Once known as gang territory ridden with prostitution and crime, Jesse Allen Park is now the shining jewel of youth and recreation in Newark's Central Ward.
The park just wrapped up Phase II of extensive renovations of 3.24 acres along Muhammad Ali Avenue, including the installation of a new playground and water play area, two basketball courts, a Trust for Public Land Fitness Zone with outdoor exercise equipment and walking path around the athletic fields. The park also now features sports lighting and new landscaping and trees.
"Especially for kids, open space is a very important part of the developmental process," said Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif Wednesday.
"They get to be kids," he said, adding that these days youths are forced to grow up too fast.
Located next to Louise A. Spencer Elementary School, Jesse Allen Park is the second biggest city-owned park and was updated in 2009 to include facilities for basketball, volleyball, tennis and skateboarding.
Phase III renovations, slated to begin in 2013, will install a turf field for football, soccer and baseball.
But for Central Ward resident Danny Perry, the park is close enough to completion to enjoy now with his 10-month-old son.
"I can't wait to sit here and say I was part of this," said Perry, who was a construction worker for Shauger Group during the second phase of renovations.
Mayor Cory Booker, who once lived in Brick Towers, a now-razed apartment complex that was close to Jesse Allen Park, said the park was at one time "one of the more dangerous parts of Newark."
But the sweeping renovations have transformed the blighted area into a community asset.
"This park represents in many ways the heart of the city, the truth of who we are…" Booker said.
Jesse Allen Park is one of 10 parks and playgrounds in Newark part of The Trust for Public Land's Park for People program. The national nonprofit's initiative has driven $40 million in public-private investments in city parks in the past 17 years.
Funding for the second phase of renovations at Jesse Allen Park came from public and private entities, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark, Victoria Foundation and Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. The project was also paid for by a $1.2 million Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as $1.2 million from the state's Green Acres Program.
The park will see even more improvements in the coming months. The New York Jets will unveil later this month the Trust for Public Land Fitness Zone, an 11-piece outdoor fitness center. And, in December, beauty product company Garnier will bring in 55 recycling bins to the Central Ward Park, Nat Turner and Mildred Helms Parks to help Newark become greener.