Over the last two weeks I’ve had a chance to explore the two big parks here in JC. One is Lincoln Park and it is only two blocks from my house. The other is Liberty State Park, about two or three miles away. They both have their beauty and charm, but are distinct in what they have to offer to the city and their local communities.
Lincoln Park is run by Hudson County and is the older of the two parks, dating to 1905 when it was originally called West Side Park. The prominent figure in the park is the statue of Lincoln at the entrance on Kennedy Blvd. It was built in 1929 by the Lincoln Association (the first group honoring Lincoln to be established in the country, shortly after his death) and the park was thereafter re-named. Lincoln Park is quite large for a city park, has sports fields for soccer, baseball, track, football and tennis. There is a large pond, a little league club and a western extension of the park across route 440 where a recent renovation has lead to a space called “green acres,” a nature area with a small pond, willow trees and ample space to have a picnic and explore nature at the level of butterflies and blades of grass.
The local community around Lincoln Park certainly seems to take advantage of the space. The park attracts a diverse selection of folk from this international neighborhood, with Korean and West African children playing together on the same field with those born in the U.S. That may be my idealistic view of the situation, but then I am really just an outsider looking in. Perhaps if I had kids it would be different. Nevertheless, many people use the park, and it is clearly a draw for kids and adults from a wide range of ages and backgrounds.
On my walk from the nature area back to the main park, I saw several teens playing in a tree next to the pond. They were bouncing up and down on an extended branch. A woman walked past me and said “I’m gonna laugh if that breaks.” I smiled at her, but thought, okay, I might laugh too, or I might be upset that they broke the branch, but at the moment, it just makes me happy to see them laughing and playing outside rather than cooped up in their apartments sitting in front of computers and tv screens. Kids should be outside. It’s good they have this place where they can go.
Liberty State Park is newer to me as I only truly discovered it this past week. Lincoln Park was always too close to ignore, but Liberty State Park was just a little too far away. Now that I have a car (did I mention that?) it is much more accessible (especially considering that my bike is unrideable). As the name suggests, this is a state run park. The park is considerably larger than Lincoln Park weighing in at around 1200 acres. It is massive, and huge swathes of it are currently not in use but are under going “restoration” which suggests only that improvement of some sort is underway. The land mass that now constitutes Liberty State Park used to be a massive passenger and cargo rail depot, the largest in the New York Harbor. In part it was the Central Railroad of NJ (CRRNJ) but it also received coal and other industrial cargo from other parts of the country. Prior to the railroad it was the terminus of the Morris Canal. Photos suggest that huge areas of what is now the park were purely industrial without a tree in sight. Looking at it today is a dramatic difference.
The land was a gift to the nation from NJ in 1976 during the U.S. bicentennial. I am not sure how long it has been a functional public park, but it is so clean and shiny that I can only assume that it has not been long, perhaps 15 years at most. Most of the trees in the accessible areas are extremely young and the walkway along the river (Liberty Walk) is not yet worn from the feet and bicycle tires of its visitors. The park does appear to be fairly popular with the community, though being somewhat off the beaten path, and not embedded in a community like Lincoln Park makes it less of a community builder and more of an escape for Jersey City inhabitants. It seems to draw its crowd from a wider swath than the smaller Lincoln Park. The dynamic is completely different. It does not have the sports fields, but it encourages fishing off the river walk, and has a beautiful nature trail with an interpretive center to explain the local wildlife.
I love both parks, but Liberty State Park has a grandiosity that is truly breathtaking. It draws me in and holds me in a considerably tighter grasp than Lincoln Park. Perhaps it is its location on the water, in some places only about a 1/3 of a mile from Ellis Island and much closer to the Statue of Liberty than any of the boroughs of NYC, that makes it so appealing. Perhaps that feeling of possibility and freedom are simply stronger when I am in Liberty State Park. Lincoln Park feels like home. Liberty Park is where I go when I want to get away. They both serve extremely important purposes in the lives of JC residents, or those who take advantage of them.
The beauty of Lincoln Park is mostly visible to its local residents, but Liberty State Park can be appreciated by everyone. If you live in JC, or anywhere within an hour or two, I encourage you to visit Liberty State Park. Take a picnic, spend the day, go to Ellis Island or head to the Liberty Science Center at the western end of the park. It will be worth your time.