By Richard T. Smith
Whether it’s air pollution from dirty diesel trucks or proximity to polluting industrial facilities and toxic waste sites, Black and brown communities like Greenville in Jersey City have borne the brunt of environmental injustice.
While wealthier suburban communities have acres of athletic fields, communities of color often lack adequate green space and parks, forcing kids to play on crumbling asphalt basketball courts or, even worse, on busy streets and narrow sidewalks.
And that’s when kids go outside. Nowadays, many kids in underprivileged communities are holed up inside, sitting on couches, tethered often to violent video games. Childhood obesity is more common among Black and Hispanic children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The tragedy is that Liberty State Park borders the Greenville community, but there’s really nothing there for our kids to do there – no soccer fields, no basketball courts, no swimming pools, nothing, except if you want to take a walk or take in sights they see every day.
While investments have been made in other parts of Jersey City and Hudson County over the last 20 years, leading to historic growth and improved quality of life for many, why have leaders permitted more than half of Liberty State Park to remain fenced off, unusable, and a threat to the community’s public health for nearly five decades due to toxic chromium and asbestos contamination?
Fortunately, we have an opportunity to clean up the hazardous waste and revitalize that land to create a bigger, better park that can provide something for everyone, including the kids from Greenville.
The People’s Park Foundation has put forth a vision that reimagines the park as a recreational oasis for the community. This plan is consistent with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s climate justice mission to strengthen resilience and livability in communities that have endured legacies of pollution and neglect. It’s a civil rights issue.
The People’s Park vision calls for a state-of-the-art community center with basketball courts, a swimming pool and an ice-skating rink, acres of world-class outdoor sports facilities, community gardens, an outdoor market, and a natural amphitheater for concerts.
A revitalized Liberty State Park will serve as a model for other urban parks across the country and be a catalyst for reinvestment in Greenville, one of the few communities in Jersey City that has been left out of the same economic growth and opportunities as other parts of the city.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal group of anti-park activists masquerading as friends of the park are fighting to protect a status quo that maintains Liberty State Park’s legacy of pollution at the exclusion of Black and brown communities who are crying out for more recreational opportunities in the only open space Jersey City and Hudson County has left.
But let me be clear, Liberty State Park is not their park and they do not represent the people that I do.
Maintaining the status quo in Liberty State Park perpetuates the institutional racism and segregation that has plagued Jersey City’s Black and brown communities. It says to the children and families in Greenville, “We don’t want you here. Go play in the street. This park is ours—not yours.”
Black and brown families are sick and tired of other people dictating what is best for them. Listen to what the Greenville community desires. They want a safe, indoor place for children to play basketball, swim, and skate year-round They want to be able to easily access a clean park filled with active recreational activities, not a fenced-off hazardous waste dump. They want Liberty State Park to be more than what it is, so it serves everyone’s needs. That’s not an unreasonable ask.
The People’s Park vision reclaims the polluted land, doubles the size of the park, increases open space for bird watching and strolls along winding pathways, and also creates new opportunities for active recreation, which is sorely lacking in the community closest to the park and the most densely populated region in the country where open space is scarce.
It’s well past the time that we allow residents to access this great resource literally in the heart of our community.
The residents of Greenville are demanding justice. I am proud to stand with them and hope the politicians are listening.
Richard T. Smith is the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People New Jersey State Conference and a member of its National Board of Directors.
Click here to view this op-ed on NJ.com .