“The People’s Park” Turns 30
By Tom Dwyer
Liberty State Park will celebrate its 30th birthday on June 10th, and considering that last year alone 5 million people visited the park — this could turn out to be one heck of a birthday party. If you’re one of the lucky people who have already discovered Liberty State Park, then you might want to take a moment to honor Morris Pesin, the driving force behind turning a once-desolate Jersey City dumpsite into one of the greatest parks in America. Mr. Pesin, who passed away in 1992, was honored by President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1985 with a Volunteer Action Award for creating Liberty State Park, the Gateway to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
How his greatest vision took shape is the stuff of legend. Morris Pesin trained as a lawyer and ran a children’s clothing store in Jersey City. One day, in 1957, he decided to take his family on a visit to the Statue of Liberty. It was a family excursion that would change history. After driving two-and-a-half grueling hours through terrible traffic from their home in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel to New York City, they arrived at Battery Park where they then had to take a ferry to the statue. When they finally arrived at the Statue of Liberty, Morris Pesin looked across the Hudson River and saw how close the statue was to Jersey City. His son, Sam (now the President of The Friends of Liberty State Park) remembers the drive home that day and how furious his father was about the long car trip. But what really infuriated Morris Pesin, says his son, was the deplorable shape of the Jersey City waterfront behind the statue, “a pure eyesore of the worst kind and not acceptable as the backdrop to the greatest symbol of freedom in the world.” From that day on, Morris Pesin — always the advocate– knew he had to do something to change the situation.
A year after he had traveled to the Statue of Liberty with his family, Pesin rowed out in a canoe with Gus Lockwood, then editor of the Jersey Journal, who had the brilliant idea to paddle out to the statue to dramatize its close proximity to Jersey City. They arrived at the Statue of Liberty in a mere eight minutes. Morris climbed out of the canoe and onto the rocks and heard someone call out his name. It was his nephew, who just happened to be visiting from Chicago. He was dumbfounded to see his Uncle Morris climbing out of a canoe in the mist and rain. After explaining to his nephew what he was trying to prove, Pesin climbed back into the boat and disappeared. His nephew, stunned to see his Uncle Morris disappear back into the fog, went to a phone booth on the island and immediately called his mother and said, “I’m not sure we will ever see Uncle Morris again. He just rowed off into the mist and fog.” Far from it…from that fateful day in 1958 until Liberty State Park became an official state park on Flag Day, June 14th, 1976, Morris Pesin persevered to help create one of America’s great treasures. At a recent The Friends of Liberty State Park dinner, Bernard Kenny, New Jersey State Senator, acknowledged the great accomplishment made by Pesin and others, including Audrey Zapp and Ted Conrad. “Liberty State Park is right up there with the Grand Canyon when it came to America’s great parks.”
Today, Morris’ son Sam, who has the same Pesin fire when it comes to protecting and maintaining “The People’s Park,” carries on the fight his father started. He talked with The Riverview Observer about his dad and the upcoming 30th anniversary of Liberty State Park.
Liberty State Park officially became a state park on Flag Day 1976. That had to be a great day for your dad.
It was great day. The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts raised up all of the 50 state flags. My dad was a councilman at that time, the only independent councilman in decades in Jersey City. The governor was going to take a picture without my dad, but the mayor insisted and called my dad over and said, “Get in here Morris, you were the one who spearheaded this whole campaign.” I think at the time the park was only 35 acres. (Today the park consists of 1200 acres). That summer, my father started the free music concerts that still run in the park today. People were just amazed that they could come to this park and hear the New Jersey Symphony for free. Thirty years later the free music concerts are still held. My father predicted that a beautiful park would be the catalyst for economic development on the waterfront. And I think his words came true.
Over the years your father had to fight to keep developers from turning Liberty State Park into profit-driven enterprises. What were some of the big battles?
When the park was a year old, then-Governor Byrne wanted to turn the park into an amusement theme park. And along the way there was the push to put a golf course in the park, and then in 1984 the state created the Liberty State Park Development Corporation, and its sole purpose was to privatize the park. But Governor Whitman terminated the golf course idea in 1995 and in 2003 Governor McGreevey dismantled the Liberty State Park Development Corporation.
The new Liberty National Golf Course is set to open up this summer right next to the park. Did they need Liberty State Park’s permission to develop that land?
Well, that golf course is fine because it’s on private property; it’s outside of the park. But they do have to build a continuation of the Hudson River Walkway. Some of the walkway near the golf course is completed, but the state and the developers are currently talking about what else the developers still need to do for this walkway.
There is a September 11th memorial going up right now in front of the CRRNJ railroad terminal. But your organization, The Friends of Liberty State Park, is speaking out against it. Why?
The governor’s office wanted to do an official New Jersey Memorial. So they came up with a design contest and they had 300-plus entries. Then a panel selected eight finalists, and then the victim’s families from New Jersey picked the winning design. And just let me say that in the last month The Friends of Liberty State Park are calling for a public meeting on the design. There was no public input and it has not been built yet, and it’s not too late to change the design. Many feel that the design and the hill they created for it to sit on is not right—it blocks the view. At this point we are saying we want a public meeting and we want to get rid of the hill.
The Friends of Liberty State Park seems quite powerful regarding the direction of the park. You’re the president of the organization – describe it for us.
There are over 800 people who are members of The Friends of Liberty State Park. The organization was created in 1988. There were many people involved in the beginning including my mother Ethel, who is 91, and John Tichenor, who helped start the organization. Senator Robert Menendez has been a great friend of the park. And again, there were thousands of citizens and dozens of organizations over the years who have fought to keep this park pristine, especially the NY/NJ Baykeeper Association. Right now, we’re in a positive, peaceful era and because of this we are able to focus on our two main goals right now, our garden volunteer program and fundraising. The great thing about not having to fight all the time is that we can concentrate on projects like a new picnic area and athletic fields, and the wetlands restoration project, a 250-acre interior natural wetlands. The Interior, the nation’s largest urban nature restoration project, will make LSP an even more amazing state park.
Your father would be very proud of you. What are you hopes for the future of Liberty State Park?
Liberty State Park is my father’s greatest legacy. This is not just a Hudson County park but an American park. The Friends of Liberty State Park feel that this park is sacred ground. Not only is the park next to the great symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty, but the park itself is a symbol of freedom, a symbol of America, because people from all cultures, backgrounds and colors use and enjoy this park together. My hope is that the park continues to be the people’s park—and not private interest.
Will you always be involved in caring about the park?
Until the second I die. I will do my best to be a good advocate and friend of Liberty State Park.
On June 10th, the 30th anniversary of the park, there will be a WALK FOR LIBERTY STATE PARK— 9am to noon. The Friends of Liberty State Park will hold a scenic 3-mile roundtrip walk starting at CRRNJ Terminal. Please help to raise awareness and money for your park. Check-in at 9am.There is a $20 dollar registration fee up to June 5th–$30 dollars after that. Children under 12 are free. Call 201-915-3440.
On June 24th and 25th there will be a two-day music fest in the park ( LIBERTY JAM) with some of the top musicians in the world showing up including Patti Smith, George Clinton, Cheap Trick and Los Lobos…and many more. Go to www.libertyjam.net to find out more. Part of the money will go toward maintaining and preserving Liberty State Park.
For more information on Liberty State Park and the festivities on the 30th anniversary go to www.folsp.org