Liberty State Park: New Jersey’s Gift to America

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The 1,212 acres that encompass Liberty State Park are deeply ingrained in Jersey City’s fabric, and some major events and movie shoots have taken place on the grounds over the years. But few residents could have envisioned the lush greenery that exists today back in the early 1970s, and a major conservation effort that triggered the park’s modern-day grandeur should be remembered by advocates of open space.

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Historical Photo Courtesy Of: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the current park, positioned along the Hudson River between the city’s Downtown and Bergen-Lafayette neighborhoods, is on tidal flats that once supported oyster banks under the watch of the Hackensack Indians, who called the area Communipaw. But eventually the land became dominated by train tracks built by the Central Railroad of New Jersey in the late 1800s.

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The company operated trains to developing suburbs as far west as Harrisburg and Scranton, and their famous “Blue Comet” line offered elaborate service to Atlantic City complete with a dining car. But they eventually went bankrupt and abandoned their Terminal building in 1967, a sight that became all too common in the coming years.

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Historical Photo Courtesy Of: Wikimedia Commons

Derelict buildings and brownfields soon began to dominate the surrounding landscape, which lies in the shadow of landmarks like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. But preservationists persisted and spearheaded the park’s creation, managing to get the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

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Central NJ Terminal

For America’s bi-centennial, each state gave a “gift” to the country and Liberty State Park was opened on Flag Day in 1976 as New Jersey’s present to America. The Central Railroad Terminal, first opened in 1889, was restored and converted into a ferry ticket sales office, and a historic train currently stands next to the building by a cobblestone road.

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Liberty Science Center

Expansions to the park since those early days include Liberty Walkway, which is suspended over New York Harbor and offers sweeping waterfront views. Liberty Science Center opened in 1993 and features the world’s largest IMAX Dome theater and the original Hoberman sphere. Liberty Landing Marina and two restaurants, Liberty House and Maritime Parc, have also been built.

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Southeast Area

But the most striking aspect of the park may be its diversity and seclusion amidst a concrete jungle. The best-hidden spots in the park might be in the southeast area, which has a bird nesting area located on an island marsh complete with a “beach” of sorts that is open to the public from October to February. A Nature Interpretive Center in the center of the park features a salt marsh also frequented by wildlife. If you go really off the beaten path, you might even find a castle.

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Freedom Way

The park also features some unique tributes to America. Freedom Way runs north to south down the center of the park and flags from every state in the country adorn poles along the street. A monument honoring Christopher Columbus calls the park home and a bronze sculpture called “Liberation” acts as a Holocaust memorial. Empty Sky, the state’s official 9/11 memorial, opened in 2011 and features two walls with victim’s names that are oriented to face the former World Trade Center site.

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Empty Sky

A few memorable moments from popular cinema have been filmed in the park. The “Don’t Rain on My Parade” sequence from Funny Girl was mostly filmed at the Central Railroad Terminal, while a scene involving Will Smith and a newborn squid from Men In Black was shot on Morris Pesin Drive. Another famous scene from 1971’s The Godfather where Clemenza implores Rocco to “leave the gun, take the cannoli” was filmed before the park’s construction along what eventually became Freedom Way.

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Liberty State Park has undoubtedly come a long way since it was first conceived by local preservationists, and current residents have Audrey Zapp, Theodore Conrad, Morris Pesin along with his son, Sam Pesin, J. Owen Grundy, and others to thank for a truly remarkable green space.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Morris Pesin, known as the father of liberty state park, should really be mentioned in this article. He was a key player in convincing the city and state to rehabilitate the park.

    • He is, as is his son Sam. Last paragraph: “Liberty State Park has undoubtedly come a long way since it was first conceived by local preservationists, and current residents have Audrey Zapp, Theodore Conrad, Morris Pesin along with his son, Sam Pesin, J. Owen Grundy, and others to thank for a truly remarkable green space.”

  2. Thanks Chris for writing About our local state and national treasure of Liberty State Park, which has approximately 600 acres of land and 600 acres of water. The Interior 235 acres, currently fenced off, has been planned as a natural area with trails and I expect the next Governor to finally get it going.

    Morris Pesin, LSP’s “father”, in 1957 conceived of transforming the eyesore waterfront wasteland JC shoreline of abandoned railyards and decaying piers into a beautiful People’s Park behind Lady Liberty. He spearheaded the grassroots campaign to establish LSP and the other key pioneer founders were Audrey Zapp, LSP’s “godmother” and Ted Conrad, all of whom have park streets named for them. There were many other local activists, including JC historian Owen Grundy, who advocated for the park, as did the Hudson County Citizens Committee. The article at its end, mentions my name along with the original visionary giants, but I got involved after my father died in 1992, when the second golf course plan was pushed forward. I’m president of the the all volunteer park stewardship group, The Friends of LSP. Our website http://www.folsp.org has a lot of information about LSP’s events (including the 42nd summer of free JC concerts at the park on Tues and Sun evenings) and park history.

    The essence of park history is that the People democracy into action and fought many battles for a free and green open space park without commercialization and privatization and have prevailed. My father co-led many anti-privatization grassroots battles with Audrey Zapp, and then the Friends of LSP and the NY/NJ Baykeeper have co-led battles, including the recent one against Gov. Christie’s destructive plans and thanks to tens of thousands of people, many organizations and caring elected officials who have advocated for LSP, the park has been protected. The park is sacred land because it’s scarce urban open space and because it’s the green neighbor of Lady Liberty and Ellis Island and has the NYC views.

    A few brief points to add to the story:
    – The CRRNJ Terminal, which had an $18 million renovation after Sandy, does have the Statue Cruises ticket window but also the beautifully restored Waiting Room, Blue Comet Auditorium and the open Concourse with those cool track destination signs. Those areas are available for renting for Special Events and currently, because Statue Cruises moved its offices to Ellis Island after Sandy, the Terminal’s 2nd and 3rd floor has a lot of vacant office space – please contact LSP Supt Rob Rodriguez if you’re interested. There are also tours by the park staff of the Terminal
    – the Nature Center is supposed to re-open next year, after its post-Sandy $2 million restoration.
    – The LSP Caven Point beach area is only open for guided programs by LSP’s naturalists.
    – The bird nesting area Chris mentioned can be seen from the walkway connecting the park’s southwest area by the public boat launch to Porte Liberte. It’s part of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway.
    – The photos are terrific. The state flags on Freedom Way, were installed last Fall and the Friends funded a third of the $100,000 cost. The flags were on Morris Pesin Drive since LSP opened, but they kept getting entangled in the trees which became a problem for the maintenance staff.
    – Liberation Monument by Natan Rapoport in the park’s SE area near the Flag Plaza, depicts an American soldier carrying a Jewish concentration camp survivor, and their hearts are fused together.

    Thanks again for writing about Liberty State Park! Please check the Friends of LSP’s website.

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