On a warm July evening, Sam Pesin stooped to fetch a plastic bag and a tangled Mylar balloon as he wandered through Liberty State Park in New Jersey, stuffing both in his back pocket. When he saw the driver of an ice cream truck, he asked him to arrive early to that night’s free concert because the empanada truck couldn’t make it.
“Eid Mubarak,” he told a group of teenage girls dressed in matching T-shirts as they headed toward a picnic area by the water that looks out on the Statue of Liberty. “Have a good time!”
During the pandemic, millions of visitors have found refuge in the sprawling Jersey City state park, which features stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, ferries to Ellis and Liberty Islands, open lawns and a waterfront walkway.
Part maitre d’, part watchdog, Mr. Pesin, 71, is a restless defender of the vision of his father, Morris Pesin, who famously canoed from Jersey City to Liberty Island in eight minutes in 1958 to illustrate the proximity and potential grandeur of what was then an industrial dumping ground.
Liberty State Park finally opened in 1976. Since then, it has become a crown jewel of the state park system, drawing close to five million visitors a year, nearly four times as many as the next busiest park.
“You just have to blast away when fighting for what’s right,” Sam Pesin recalled his father telling him in 1991, the year before he died.
Soon after, the younger Mr. Pesin joined the cause. Now a retired preschool teacher who lives in Jersey City, he has worked with singular focus for three decades to fend off a series of attempts to privatize parts of the park and is the longtime president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, an all-volunteer group.
Throughout the years, he and other supporters of a free and open urban park have fought the notion dangled by many politicians and corporate titans alike: that partnerships with for-profit businesses were the best way to generate funds to fix Liberty’s dilapidated structures, clean its contaminated land and add amenities. They have helped to thwart plans for an 18-hole golf course, marina, water park, amphitheater and racetrack.
Now, 63 years after Morris Pesin’s first canoe trip, a contaminated, 234-acre tract of land repeatedly eyed by private developers is on the brink of a sweeping overhaul.
And the state says it will foot the entire bill.
The design process, led by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, began in earnest last fall, and the estimated price tag is unclear. But fines paid by Exxon Mobil to settle contamination lawsuits will cover most of the environmental cleanup and restoration of the parcel, which has been closed off to the public for decades; corporate business taxes will be tapped to pay for the recreation components, state officials said.
Greg Remaud, the chief executive of the nonprofit NY/NJ Baykeeper who regularly participated in anti-privatization efforts on behalf of the park, said he was appreciative of Mr. Pesin’s work. “It’s not a Formula One racetrack. It’s not a doll museum,” he said of Liberty during a public forum in June. “It’s not anything other than open space that can be used for active and passive recreation and natural restoration.”
The redesign plan calls for almost five miles of forested hiking and biking trails, 61 acres of ball fields and athletic courts and vast stretches of newly created wetlands, which will be formed by digging a tidal channel to connect the interior of the park to the river.
Construction is not expected to begin for at least two years, but contractors could break ground on certain ball fields before then, according to officials from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The planned use for the land is a gratifying outcome for former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who, in 1995, faced with fierce public opposition, killed a proposal to build an 18-hole golf course where the new expansion is now set to occur.
“It’s healthy for the air quality and it’s healthy for people’s psyches,” she said recently in an interview.
Still, Mr. Pesin, whose voice rarely climbs above a whisper and who has fibromyalgia so severe he can no longer drive, refuses to rest.
He is as busy as ever, drafting emails, handing out fliers, collecting signatures and enlisting new supporters for what he hopes will be his final battle: passage of the Liberty State Park Protection Act, which would permanently bar much of the park from private development.
“A people’s park in the true spirit of Lady Liberty,” Mr. Pesin said.
The grandson of immigrants from Russia and Latvia, Mr. Pesin said much of his activism was rooted in his Jewish faith and in the example set by his family. His parents, he said, met at a protest over the Spanish Civil War. His uncle was a state assemblyman, and his father was a Jersey City councilman who campaigned with a doghouse strapped to the top of the family’s Buick, promising to be the city’s watchdog.
“He’s just a good guy,” said Rafael Torres, a retired Jersey City firefighter and longtime member of Friends of Liberty State Park, said of Mr. Pesin. “A little quirky — sometimes puts too much into it.”
Mr. Remaud said he finally had to ask Mr. Pesin to stop calling after 11 p.m. to plot strategy. “If you don’t love him, he’ll wear you down,” he said. “In an age of anything but authenticity, people trust him. You might not agree with every single thing, but you don’t question where it’s coming from.”
Last year, Mr. Pesin found himself in the cross-hairs of a wealthy opponent of the protection act, Paul Fireman, who owns Liberty National, a private golf club adjacent to the park.
Mr. Fireman and his lobbyists have tried for years to acquire 22 acres of the state park to relocate three of the course’s holes onto a migratory bird habitat. Supporters say that expanding the course would help it continue to attract high-profile PGA Tour matches, like last week’s Northern Trust, which they argue bring tax revenue and prestige to the city and state.
After a legislative maneuver that could have enabled the golf club to acquire the parkland fell flat last summer, Mr. Fireman shifted his strategy and began framing the park’s redevelopment as a “fight for social justice,” just as the nation was roiled by the police killing of George Floyd.
In a statement, Mr. Fireman said he was “halting” his expansion effort but singled out Mr. Pesin, accusing him of failing to push for ball fields and recreation for residents of the poor, largely minority neighborhoods closest to the park. “No one asked the communities’ opinions or cared about what was truly needed, and decisions were made for them,” Mr. Fireman said.
“All lies,” Mr. Pesin said.
A group funded by Mr. Fireman has continued to press the case on social media, accusing the Department of Environmental Protection of excluding communities of color from decision-making and asking on its website, “Do Black lives matter when it comes to Liberty State Park?”
In June the department, which has held a series of public meetings about the park, offered an answer. Shawn M. LaTourette, the department’s commissioner, said public feedback had made it “abundantly clear the demand and need” for additional recreation opportunities, prompting the state to add 61 acres of publicly funded ball fields and courts to its design plan.
The department also released responses to a survey of more than 3,000 local residents, most of whom live near the park, on what they would like to see there. Popular suggestions included a swimming pool and spaces for soccer, basketball and tennis (golf did not make the list of priorities).
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, a Democrat who represents Jersey City and is a primary sponsor of the protection act, said he hoped the amended plan would put to rest the argument that private funding from Mr. Fireman was the only way to complete the park.
“The D.E.P. told us that they were going to consider the input of the community and stakeholders,” Mr. Mukherji said, “and I think that that’s exactly what they did.”
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