Another American Experience at 80 Lister Ave., Ironbound

The EPA director, our own Lisa Jackson visited one of the nation’s most notorious Superfund sites at 80 Lister Avenue on March 26, promising speedy action towards clean-up, which will be the first step for Newarkers to reclaim the Passaic riverfront.
At 11:59 a.m. on February 20, 1960, a huge explosion blew up the roof of the 125-by-250-foot building at 80 Lister Avenue, sending tons of toxic debris into the Passaic River and surrounding streets. Many workers had to be dug out by fire rescue squads. Soon after, Alfred Casatelli, 35, a chemical engineer, died in St. James Hospital of chemical poisoning, among many others badly injured. The chemical factory, Diamond Alkali, was about to accelerate its 24-7 production schedule to produce one million gallons of Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. By the time the factory closed its production in 1983, it left behind “a sprawling tomb” for the herbicide’s toxic byproduct, dioxin, measuring 500 parts per billion, with some samples as high as 1,200 parts per billion. (The EPA classifies a level of one part per billion as dangerous to humans.) Producing DDT at the Lister Avenue site for over 40 years, Diamond Alkali had ordered its employees “to wade out surreptitiously at low tide to chop up mounds of DDT” to avoid being detected for dumping waste into the Passaic River.

On June 4, 1983, after a chilling contamination report, Governor Kean showed up in the site with Mayor Ken Gibson to order further inspection and to close the nearby Newark Farmers Market, the largest seafood supplier in New Jersey, in addition to fresh and frozen goods for the tri-state area. A few months later, the Federal Government declared it among the first Superfund Sites. However, all politicians, reporters, and lab workers in white moonwalk outfits soon disappeared, leaving scared Ironbound residents puzzled. Governor Kean’s spokesman Carl Golden explained, “This is not the kind of thing that leads to a quick, overnight solution.” In past 27 years, the 65,000 cubic yards of polluted dirt and debris faced a few remedies, none of which led to easy solutions. According to the company, the only place for processing highly contaminated materials is in Coffeyville Kansas, with a price tag of $241 million, plus transportation, that would take seven to ten years. A second solution is on-site incineration, which successfully removed dioxin of lower concentrations (400 parts per billion) at Diamond Alkali’s other Superfund site in Times Beach, Missouri. In a more populated urban area, the two-year decontamination would cost $40 million. Not surprisingly, in 1998, the responsible corporation (Occidental Chemicals) took the third route: to “encase” the four-acre site with a floodwall and a groundwater treatment system at a cost of $22 million, the lowest-cost approach. Some additional debris was put in 932 cargo containers piled along the Passaic River. (For more details about the EPA Lower Passaic River cleanup, see

The EPA-approved “interim solution” thereafter turned to be permanent, while the Dallas-based company went into its fast global expansion during the Golden Era of massive deregulation under the Bush Administration. The CEO, Dr. Ray Irani, has lived a high life in Beverly Hills, with a record annual earning of $460 million in 2006. (For a bad year, he made $59 million in 2009.) Meanwhile, Newark has developed “Renaissance on a garbage heap,” as Johns Hopkins University researcher Eileen McGurty has called it. The largest garbage incinerator opened in 1991 to process 930,000 tons of garbage annually. Alan Gerson, a New York City Council member representing Lower Manhattan, complained about the incinerator air: “Some of the stench and toxins could waft right back to Manhattan on an easterly wind.” In our local Jersey, struggling to dispose of municipal solid garbage, the state and the county tried to entice Newark to allow more incinerators by throwing in an employment opportunity – a jail, also in the Ironbound. As adjunct law professor of Seton Hall University Tirza Wahrman observed, “Another thing going on here is New Jerseyans don’t feel a sense of ownership about Newark.”

This typical urban American story will not be completed without mentioning its heroes. With some other enduring Ironbound residents, a young man Arnold Cohen started the Ironbound Committee Against Toxic Waste in 1983. Among many heroic “pushing-backs,” the committee sued the State DEP for its negligent inaction in 1984. In the past three decades, his daughter has been born and has recently left home to attend Princeton University, while his hair turned grey at the age of 62. I hope that my little Newarker daughter will some day join Arnold’s daughter to carry the Committee’s battle for a just and clean America.

Newark’s Ironbound: An American Experience

A few years ago when powerful developers and institutions planned to turn my James Street neighborhood into a giant corporate parking lot, we started to search over the urban Tri-State area for a new refuge. Soon, we happily concluded that one does not have to go as far as Astoria in Queens for a viable, diverse, and un-gentrified community, with a rich history that reflects our American experience, individually and collectively. It’s found in our own Ironbound, which was the subject for Monday’s panel discussion organized by the Newark History Society.
In a small area of four square miles surrounded by a curve in the Passaic River and the Northern Corridor rail tracts, the Ironbound has been the home for generations of working class Germans, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Jewish and African-Americans. In the past decades, Portuguese dominated the area, increasingly joined by Brazilians and other Hispanics. However, according to one of the panelist Maria Pereira of Luso Americano, her nationally circulated newspaper found that 48 percent of Portuguese residents never responded to the 2000 Census. Therefore, the accurate size of the Ironbound population has always been a subject of speculation.

Many well-known early American immigrant communities have been characterized by their extremely transient living. For instance, an average early immigrant family made Lower Eastside Manhattan its home for only eight months before its “upward” migration. In contrast, the Ironbound has retained many proud long-term residents through Newark’s ups and downs. Another panelist, Alice Schreiner, a manager of Ironbound Senior Citizen Center, was born at 102 Houston Street, where her Polish-American parents settled 59 years ago, not far from their own parents. After attending St. Casimir Academy and Eastside High School, she married and moved from the second floor to the first floor of the same building, where she raised her four children. Alice plans her next move “only when the God calls me.” One of the organizers of tonight’s discussion, Nancy Zak once told me about her treasured Sunday morning family tradition—having pancakes with her older upstairs neighbor. Fighting for a stable American experience has kept her working at the Ironbound Community Corporation, which will celebrate in the coming May over 40 years of community service.

The most endearing presentation was by Walter Chambers and Michael Underwood, who grew up respectively in Ironbound’s Pennington Court and Hyatt Court Homes, two earliest Newark public housing projects. While not glossing over their difficult circumstances, they both enthusiastically celebrated their rich diverse experience both socially and culturally. With an often-ill single mother in the 1950’s, Underwood enjoyed his freedom as an “Ironbound Tom Sawyer.” As a child, he roamed around neighborhood factories, foundries, and even the police auto pound, where he learned from manufacturing workers about the real world. Finding his love of railroads at Ironbound’s edges, he has become a Conrail locomotive engineer and a union leader. Chambers, a 78-years-old African-American, distributed his brief history of Pennington Court (1939-1960), in which he quoted the 1940 statement by Neil Convery, the accomplished Newark architect and first Newark Housing Authority director, “The housing program is truly American. Twenty-three nationalities and two races (white and black) are living in friendly neighborliness in a government-aided project.” However, that was long before the “Real Estate Lobby,” as President Truman called it, mobilized corporate powers to sabotage public housing and create the most economically and racially segregated housing market in the industrialized world.

As one of the participants pointed out, Ironbound’s ethnically diverse history was once well represented by over ten local newspapers of all languages. Forward, a progressive Yiddish newspaper still has its old building standing on Ferry Street. Students of Newark history can also testify about Ironbound’s reflection of national and regional politics through a century of turmoil. For instance, during the World War I, Ironbound’s Hamburg Place was changed into its current name Wilson Street. The area closely witnessed the wartime industrial boom and then the final decline of the country’s manufacturing power. Since 1947, Newark’s port and airport, a part of Ironbound, have been taken over by the Port Authority to become the world’s only comprehensive air-rail-sea infrastructural complex. At the same time, nobody seems to remember that Newark is a costal city while it declines into a mismanaged inward city. However, tonight’s discussion was all about celebrating Ironbound’s diverse, enduring, and ever optimistic people. Walter Chambers closed the discussion by quoting the late Charles Cummings, “People will always be the most valuable resource of America.”

(The Newark History Society’s event in May will be about the Star-Ledger’s history.)

Interview: West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice

With the municipal elections looming large in the coming weeks, we’ll be making an effort to interview the prospective city council candidates.

I’m pleased to present our first podcast interview this week with Councilman Ron C. Rice, representing the West Ward. In Mayor Booker’s 2009 State of the City address, he referred to Councilman Rice as the hardest working person on the Council, claiming that the Mayor’s own aggressive schedule is matched by Mr. Rice, who is also known for driving around his neighborhood late at night in his own car.

The podcast is about 30 minutes in length. Click the play button below to listen.

In the podcast, we discuss:

  • Plans for the upcoming election and the Booker Team kickoff
  • The major challenges and opportunities the Councilman sees facing the West Ward right now
  • What efforts have been undertaken to improve the West Ward, such as the Family Success Centers and the West Ward Collective
  • How Councilman Rice had seen the Ward change over his four years in office
  • How the recently-announced state budget cuts affect the West Ward and the city overall
  • How his office is leveraging technology to serve his constituency and how the city is addressing the digital divide to position residents for the 21st century workforce

To find out more about Councilman Ronald C. Rice, check out his website or follow him on Twitter at @ronaldcrice.

New York Times: Building a Better Teacher

New York Times: Building a Better Teacher

But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.” …

[Lemov] called a wedding videographer he knew through a friend and asked him if he’d like to tag along on some school visits. Their first trip to North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark, turned into a five-year project to record teachers across the country. At first, Lemov financed the trip out of his consulting budget; later, Uncommon Schools paid for it. The odyssey produced a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”)

Fascinating, in-depth Times article about the asking the question: how do you train teachers to be really great?  The article examines a few approaches ranging from financial incentives (pay for performance) to abstract teaching skills (Lemov’s taxonomy, cited above), to content-based, free-form observation.

The piece cites Newark’s own North Star Academy and highlights the work if Teach for America, which also operates here in the city. But, as with many-things-Newark, how we address the question of how we think of schools in our urban centers has the potential to shape our nation and our ever-shrinking world.

Highly recommended read.

West Milford and Newark discussing alternative energy – West Milford and Newark discussing alternative energy

The meeting in Newark, which was also attended by Assemblyman Jay Webber’s legislative aide Frank Hannan, was set up by Webber and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose administration has already been examining ways for the city to benefit from alternate energy production. One concept city officials were considering involved potential “green” additions to the uses currently permitted in the 16,000 acres of Newark-owned, Highlands Preservation Area property.

“We may have begun the process of erasing the more than 40 years of animosity that has existed between the City of Newark and West Milford,” Hannan said.

West Milford has held forty years of animosity for Newark?

NJ benefits from IZOD Center and Sports Authority investment – The Star-Ledger – (blog)

The Star-Ledger: NJ benefits from IZOD Center and Sports Authority investment

Headlines from the state Senate hearing proclaimed the fact that the NJSEA has $800 million of debt. It was written about and talked about as if a charge card with an unimaginable credit line had been maxed out. The reality is quite different — as different as the mortgage on your home is from your consumer debt.

In return for 30 years of investment around the state, the taxpayers have gotten a developed Meadowlands Sports Complex and the facilities there, the Atlantic City Convention Center, the historic Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, the Wildwood Convention Center and major athletic venues at Rutgers. These projects, besides being built and opened on-time and on-budget by the NJSEA management, not only are physical assets that offset the mortgages on them, but generate many millions of dollars a year for the state treasury.

So says Raymond H. Bateman, who, as president of the state Senate, sponsored the legislation creating the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 1971.

Ironbound Walking Tour, March 21st

Join on Sunday, March 21st at 2:00 for a walking tour of one of Newark’s most interesting and diverse neighborhoods, the Ironbound.  The tour will visit sites in the Ironbound reflective of the neighborhood’s role as a receiver for first generation immigrants and as an industrial center.  To illustrate ethnic succession the tour will visit churches that have been owned by three totally different denominations and churches that are near-copies of churches in “Old Countries” in Europe.  The tour will visit precious green space that is loved as only parks in a dense, lawn-less neighborhood can be.  Finally, the tour will pass remnants of Newark’s great industrial past and learn about the roles that Newark’s industrial tycoons once played in Newark’s life.   
The tour will begin at the intersection of Ferry and McWhorter Streets at 2:00. 

Price $10 for adults, $5 anyone 10-18, free for children.

For more information, please visit:

Former Essex County Jail transformed into $24M office space welcomes new tenants –

Star Ledger: Former Essex County Jail transformed into $24M office space welcomes new tenants

Lawrence S. Feinsod officially landed in his new digs today at the old Essex County Jail, transformed in a $24 million makeover into premiere office space and now featuring pristine views of a new 2.7-acre park and the classic townhomes of Newark’s Society Hill.

Awesome. Between this end the opening of Veterans Memorial Park, the Society Hill neighborhood has really had a windfall of improvements.

Star Ledger: Atlantic Yards breaks ground: Nets are the heartbreak kids

Star Ledger: Atlantic Yards breaks ground: Nets are the heartbreak kids

You’d think it would be easy to say goodbye to a team with fewer victories than Congressional Republicans. But chances are the Nets are going to get good and sexy before they leave — like the spouse who loses the weight, gets the makeover, then runs off with, well, a Russian millionaire.

They’ll draw better at The Rock than they did at Tumbleweed Center in East Rutherford, but fans will have to decide whether to fall in love again or opt for a casual, open relationship. After all, another NBA team could move in after the Nets leave.

We feel a heartbreak coming on.

New York Times: Recess Has a New Boss

New York Times: Forget Goofing Around: Recess Has a New Boss

Broadway Elementary brought in Ms. Parker in January out of exasperation with students who, left to their own devices, used to run into one another, squabble over balls and jump-ropes or monopolize the blacktop while exiling their classmates to the sidelines. Since she started, disciplinary referrals at recess have dropped by three-quarters, to an average of three a week. And injuries are no longer a daily occurrence.

“Before, I was seeing nosebleeds, busted lips, and students being a danger to themselves and others,” said Alejandro Echevarria, the principal. “Now, Coach Brandi does miracles with 20 cones and three handballs.”

The school is one of a growing number across the country that are reining in recess to curb bullying and behavior problems, foster social skills and address concerns over obesity. They also hope to show children that there is good old-fashioned fun to be had without iPods and video games.

The Times reports on a new model of structured recess in use at eight NJ schools to focus students on cooperation and sportsmanship.