Great Public Spaces: a Few Ideas, Part I

My previous post lamented the dearth of great, eye-opening public spaces throughout Jersey City and the nearly complete absence of any attention to this need in the redevelopment and building boom of the city throughout the last thirty years. However, genuine and realistic opportunities exist to ameliorate the lack of civic mindedness and inadequate planning by the city.

Throughout the eighteenth century as the United States was physically, economically, demographically, and geographically growing, cities looked to superb public works (parks, libraries, museums, post offices, train stations, etc.) as evidence that a given city had achieved status and civility. Refreshing parks mattered. Well-stocked public libraries mattered. August court houses mattered. Beautiful, functional train stations mattered. Now … well … not so much, if at all. We build cheap, ugly things in America. Public space? What’s that?

Ironically enough, the remnants of Jersey City’s own nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century expansion are the seeds to create new great spaces for visitors and residents. The past might give birth to the future.

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The Embankment, the center green strip, cuts through downtown and almost reaches the Hudson River waterfront (Courtesy of the Embankment Preservation Coalition).

Walking through downtown Jersey City, one cannot help but notice the massive stone structure, resembling a medieval city barricade, slicing across streets, and running alongside homes and churches. This is the Embankment.

Built in 1902, the Embankment carried Pennsylvania Railroad freight trains between the interior of the country and the Hudson River waterfront, then bustling with wharves, docks, and warehouses. In the 1990s, train traffic ceased on the Embankment. Nature soon reclaimed the abandoned railway tracks.

For the last twenty-odd years, neighborhood activists (now the Embankment Preservation Coalition) have fought not only to preserve the Embankment but to convert it into parkland. According to the ideal plan, stairs would carry residents to the top of the structure and allow them to amble along the now silent tracks, gaze down at the surrounding neighborhoods, and relax in a natural landscape quietly thriving above the streets of Jersey City.

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The Embankment runs alongside and almost touches buildings, homes, and churches. Notice the trees overhanging the fire escape (Fire Escape in Back Light. Courtesy of Edward Fausty).

The ownership and development rights of the Embankment have been the subject of lawsuits and courting rulings during this time period, stymieing any development plans by citizens or the city government. In a rare case of agreement, both the city and various civic  groups desire the same end: saving the Embankment and transforming it into a blue-ribbon park. Let’s hope that the city demonstrates the determination and resolve to follow through on this plan.

Proponents of the Embankment note that it could become Jersey City’s homegrown High Line. Long abandoned, the High Line is a Manhattan elevated railway converted into parkland and opened to the public in 2009. Additional segments have opened since then. The High Line is widely successful and popular, attracting an estimated five million visitors annually. The new Whitney Museum opened along the High Line as have many shops, restaurants, and bars. The High Line–a public park and space–has helped transform a slice of Manhattan. What might the Embankment do for Jersey City?

Fun fact: the Friends of the High Line formed in 1999 to preserve the structure and develop it into much-needed green space. The Embankment Preservation Coalition organized during the same year.

 

 

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