Neighborhood Spotlight: Liberty State Park and Liberty Harbor

Liberty State Park with a view of the Statue of Liberty – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

When the Jersey Avenue footbridge, which has connected Downtown Jersey City to Liberty State Park since 1976, was destroyed during Superstorm Sandy, downtown residents lost direct access to one of New Jersey’s most iconic green spaces.

Residents of Liberty Harbor, a residential and commercial real estate development project spanning 2,500 feet of waterfront in the lower Hudson Bay, no longer had the connection to the park that was once an attractive feature. Liberty Harbor is located south of Van Vorst and to the west of Paulus Hook, next to the Jersey City Medical Center.

When asked about the footbridge in late April, Liberty Harbor real estate developer Peter Mocco said, “I literally have hundreds and hundreds of people asking me when the footbridge is going to be open. Right now Liberty State Park is sealed from Downtown Jersey City. And it is an incredible amenity to Jersey City.”

City officials replaced the bridge over Memorial Day Weekend; the cost to repair the bridge, which has enhanced lighting and other safety features, was approximately $750,000. At the same time, the bridge was renamed The Ethel Pesin Liberty Footbridge as a way to honor the late Ms. Pesin for her tireless activism in regards to the park.

“The park was always a functional amenity as well as a visual amenity,” says Mocco, who acquired land he would use for Liberty Harbor in 2004. Almost 20 years earlier, in 1985, Mocco also built Liberty Harbor Marina, which is home to both transient and long term contracts for 150-200 boats. This summer, according to Peter Mocco, Jr., boats using the marina range from 25 feet to a 68-70 footer.

The public outcry over the lack of footbridge is not the only sign that LSP plays a major role in the lives of Jersey City residents. In November 2012, just weeks after Superstorm Sandy, more than 400 volunteers donated their time on a Saturday to clean up debris.

Liberty State Park occupies 1,212 acres in the southeastern portion of Jersey City. It is bordered on two sides by the Upper New York Bay (or New York Harbor), which is fed by the Hudson River and the Gowanus Canal. The park’s northern boundary is bordered by the Morris Canal Big Basin, and the west is bordered by the New Jersey Turnpike Newark Bay Extension. There are three Hudson-Bergen Light Rail stops in the neighborhood surrounding the park, making it really easy to get to: Marin Blvd, Jersey Avenue, and the eponymous Liberty State Park station.

Operated and maintained by the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, Liberty State Park has a surprisingly rich ecosystem, considering that much of the park is situated on landfill once created by Central Railroad of New Jersey (CRRNJ) and the Lehigh Valley Railroad. One of the few remaining tidal salt marshes along the Hudson River estuary is located in LSP.

Bird-watching enthusiasts can find over 200 species of birds in the park. Patricia O’Hanlon, local bird lover, tells JCI, “Liberty State Park is visited by many, many species of birds – land lovers and water fowl. Being surrounded by a bustling city makes it all the more amazing that so many birds call it home or at least stop by for refueling and rest while on their way to distant locations. This provides local birders with an easy-to-get-to, free, open space, and the endless opportunity to encounter and enjoy many common species. Birders may also spot an occasional visiting bird that may have been blown off course and found the haven we know as LSP.”

As mentioned, this haven for birds and birders (as well as bicyclists, joggers, picnickers, Frisbee tossers, kite flyers, fishermen, boaters, etc.) sustained significant damage during Superstorm Sandy and took months to repair. Efforts to clean up and reopen the park were organized by Friends of Liberty State Park (FOLSP), an all-volunteer organization that was founded in 1988. Over the course of 25 years, the FOLSP has advocated on behalf of the park’s original founders by defeating development plans like a golf course and commercial waterpark. In addition, the FOLSP helped established New Jersey’s largest playground and created a shuttle bus system that connects the park to the Liberty State Park Light Rail station.

FOLSP President Sam Pesin is a Jersey City preschool teacher and son of the late Morris Pesin, the “father” of Liberty State Park. “It was just exciting to know that my dad and others were working to establish an open space, a waterfront park, which had been a wasteland with decaying piers and abandoned rail yards,” says Pesin. “When the park opened, it brought great joy to my family to have this wonderful park behind the Statue of Liberty with its open spaces and views.”

The land, prior to becoming a park in 1976 had a rich and storied history and was, at one point, the furthest thing from a park. Liberty State Park’s earliest occupants were the Hackensack Indians, who used the land as a summer encampment, calling it “Communipaw.” When the Dutch arrived in the 1600s, they built a mansion on Phillips Street, the current location of the Liberty Science Center. It was a ferry port for hundreds of years before the 1889 construction of the Communipaw Terminal, which added a train depot used by immigrants who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island. Its location also made it an ideal hub for shipping and manufacturing. Because of toxic waste, a byproduct of industry and transportation, the land was practically uninhabitable when the Communipaw Terminal closed in 1967.

The Ethel Pesin Liberty footbridge connecting Liberty Harbor to Liberty State Park

The Ethel Pesin Liberty footbridge connecting Liberty Harbor to Liberty State Park – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

In the mid-20th century, a group of visionaries saw the park’s potential. Theodore Conrad, J. Owen Grundy, Morris Pesin, and Audrey Zapp are known as the founders of Liberty State Park. According to the The New York Times, Pesin was inspired by his desire “to connect his home city more firmly to the Statue of Liberty that had greeted his parents” and his own frustrations of trying to visit the statue with his wife and two children in May of 1957. Pesin believed that the Statue of Liberty should be more accessible from Jersey City.

In partnership with the Jersey Journal, Pesin decided to perform a publicity stunt: he made a canoe trip from the Jersey City waterfront to the Statue of Liberty in order to draw attention to the lack of access. In addition to being known as the father of the park, Pesin was a well-known civic leader in Jersey City.

The founding of the park was not without conflicts, however. The founders fought former Governor Brendan Byrne’s acceptance of plans to build an amusement park on the site. In the 90s, groups like FOLSP and NY/NJ Baykeeper challenged former Governor Christie Todd Whitman over golf course plans. Soon after, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler tried again, approving yet another plan for a water park.

Largely overcoming this type of development, Liberty State Park has instead proven itself to be a center for recreation as well as for culture, especially music. In 1985, Daryl Hall and John Oates played a benefit concert for an audience of 70,000 to raise money for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, LSP hosted the All Points West Music & Arts Festival, featuring infamous musicians Jay-Z, Coldplay, and Radiohead. Currently, LSP hosts Summerfest (which began July 7 this year and finishes August 18), a series of free concerts throughout the summer.

Cliff Perkins is the events coordinator for the Jersey City Division of Cultural Affairs and the organizer of Summerfest. He was born and raised in Jersey City, attended Saint Peter’s College, and subsequently entered the music industry, becoming part of a musical group called Soul Generation, which earned gold and platinum records. (All the members of Soul Generation are from Jersey City.)

“This year’s concerts are diversified. We run everything from jazz to R&B to classic soul to pop. All types of music. I try to appeal to the masses and give them as much diversity as possible,” says Perkins. This summer’s performers include Fillet of Soul (music of the 60s and 70s), Soul Finger (pop and R&B), Winard Harper (jazz), and Ashley Pettet (pop).

“Even years ago, Summerfest was called the longest running free concert series in the state of New Jersey. The people are wonderful who come, and there are nice views. The music is terrific, and there’s nothing like hearing music on a summer evening,” says Sam Pesin.

Liberty State Park has two well-known monuments: “Liberation,” a Holocaust memorial that depicts a U.S. soldier carrying a survivor from a Nazi death camp, and “Empty Sky,” the official state memorial to the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. “Empty Sky” was dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the attacks and includes the engraved names of New Jersey’s victims.

Historian John Gomez also discusses one of the park’s lesser-known sculptures, a tiny hidden castle which is hidden beyond a “No Trespassing” sign. To view the castle without breaking the law, watch the YouTube video.

Writer Mark Moran describes this sculpture in Weird NJ, “Once while scouting for shore fishing access…I literally stumbled onto the ruins of an ancient castle. Walking down the narrow path through the ten-foot tall marsh grass I came upon a stone castle built from thousands of individual concrete bricks.”

The miniature castle is “about two feet tall and seven feet across” and was constructed in 1984 by Charles Simonds, a sculptor whose work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art and who is known for his miniature dwellings, which he installed in outdoor spaces throughout Manhattan.

Leon Yost, a documentary photographer who specializes in images of Jersey City, says, “Simonds lived in New York City and taught college in Newark. In the early 1970s he began constructing a series of hidden mythical worlds designed to be discovered only by chance. Simonds created three works for Liberty State Park, but this is the only one we can find. The other two are presumably lost among the reeds in the marshes. I think the New Jersey State Council on the Arts was probably involved in the original commissioning of the three works.”

The Hoberman sphere hangs in the entrance of the Liberty Science Center - Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

The Hoberman sphere hangs in the entrance of the Liberty Science Center – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Liberty State Park is also a center for education. In 1993, the Liberty Science Center, an interactive science museum and learning center, opened to the thrill of field-tripping students all over the state. The museum is best known for its IMAX Dome theater, the second largest of its kind, and the Hoberman sphere, a hanging silver-colored sculpture that changes in size.

Every summer for eight weeks since 1980, Camp Liberty has brought together students from all over Jersey City; the attendees are a mix of cultures, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The camp is operated by a non-profit organization called The Educational Arts Team, which provides in school and after school programs for Jersey City youth. Currently, the camp serves 200 students at each session and is located on five acres that offer a natural sanctuary within an urban jungle. The park has donated trees and other services to develop and maintain this land.

“When we took over the facility in 1980, there were no trees in the space, but now there are a couple hundred trees. We’ve been planting trees, along with corporations, the park, and the city,” says Executive Director Carmine Tabone. “The beautiful thing about the camp itself is that we’ve created a green barrier on all the green fences so that you really feel like you’re in an outdoor space. It’s special for urban kids to be in a space during the day where they have green all around them.”

Though the camp does charge a fee to attend, the Urban League and St. Joseph’s Home sponsor low-income families. Says Tabone, “We’re trying to get more private donors to sponsor kids.”

Each two-week camp session culminates with a theatre production. According to Tabone, more than 100 parents and former campers attend the shows, but the public is invited to attend as well. This summer’s remaining shows will be held on August 9, and August 23.

The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA) is a local organization that aims to educate the public about the importance of the park and the water that surrounds it. For the past six years, they have organized and produced a free daylong celebration called The City of Water Day. On July 20 this year, from 10 am to 4 pm, the event celebrated the waterfront and its potential.

Says Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the MWA, “Our original goal has remained the same. It has been to bring together our alliance, 725 businesses and civic organizations that are dedicated to opening the harbor for jobs, environmental restoration, and education. We also want to tell the media that this harbor is there for the public too.”

Events at both Liberty State Park and Governors Island included boat and walking tours, kayaking and paddle-boarding, fishing, a waterfront information fair, biking, food, live music, touch tanks, and even a complimentary water taxi provided by Statue Cruises that shuttled visitors between both locations.

Tom Donovan, is a partner at DBB Realty and an expert in real estate both in the Downtown Jersey City and Liberty State Park neighborhoods. According to Donovan, the Liberty Harbor development and the neighborhood surrounding it are the “next area of activity in Jersey City.”

Liberty Harbor Marina house boats - Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Liberty Harbor Marina house boats – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Eight years ago, he and his wife moved to Jersey City after they fell in love with the “quaint brownstones, the pocket parks, the architecture and history, and the access to Manhattan.” One of their favorite places to visit is LSP, and the footbridge again allows them walking access to both the park and to the Lafayette neighborhood. Residents and visitors from all over the country, even the world, come to Liberty State Park to view the Statue of Liberty, which reopened on July 4th after sustaining damages from Sandy. Lady Liberty is our hometown and universal symbol of freedom – and one of the first visions immigrants had years ago saw when they arrived on our local shore.

“My dad, in the early years of the park, would enjoy seeing license plates from different states,” says Sam Pesin. With such a diverse community of people not only visiting but also supporting and advocating for the park, the “father” would be proud.

Places to Visit While Your in the Neighborhood

257 Grand St.

Liberty State Park
1 Audrey Zapp Dr.

Liberty House
76 Audrey Zapp Dr.

Liberty Humaine Society
235 Jersey City Blvd.

Liberty Park Cafe
14 Burma Rd.

Liberty Science Center
222 Jersey City Blvd.

Offshore Sailing School
Audrey Zapp Dr.

Pole Position Raceway
99 Caven Point Rd.

Surf City
1 Marin Blvd.

Zeppelin Hall Restaurant and Biergarten
88 Liberty View Dr.

This article originally appeared in the 2013 Summer issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Photos Steve Gold Top © Harmony Media, NJ

Laryssa Wirstiuk

is a writer who teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Born and raised in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, Laryssa moved to Jersey City because she was curious about the city where her mother was raised. Check her blog Craft Your Drafts.