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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.