letter-writing campaign by the Friends and others, Governor McGreevey terminated the Development Corporation.”Whenever battles came our way, which was quite often” Sam Pesin recalled, “people put democracy in action and they fought for a free park behind Lady Liberty. With petitions and protests and hearings and phone calls and letters and emails, they spoke out for this park.”
But even with the Development Corporation long gone, proposals for the park to “fund itself” continue. Governor Christie and the DEP have attempted to fill the park with commercial venues, including an amusement park, a private indoor sports complex and a luxury hotel in the historic Terminal that would have turned the adjacent field along the waterfront into a parking lot. But Pesin is not deterred. The Friends are working with the NY/NJ Baykeeper and others to protect the park for good. “In the future we want to get legislation to protect Liberty park as national parks are protected.”
Much like Hoboken’s Pier A Park, Liberty State Park began with citizen action. Sam Pesin’s father, Morris Pesin, first conceived of the idea of the park in 1958 and soon launched a Herculean public crusade to make it a reality. “My dad took a canoe ride with a reporter from the shoreline to the statue to show the close proximity of the waterfront to Lady Liberty. That was an 8-minute trip and that’s known as his legendary canoe trip, I see it as the trip that launched Liberty State Park.” Eighteen years of tireless organizing followed, but after many delays the park opened in 1976, the U.S. bi-centennial. “This is a haven, an oasis, a refuge and sanctuary.” Pesin remarked. “It’s our escape from the urban cement and noise. It’s a great New Jersey park, but it’s also a great American park because of its location near the Statue of Liberty.”
In addition to their vigilance against privatization of the park, the Friends run a year-round volunteer gardening program (you can show up any Saturday morning from 9-12), have funded the purchase and planting of over 850 trees, hold an annual salt-marsh clean up and support the park’s myriad of educational programs. The Friends has strongly encouraged public participation in park decision-making, regarding both threats and positive plans. “The future is bright.” insists Pesin, and in fact the group is looking forward to the restoration of the park’s interior, a 235-acre natural habitat of wetlands, a forest and nature trails, the nation’s largest urban restoration project.