It had been nearly 25 years since I had worked in Garfield, NJ, and almost as long as I had driven through it. Recently, in my desire to photograph places of interest for this blog, I thought of a park not far from where I worked in this onetime textile manufacturing center, and I wondered how things had fared since.
Last weekend, then, I drove from the eastern part of Bergen County, where I live, to this city at the edge of the county. In researching Garfield’s parks on the Web, the one that struck my eye was not so much the site I had recalled, but a riverfront area I had not recalled at all. In addition, I wondered how time had affected this community.
As I drove around on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, my reaction was mixed. The Garfield of my memory was a proud blue-collar community. One of the benefits of working in such a place was the amount of good, inexpensive eateries—and sure enough, Santoni’s, a pizzeria on Outwater Lane, remained, just as it had when my co-workers and I used to go out for lunch.
Yet in other ways, the town is facing stiff challenges. My former employer closed down 15 years ago. More surprising, the once-bustling supermarket across the street had also closed. I saw similar signs as I drove around. One of the signs welcoming visitors to town says that it’s the home of athletes Luis Castillo, Miles Austin and Wayne Chrebet. But I couldn’t help wondering if the city couldn’t want more for itself and its young than just proclaiming itself the youthful home of NFL stars.
There was something else I had remembered reading: Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the neighborhood surrounding an abandoned factory a Superfund site, which had been exposing residents to heightened levels of chromium. As many as one-tenth of the city’s homes might be at risk. It was the downside of the Bruce Springsteen song, “Factory”—a place that can take one’s life and spirit.
The people of this town could sure use a break, I thought as I exited off Route 80 and turned onto River Road.
And then, as I looked to my right and saw the Passaic River, I thought I saw the beginning of that break.
Riverfront Park shows how a community can be served when one of its best assets—a waterway and its surrounding environment—is protected. A $5.7 million construction project, with federal and state funding, now includes open park space with brick-lined walking paths and bike trails. You can see some of the results in the first photo I’ve used in this space.
But even better is the fact that the park allows now for greater appreciation of the Passaic River. It will take decades of clean-up, vigilant watching—and yes, money—to fully mitigate an even longer period of mindless industrial damage. But this mile-long stretch of an 80-mile river shows what can be done, in a concentrated way.
I can only wish that Garfield residents will experience the same good feeling I had on the day I visited. If anyone needs it, and deserves it, as they try to recover from the recession, it’s the people of this beleaguered but tough blue-collar city by the Passaic River.