In April 1996 residents of Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood – an old industrial area now home to a thriving immigrant population – read in a suburban newspaper, the South Orange-Maplewood News Record, that Riverbank Park was slated to be used for a minor league baseball stadium. Riverbank Park is one of only two public parks in the neighborhood. Less than ten acres in size, it represents over 50 percent of the recreational space in a neighborhood with over 50,000 residents. Essex County and the City of Newark planned to give the neighborhood a “replacement” park – some fields across a busy highway. This news galvanized residents to form Save the Park at Riverbank (SPARK) and fight the plan.
SPARK faced a tough fight. Newark, one of the country’s poorest cities, and Essex County, had been convinced to each cough up half of the $22 million needed to fund the stadium. The city and county would cut expenses by building on the site of an existing public park, making the land “free.” The area’s city councilman was on the payroll as a consultant for the construction project. Former New York Yankees announcer Rick Cerone, whose team would use the stadium, promoted the plan with politicians and on television talk shows. They had it all planned – until they came up against SPARK.
SPARK went into action. First, members attended city council and Essex County freeholder meetings, voicing their objections: there was no parking space for the anticipated hundreds of cars that would come to games; there was another minor league baseball stadium less than 10 miles away; and the community had a desperate need for the baseball and soccer fields, the playground, tennis and basketball courts, and the benches and walkways in the park. Yet no matter how passionate the presentations, SPARK was initially ignored.
By continuing to attend freeholder meetings and press the issue, SPARK got a public hearing in the neighborhood. Hundreds of people came out to tell the freeholders that they were against the baseball stadium. But the very next night, at meetings held simultaneously in different towns, the city voted 8 to 1, and Essex County voted 9 to 0, to fund the stadium.
An Election Day Strategy
SPARK came up with a new strategy: to collect enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue. This had never been done in Newark, but with the presidential election two weeks away – when lots of registered voters would be at the polls – it was worth a try. In less than a month, SPARK members collected more than the 4000 signatures they needed, half on Election Day itself. Proponents of the stadium outspent SPARK 25 to 1. But the strategy was successful in three ways: it delayed the start of the stadium (and SPARK members knew that Rick Cerone had a timeline for opening the stadium); it generated tremendous publicity; and the Ironbound neighborhood voted NO.
SPARK also went to court, arguing that Green Acres Program and National Park Service (NPS) funds that were invested in Riverbank prohibited it from being taken from public use. Although the case was thrown out, the judge agreed that the project must go through all “required” reviews. SPARK targeted people at Green Acres and NPS who would make that decision. SPARK sent a letter from all the churches in the neighborhood, plus the hundreds of names on petitions. Architects who lived in the neighborhood took photographs of the beautiful park with children and senior citizens in it and prepared a glossy book to be mailed to every decision-maker.
A third strategy then developed. A statewide environmental group – the New Jersey Conservation Foundation – joined the fight and linked SPARK to local historic preservationists. Riverbank Park is part of the country’s oldest county park system, designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, which is famous for New York City’s Central Park, among others. The local preservation community moved to have Riverbank declared a “historic site.” Although this proposal went nowhere at the city level, preservationists began working to present the case to the state. Letters from national preservation associations and statewide environmental groups began to flood the governor’s office. At an emotional hearing in Trenton, the state’s advisory board on historic preservation voted unanimously to designate the park a historic site. While the recommendation was tabled due to political pressure, the fight for historic preservation generated positive publicity for SPARK and Riverbank Park.
Then, in a surprise move, Essex County closed Riverbank, disclosing that pre-construction tests revealed high levels of heavy metals on its surface, and declared that the only way to remediate it was to build a baseball stadium there. The county stopped its previously minimal park maintenance. But SPARK members cleaned the park themselves on Saturday mornings. Blockades designed to keep people out of the park were painted with slogans like “Respect, Reopen Riverbank Park,” and hundreds of people continued using the park. The Saturday morning work showed how much community residents cared. In addition, SPARK called on respected scientists from around the state, took them on tours of the park, and got them to state publicly that the park could be decontaminated and the trees saved.
In the summer of 1997, rumors circulated that the county would destroy the park and worry about the legalities later. It had happened elsewhere. NPS issued a “cease and desist” letter forbidding the county to proceed without its approval, which, during a stormy meeting, NPS told the county would take “two to three years.” The county enlisted newly elected New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli to go to the White House for an exemption. However, primed by NPS staffers who were following the spirited fight, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was prepared and refused the request. Several weeks later, a new site was found for the stadium.
Although it was saved from destruction, Riverbank Park was closed. But the timing was right. Municipal and county elections were approaching. The number one issue in Ironbound was the reopening and refurbishing of Riverbank Park. The momentum of this fight activated voters to defeat the incumbent of 24 years – the councilman who had tried to give the park away.
Since then, Essex County freeholders have voted to spend $4.5 million to restore Riverbank Park. The freeholders also voted to develop the land that had been scheduled to be the “replacement” park, so, in addition to Riverbank Park, Ironbound will have 8 acres of new recreational space. In the spring of 1998, Riverbank Park was added to the National Historic Register. But most importantly for community residents, the park still stands and will be open for the people in this community for generations to come.