For more than 300 years, Newarkers have looked to the Passaic River for their needs.
In the river's early days before European colonization, Native Americans fished and caught crabs in its estuary. Connecticut Puritans founded the city in 1666 along the river's banks. Industry used the river to transport cargo and flush out harmful waste. And since the 1960s, the factories declined along with the polluted Passaic River.
The city is hoping to change that by reviving the riverfront with various projects while the Passaic itself is poised for a massive clean up.
The Newark Riverfront Revival (NRR), a city program that started in 2008, has been busy reintroducing the river to city residents through boat tours, walking tours, education programs, outreach events and exhibits, said Damon Rich, waterfront planner for the city.
This year, the project's capstone will be the construction of the first section of the proposed Newark Riverfront Park, said Rich. The three-acre portion lies between a section of Raymond Boulevard and the Passaic River in the Ironbound, just across the street from the existing Riverbank Park, according to Rich.
The three-acre section of the park, which is currently under construction, is the result of the partnership between the city's Department of Economic and Housing Development, which is overseeing the revival project, and Essex County and Trust for Public Land, a national conservancy group.
Rich said the park will eventually encompass 19 acres and will trace seven miles of "living" riverfront that touches neighborhoods and the downtown. Of those acres, seven will be owned by the city which includes the three acres currently under construction. The remaining 12 are owned by the county. Separate from the park but adjacent are three-and-a-half miles of riverfront dedicated to ports Newark and Elizabeth.
The proposed park will have both walking and biking trails, a floating boat dock, a riverfront boardwalk, and places for picnics, rest, concerts, exercise and environmental education such as an osprey rook and a teaching pavilion, according to proposed maps.
"The real mission is to reconnect the city and people to the riverfront," Rich said.
The park's construction comes as the federal government gears up this July to clean a portion of the Passaic River, of which the lower 17 miles is a designated Superfund site, Rich said.
Though the river is currently polluted, the area teems with wildlife, he said.
People who go on boat tours see herons, ospreys, and various water life such as striped bass and crabs, he said. The boat tours are currently the only way for the public to access the riverfront, he said.
"They see with their own eyes that there's life in this river," said Rich, who leads the two-hour tours.
On Saturday, East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador and Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif attended the boat tours along with dozens of city residents, Rich said. There was also a gardening day at the adjacent Riverbank Park.
"It was incredible," said Sharif, who was excited by the possibilities the riverfront offers. "I was amazed by how little I knew about the history of the Passaic."
Ricardo Cardona, Newark resident, brought his wife and daughter to the boat tour.
"We took the tour to increase awareness of the Passaic," he said. "It was very educational."
Cardona, who's also fond of boating, hopes the stagnant industrial spaces along the river will be eliminated.
Ivette Rosario, member of the Ironbound Super Neighborhood Council, who was gardening at the nearby Riverbank Park with a group of volunteers, said she also hopes the park will have opportunities for exercise such as yoga, Zumba, and other sports.
Lenny Thomas, one of the gardening volunteers, lamented that most residents these days don't know where the river is located.
And if they do, he said, they think of it as a sewer.
Rich said he hopes that perception will change. "This is by no means a dead place," he said. "There's so much life in the river.
For more information on the proposed park, boat tours and volunteer opportunities, click here.