Walking to the Water: Environmental Justice and Newark’s Riverfront Park

Last summer, the second segment of Newark’s Riverfront Park opened to the public. Transforming deindustrialized, often polluted waterfronts into public space is a common strategy in contemporary urban revitalization, worldwide. But rarely has this tactic reflected such a long history of community-based activism for environmental justice and public access to the river. 17 miles of Newark’s river, the Passaic, was declared the nation’s longest Superfund site in 1983, amidst intensifying, largely unrealized plans for corporate development downtown that offered little to address issues of open space equity or environmental health for the residents of nearby neighborhoods.

The sections of Riverfront Park that are already open abut the Ironbound neighborhood, and the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) has been a key collaborator in making the park happen. According to Nancy Zak, a community organizer with the ICC, the area’s tradition of open space advocacy springs from a legacy of activism around social services, public health, and toxic waste clean-up. She is quick to remind that, in light of the park’s success, there is more work that needs to be done to ensure the tenure of residents in public and affordable housing adjacent to the new park. And though the ICC’s local constituents benefit from the park on a daily basis, she considers Riverfront Park “an asset for the whole city.” Riverfront Program Coordinator and Newark native Chris Caceres, responsible for live park programs from gospel festivals to Zumba classes, agrees, remarking that “for decades, Newark had its back towards the river; now, it’s turning around.”

Ensuring that Riverfront Park would be exactly that — a citywide resource enjoyed by everyone from throughout the city and county — was an important goal for Damon Rich, Newark’s Planning Director and Chief Urban Designer. In the conversation below, Rich shares some of the story of how these struggles have informed the design, planning, and programming of Riverfront Park. In so doing, he reflects on a career spent using art and design to create awareness about urban processes, injustices, social resources, and opportunities for participation. — C.S.

The Newark riverfront boardwalk
Cassim Shepard (CS):

What does it mean to be the Planning Director and Chief Urban Designer of Newark?

Damon Rich (DR):

My role is two-fold. The planning office deals with private development, formulating and enforcing rules about how to build in the City of Newark, which includes the public process: anyone who wants to build in the city has to present his plans for public comment and negotiation. We do about 300 applications a year.

The other half of it is the urban design piece, the public building projects that cities undertake: parks, streets, public art, and things like that. Over the past five years, that’s been a new function that the City has developed. Previously, most of that type of work was done by outside consultants under the management of the engineering department.


What were you doing prior to that, and what led you to Newark in the first place?


After studying architecture, I worked in New York City government, at the Architecture Office of the Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks). I learned quickly that public spaces like parks are shot through with a million competing agendas. We always used to say that you could spend three billion dollars on a sewer system and no one’s ever going to call you up to complain. But you can spend 150,000 dollars on a park, and all of a sudden the softball people will want to reorganize their backstops to prevent the soccer people from playing soccer, and the local homeowners’ organization will argue against any active recreation at all. And these different stakeholders will advance their agenda through all different levels of government.

From Parks, I went on to found and then run, in collaboration with a wide variety of people, an organization called the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), which uses design and art to increase meaningful civic participation. About half of CUP’s work is with public school students, investigating how the city is designed and administered and how it might be done differently. The other half of the work is with advocacy or community-based organizations that are trying to educate, motivate, and organize their constituencies around a specific issue. What links all of this work together is the use of design and art in the service of popular education around cities and how they work.

About ten years later, I was offered a job in Newark, a city to which I’d had very little exposure up until that point.


What did you find when you arrived in Newark?


For me, Newark is a city whose history is closer to the surface than any other place I’ve lived. Visitors sometimes remark that the city seems as if it were laid out haphazardly. But in fact, Newark was the first city in the country to hire a municipal planner: Harland Bartholomew in 1917. I think that what some people interpret as a lack of planning is actually a visual record of the battles that have been waged over the built environment.

Industrial development in Newark in 1974 | Photo via National Archives

For at least 75 years, Newark has been the most populous city in New Jersey, but even at its peak it had fewer than half a million people. It’s a city that has always tried to punch above its weight: there have been many attempts to trumpet the city’s grandiosity through building and planning projects, a particular vision of growth that the city never quite caught up with. For example, in the North Ward, a good mile from the Central Business District, there is an enormous classical edifice built by the Mutual Benefit Insurance Company, which was certain that within only a short few years, the downtown would grow to engulf that area. It never happened.

Some of the most dramatic changes came about during the City’s program of urban renewal: between 1948 and 1973, almost a third of the city was placed under urban renewal, cleared and leveled to introduce the four universities that we have in town, to expand the hospitals, to build the Gateway Complex. As in many other American cities, urban renewal – what James Baldwin referred to as “Negro removal” – amounted to a really dramatic restructuring of the city. And some people explained it as an attempt to “reclaim” the city, to retrofit it from top to bottom in order to conform to a particular vision of what Newark was or should be.

Newark was a real industrial powerhouse. It’s full of amazing ingenuity stories, including inventors like Thomas Edison and Seth Boyden, who invented processes for making patent leather, malleable iron, even a machine that created nails. The industrial sector created a real accumulation of wealth that was then translated into financial capital, leading to the establishment of businesses like Prudential Insurance and Mutual Benefit Insurance and other investment vehicles born in Newark. These institutions really set the agenda of how the city would develop.

As early as the 1930s, most of the city’s business leaders didn’t live in Newark, which further skewed development priorities. People commuting from the suburbs in cars wanted to see certain physical changes to the city to facilitate travel by car: clearance for parking, converting two-way streets into one-way streets where people drive 60 miles per hour.

Signs along the boardwalk describe the history of Newark's relationship with its riverfront

Historically speaking, what role has the Passaic River played in the various ideas of how Newark should develop?


Historically, the Passaic was the reason settlement of any kind took place in the area. The Lenni-Lenape nation lived up in the surrounding hills and would descend to the Passaic to fish. The first white people, a community of Puritans out to set up a new theocracy, showed up in 1666. It took a few months to work out the original “real estate deal” with the local Native Americans, which started a long tradition of squabbling over real estate in Newark.

The river, of course, was also industry, it was transportation, it was waste disposal, it was water supply. To this day, Newark remains a location of manufacturing. It’s home to the busiest port by volume on the East Coast, which serves the most affluent market in the world. That means a lot of the secondary processing and distribution happens in the vicinity of Newark.

Ironically, even though this industrial base led to prosperity, it also led to Newark being perceived as New York City’s dirty kitchen. Urban renewal was intended to clean up that industry or put it somewhere else. And when it came to the Passaic River, by the late 1960s, the vision was for a redevelopment that would transform many of the formerly industrial properties around Newark Penn Station into a white-collar enclave, a Victor Gruen-style skywalk world. Some of that was achieved with the Gateway Center. One 1983 plan, proposes that new office and residential buildings along the riverfront will be like Newark’s Battery Park City. This was not a hidden agenda by any means.

Residents survey sites along Newark's riverfront

Something else happened in 1983. A fire broke out at Diamond Shamrock, a former pesticide plant. While clearing up the rubble, we learned that this was one of the most heavily dioxin-contaminated sites in the world. Both DDT and Agent Orange were produced at this site. When the dioxin was discovered, Governor Kean declared an emergency, and then the EPA declared the shore and 17 miles of the river to be a Superfund site.

By this point, Newark already had a history of fighting for environmental justice. Given its concentration of industry – tanneries, fat renderers, all kinds of noxious facilities – residents grew accustomed to protesting against new garbage dumps or waste incinerators. I think the debate about what to do at Diamond Shamrock planted the seed for what eventually became the movement demanding access to the river and open space around the river. It set the stage for people like me to come to town and have the chance to work with residents to design and build something.


Over the years, how have residents and activists articulated a new vision for how the river might contribute to Newark’s civic life?


There has always been the question of who the constituency is for the riverfront. When I came to Newark, my boss gave me a three-foot stack of previous plans. All but one of those plans – literally 12 or 13 documents – were conceived with a single constituency in mind: downtown property owners.

And, just like in 1932, these property owners were not necessarily Newark residents. Their interests were to follow the example of festival marketplaces like Quincy Market in Boston or other models of waterfront redevelopment like Inner Harbor in Baltimore. But even though they were some of most well-resourced and powerful people in the city, their passion was not enough to make that kind of redevelopment happen.

I wanted to find a way to make places in which pre-existing social resources inform the design.

The one exception to that type of plan was a fold-out poster produced by a community-based organization called Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) in 2001. This group had been involved in a lot of the environmental justice fights, trying to keep toxic polluters out of their neighborhood. The Ironbound neighborhood is home to about 50,000 people and had only two operating parks. The National Recreation and Park Association’s guidelines are for seven acres of park space for every 1,000 people. The Ironbound had about 1/14th of that ratio, less than half an acre for every 1,000 people. And one of the few spaces where developing new parkland was viable was along the river.

The ICC and their allies held candlelight vigils to rally support for a riverside park. They produced a community-sponsored master plan that included a park. These were the seeds of an alternative tradition of waterfront planning in Newark.


And when did making something happen along the river seem viable at the municipal level?


In the early 1990s, there was a multi-billion dollar plan for the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a flood relief tunnel through the Passaic River basin. That version of the project never happened, but our late Senator Lautenberg was able to argue for some funding from that project to create some benefits for Newark. As a result, millions were spent to build two miles of concrete bulkhead with a walkway along it connected to a few bits of landscaped open space. The walkway was intended to connect to one of those long-dreamed office towers, but in the meantime, a lawsuit had stopped that development. So there were designs for a walkway that was pointless, because it would now connect to a vacant lot instead of a fancy office building. And many of us were questioning the logic of putting the city’s first piece of riverfront public space in Newark’s 348-year history in an area where there are no people.

It made a lot more sense to argue that our chances of making a successful public space were higher in this other neighborhood, the Ironbound, which has a 30-year history of fighting for a riverfront park.

From there, the goal was to find something that we could build, even if it was modest, that would show people something was possible after decades of activism and advocacy.


Turning working waterfronts into public space is not an uncommon strategy for waterfront cities these days. How would you characterize Newark’s approach as being distinct from other examples of waterfront park development?


I lived in New York City from 1995 to 2007. I arrived two years into the Giuliani era and witnessed what people refer to as the “urban renaissance,” the rebirth through gentrification of Williamsburg or the East Village. And so for me the challenge was to learn from what we’ve all seen happen in other places, to create ways for change to happen differently in Newark. Avoiding displacement is where the discussion begins, but it’s more than that. For example, I worked on a book about the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn. With the Fulton Mall, the issue isn’t the displacement of residents, because no one lives there; it’s about a wholesale cultural reformatting, as if it were a hard drive. Part of the issue is the intention to make places desirable for rich people instead of poor people. But there’s also an ideological and cultural operation. It’s not only an injustice, it’s a true loss of a social resource.

Newark’s Dynamic Dynasty dance troupe performs at the opening of Newark Riverfront Park Segment 2.

So you wanted to learn from examples where that resource was lost, and maintain the input of those resources in this project?


Maintain, but also cultivate. As a designer, having watched the Williamsburg waterfront and Queens West happen, I wanted to find a way to make places in which pre-existing social resources inform the design.

Growing up, so much of the narrative I received about American cities recounted the hardworking immigrants from Europe in the first part of the 20th century, who shopped downtown and went to movie theaters. Then you had the Great Migration and white flight and the urban crisis starting in the 1960s. Newark serves an icon for the urban crisis. And then you had the urban renaissance of the 1980s. That narrative treats the Great Migration, which completely changed the complexion of American cities, as nothing other than trauma.

Part of our challenge was to appeal to the majority of Newarkers, to create spaces that embody a different understanding of the Great Migration. In Newark, you don’t have to look very far to get a sense of how the post-Great Migration culture of our city is a tremendous resource.

Former Mayor Cory Booker cuts the ribbon on the Newark riverfront of 3000 as envisioned by local youth

What role would you like to see public space play in Newark’s future?


As I’ve said, one of the challenges was determining the constituency for the riverfront. There was the core group in the Ironbound, which is immediately adjacent to the river, which had a real interest in developing public space. The Ironbound is primarily white and Latino. Newark is a little more than half African-American, and around 30% Latino. One of the challenges became, if we are going to invest the City’s resources in this one neighborhood’s riverfront, how do we make it something for all of Newark’s residents?

We tried out a number of basic things. We set up public boat tours, which now happen regularly. We worked with young people who grew up in a public housing development right next the riverfront to create an exhibit in City Hall that imagined what the riverfront would be like in the year 3000. For three years, starting in 2009, we aimed to get “two cents” from 2% of Newarkers, thus involving about 5,000 people in making the riverfront’s future. We looked all over the city for people who were doing interesting things that we might be able to bring to the riverfront, and the grandest example of that is “Worship at the Water,” a gospel festival we’re planning for next year. There’s a lot of gospel and other spiritual music in Newark, yet another part of our post-Great Migration tradition.

Zumba in the park

When we opened our first piece of the riverfront park on June 2, 2012 — which was the 29th anniversary of the discovery of dioxin at the Diamond Shamrock facility — we held a two-mile walk to the water from City Hall, led by the baddest marching band in Newark, the Malcolm X Shabazz Marching Band. We hosted a Brazilian capoeira demonstration, we invited the Newark double-dutch team — national champions — to perform. It was about finding the most interesting things from all over Newark and putting them all in one place for a specific period of time.


Do you think that people will continue to think of the riverfront as a resource for the entire city?


The strongest supporters and stakeholders are going to be ones who can walk to it. We’ve now been able to fund and hire our first Riverfront Program Coordinator. Part of his job is to go around to groups all around the city — block clubs, communities of worship, and other organizations — and try to find ways to encourage Newarkers to come out to the riverfront, which might be watercolor or kite-flying lessons, or it might be kayaking and canoeing. Getting people to see it as a shared, citywide resource has a lot to do with programming.

And it also has to do with the design. We try to find narratives from different parts of the city to inform our design choices. Sometimes that was as simple as using the same orange for our boardwalk as the school color of Weequahic High School, or looking for ways for this place to tell the story of the long struggle to create it. We think very seriously about how identity works in design terms, how to embed specificity into the design that links it in recognizable ways to the communities of the city.

Walk to the Water celebrating the opening of the waterfront promenade

Damon Rich is a designer, urban planner, and artist and currently serves as the Planning Director and Chief Urban Designer for the City of Newark, New Jersey, where he leads design and planning efforts with public and private actors to improve the city’s shared spaces. In his public spaces, exhibitions, graphic works, and events, often produced in collaboration with young people and community-based organizations, Damon creates fantastical spaces for imagining the physical and social transformation of the world. His design work represented the United States at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, and has been exhibited at PS 1 Contemporary Art Center, Storefront for Art and Architecture, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Netherlands Architecture Institute. In 1997, he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a nonprofit that uses design and art to increase civic engagement, and was Executive Director for 10 years.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.