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Olmsted Weeps

Assembly Committee Approves Billionaire Backed Bill To Develop Liberty State Park

Pearls Before Swine

Before even taking testimony this morning, the Chairman of the NJ Assembly State and Local Government Committee advised the standing room only audience that the bill would be released without amendments and that discussions with the Governor’s Office and Senate were ongoing.

So much for democracy and deliberation and civilized discourse.

As the testimony soon made clear, landscape design, aesthetics, and the philosophy and objectives of public park planning were the not on the agenda today.

Nor was there any kind of solidarity – parks are supposed to unite people in a common cause, not divide people.

Which takes me to Olmsted weeping.

Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for the design of Central Park, but his career spanned far more than that. He not only completed dozens of other public park designs, he was a leader in the early conservation movement and in the design of National Parks.

His landscape design principles were based on his:

conviction that nature has healing and restorative psychological effects on the individual and his equally strong belief that nature is a civilizing force in society. …

Olmsted believed that nature affects me (sic) emotions both psychologically and socially. Fresh air, sunlight, and abundant foliage improve physical and mental health through what he called me “unbending” of faculties that are placed under tension by the pressures of urban life, producing a sense of mental tranquility and rest, intellectual vigor, and a “temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind” (Olmsted 1997; 66).

The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of me whole system. (Rybczynski 1999a, p. 258)

He thought that nature’s healing occurs through an unconscious process which the mind is influenced through the imagination, and he was also convinced that parks in urban areas would help to achieve this effect.

The chief end of a large park is an effect on the human organism by an action of what it presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words. (Beveridge 1998, p. 31)

Olmsted integrated his landscape design principles with a democratic and egalitarian public social philosophy – public parks must be free and accessible to all, and private encroachments and commercialization must be resisted – not embraced!

But instead of reflecting upon and applying those principles, the discussion before the Committee degenerated basically into tragedy and farce: local residents expressed their legitimate rage for suffering decades of neglect, underinvestment, and having to live with the results of greedy developers. But, they expressed their resentment by blaming the very people who have protected Liberty State Park from those same greedy developers and corrupt politicians who had neglected and abused them for decades!

There was also a very ugly racial undertone – with black longtime residents and athletes resenting outsider white environmentalists.

The dynamics were kind of like Trump speaking in a de-industrialized rust belt community and blaming government bureaucrats and pointy headed intellectuals for their woes, instead of the greedy corporations who offshored their jobs and Wall Street vultures who financialized the economy.

Listening to the legitimate grievances by Jersey City residents being manipulated by a cynical billionaire golf course developer was truly sickening. I had to turn the audio off and go for a walk before it was over.

Procedurally, the Assembly bill and the amended Senate version go to the respective Budget and Appropriations Committees for consideration. Those Committees will hold hearings and likely amend the bills. Behind the scenes, the Gov.’s Office is weighing in and all sorts of deals are possible, given the proposed $250 million appropriations and the context of the budget negotiations. DEP Commissioner LaTourette is MIA and obviously not a player. Of course, there will be opportunities for Floor amendments in both Houses and the Gov. can veto or conditionally veto the bill.

At this point, I think Gov. Murphy should be targeted and asked to outright veto the bill, unless it meets very specific demands by park supporters (which I’ve heard referenced in testimony, but have not read. More to follow on that, along with an analysis of the Senate Committee amendments, which were window dressing). The Gov. could also “conditionally veto” the bill with the same demands, but that is less likely, given the deal that is likely to emerge.

Not much more to say right now. It is truly demoralizing to witness what a billionaire funded PR campaign can do and how destructive and polarizing the politics it can manipulate can become.

But I’d like to ask the Legislators and local resident supporting the legislation on the belief that it will benefit local residents and serve recreational and social needs:

Why then would would you oppose amendments that prohibited large scale commercial development and privatization, made specific allocations of the $250 million appropriated, and preserved Caven Point (the target of billionaire golf course developer Paul Fireman)?

The environmentalists and Friends of Liberty State Park have explicitly supported active recreation. Why can’t the local Fireman crowd reciprocate?

[Update: I just found this NY Times article, which does a good job exposing Fireman’s divisive PR campaign tactics. The national implications flow from the politics that Fireman is exploiting. The danger lies in this becoming a model; i.e. if a billionaire can fund a PR campaign that exploits legitimate urban minority grievances and drive a wedge in a way that promotes billionaire interests so easily, it will be used elsewhere. This could be not only the model, but also a new issue and opportunity for the right wing to exploit – after Stop the Steal, COVID anti-vax, attacks on Trans, CRT and school curriculum, they might move on to public parks. The right wing already did something similar by attacking public schools in urban black and minority communities with the Charter School movement.

The NJ Dems could be creating the next issue for the Right to exploit. Obviously, the billionaire class is watching closely. These are Trump politics.

See this NPR story:

Think about it this way. We’re talking about the same activists who appeared at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and infamously were chanting antisemitic chants and doing a lot of activity that made a lot of people feel really uncomfortable. When those same activists and groups showed up on January 6, they, by and large, were not wearing swastikas and using Nazi chants and wearing Klan uniforms. They were mostly uniformed as militiamen because that is a bid for public acceptance.

What they are always doing is looking for the open window – right? – the people that can be persuaded, recruited and radicalized further. And in our culture, with this intense political polarization that we’re experiencing, there is a larger and larger set of opportunities for these groups. And this kind of opportunistic mobilization is very well-practiced and is something that they have been working with for a very long time.

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