Spring was in the air and in our feet this past Sunday. The challenge was to walk segment 2 of the “The Big Walk” NJ2NY50 – 18 miles, from Cranford to Newark’s Penn Station – in preparation for our May 23 event. Our great and diverse group of 11, were looking to strut our stuff along, streets, rivers and parks in Union and Essex counties. For one day at least, we were ambassadors of good spirit and students of suburban and urban neighborhoods.
It's Game On for the Dream Team
While Tom Landis, Orville McNally, Igor Goldberg, Barbara McNally, Marily O’Connor and I parked at the Cranford train station. Nancy Jonap and Mauricio Leandro and his family (wife, Beatriz and 2 daughters, Monica and Carolina) joined us arriving on the Newark train at this station exactly on time at 9:55. It was a good omen that things were going to go perfectly on this beautiful spring day as we were ready to go, on schedule, at 10 a.m.
While I was sidetracked much of the day talking and getting to know all the hikers, Orville and Igor, both tech-business friends of mine from Morristown, had plans for a shorter walk. They helped with photos and lively company for about 8-9 miles on their way to the Union train stop to catch a train back.
Barbara and Marily seemed to make easy work of the walk. Both professional high school teachers, they showed they were practiced walkers too, leading (or maybe being held back by) the slightly meandering pace of the group.
Nancy, who is a public health professional and pedestrian activist, had the right mix of walking experience, knowledge of issues, optimism and determination to help take us to the end of the walk.
And, Tom seemed the prototypical veteran hiker and athlete. Here was a guy you had to admire for his guts, determination and upbeat spirit.
Maybe most amazing was the Leandro family, with Mauricio and Beatriz walking right with us and their girls, Monica and Carolina on bikes along the way for 8-9 miles! It’s a tribute to Mauricio who is working on a PhD in environmental and psychological issues at NYU, to immerse his family in our own urban environmental experiment.
Walking the Walk
From North Ave. in Cranford, the East Coast Greenway picks up on the North side of the tracks along the Rahway River through a few neighborhood blocks, eventually flowing into a path in Nomehegan Park. The houses here are upper-middle income in this quiet but well-established area. Nomehegan is one of the Union County’s nicest parks and it appears well used on this sunny day.
The path crosses the river and skirts the street edge of the park Springfield Ave and the Kenilworth Boulevard is in site most of the way. At the end of the path and park we transfer to sidewalk walking along the Boulevard for a ½ mile or so. Kenilworth is a fine little middle-income town with one long wide boulevard neatly bisected by numbered cross streets. At 14th street we crossed over and headed North toward Union.
Kenilworth neighborhoods are mostly modest and well kept, you sense a closer sense of community. These were the earliest suburbs. Kenilworth being established in the early 1900s, split off from neighboring towns and formed its own town. It still retains urban characteristics like its small plots of land, street names, a commercial boulevard and a sense for the importance of park space. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about the ECG, its that the charted route tries its best to take you to most green spaces along the way.
Right before the infamous Rt. 22, the Greenway turns on to Black Brook Park and then edges Galloping Hill Golf Course. I recalled many a day either playing Pitch and Putt or sliding down Tea Kettle Hill in the winter – a deadly thrilling spot only for the most daring sleds and tobaggans. While most of the view of the golf course is blocked by overgrown chain-link fence and trees, you could still see pieces of this beautiful green space to the right and nice houses I remembered on the left.
We were lulled for couple miles in this tranquil area which at the end of the road broke right into Chestnut Street, a busy drag that seemed like an impossible crossing for our entire crew. With no sidewalk or pedestrian crossing, this became our biggest obstacle yet – especially for our group of 9 pedestrians and 2 kids on bikes. Our quick strategy was to walk along the overgrown side of the road until we passed the Parkway entrance. We got out in the road, stopped traffic and showed some pedestrian strength which got the job done. A few blocks further at the corner of Colonial Avenue we found our oasis in Union, a Boston Market where we ate lunch.
Survival of the Fittest
Igor and Orville decided to skip lunch and walk another mile to the Union train station to head back to Cranford. Mauricio and family decided to take a break, finish lunch and catch the Union train afterwards. Soon, the rest of the crew, Paul, Tom, Nancy, Barbara and Marily, went on through Union and into Hillside. Tom remarked several times how compactly perfect many of the Union houses seem. There was a certain German precision here probably carried over from Union’s long German heritage. Not just nice but extra clean and compact in design. I doubt there is a strong German population now but maybe the example carries forward into a proud community.
When we crossed over busy Morris Ave (Rt 82) we were heading to the border of Union and Hillside. Hillside is more of a border or buffer town to the inner cities of Elizabeth and Newark. Once a small town blessed with some top industry, such as Bristol Meyers, it was a proud blue collar community, whose main claim to fame was it being the home of the famous Yankee player and sports announcer, Phil Rizzuto. Phil epitomized the close community by continuing to live there his entire life until his death, several years ago.
Barbara and Marily needed to drop off on the border of Elizabeth getting a ride back due to another commitment back home. Tom took on the role as group provocateur telling others that we were on our way to Newark. You’d have to be there to appreciate their responses as they all seemed to say, “Did you say you were walking to Newark?” And, Tom would say, “That’s right. Want to join us?” Which always seemed to get the same response, “No way!”
Walking along the edge of Evergreen Cemetery and toward Weequahic Park we turned the corner one block on Cross Street bordering a housing project that seemed like the wrong place to be. Quickly moving and checking our ECG map we realized that the sign’s arrow was misleading and we should have gone a few blocks further to bypass this area. But we put on our faster and subtler walking style and were quickly at the park.
To me, today’s public parks represent the best use of public resources and the best example of diversity working (and playing). On the expansive Weequahic Park field there are at least 4 games going on including baseball, cricket, and at least two soccer games, with various nationalities playing in harmony. Its fitting that the idea of urban parks were to provide a place that could be shared by everyone, regardless of race, color, creed or income.
The park was designed in 1901 by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of the great Fredrick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame, who started his career not as an architect but as a journalist promoting equality and publishing antislavery writings.
Weequahic is a 311 acre urban gem that saw its fair share of neglect and bad planning decisions over the years. Originally, named by the Lenape Indians means "head of the cove", the land was thought not very productive and bought as an agricultural experiment area for James Jay Mapes, a prolific inventor who invented the sub-soil plow and artificial fertilizer to enrich the unproductive soil, among many other inventions. With his special scientific approach to farming, the land became famous as the Waverly Fair Grounds. Used for many years as the site for the popular annual state agricultural fair (1866-1899) a big scientific and agricultural exchange as well as a big venue for outdoor entertainment. It was sold to the newly formed Essex County Park Commission in 1895 during the period of the natural parks expansion.
You can still see a ½ mile track before you which was once used for horse racing (and later car raciing) and other events and is now an infield for multiple sports. Newark’s grand 250th year celebration in 1916, with hundreds of thousands of visitors, was held right here. One look at the large 80-acre lake makes you easily forget where you are.
And, what’s with the odd, red rubberized 2½ mile jogging track around the lake? A nice surprise that is said to be the longest of this type in the world. Yet, you can still see the planning mistakes of the past with, Route 22 and the Raritan Valley Railroad sectioning the land, making parts of the park not easily accessible. But, no place is perfect, after all. I wonder how this area inspired former residents like writer Philip Roth and comedian Jerry Lewis?
Back to the Urban Adventure
Soon Nancy, Tom and I were out of the park and on the street beat. We came up to Elizabeth Avenue which headed directly into downtown but the ECG routed us a few blocks west to Irvine Turner Boulevard. It looked like this was not the most direct way, but we already knew that it must be leading us to greener pastures past some urban parks. I think we can all agree that the next mile or so, past closer streets, marginal houses and perhaps shady individuals made us think that maybe we were off the trail again and heading in the wrong direction. But, we put our fleet feet in gear and walked with purpose ahead toward NJIT and Rutgers University areas near High Street which seemed like a few very long miles away.
Soon nicer condos began to appear across from projects. Main streets and signs showed that we were approaching downtown. Finally we saw NJIT buildings and the route headed downhill toward the downtown area. We went past Rutgers where I remember going to
grad school back in the 70s. Walking further we were in the commercial Broad Street area past the Newark Museum and Military Park on a clear path to Penn Station only blocks away.
Penn Station Never Looked So Good
We arrived at Penn Station in the heart of commercial Newark at about 4:15. That was about an hour ahead of schedule. We were pleasantly surprised about this and I think I can speak for all three of us by saying we were tired but in pretty good shape. The probable reason for being early was that we did not stop very much except for lunch and we were able to stay on track as we all figured out the trail as we went along following the very excellent East Coast Greenway Multi-Use Trail Guide - the free public guide you can get directly from the ECGA at their website http://greenway.org.
Tom an I caught the early train at 4:38 and arrived in Cranford at 4:55 instead of our planned 5:55. There was only one thing to do with this new found time and success we had with the walk - visit the nearbyKilkenny House Pub to toast the day with a couple of pints.