Town Square: 4/27/17
Lisanne Renner, Friends of Anderson Park
It’s a fine morning in August 1902 and John Charles Olmsted is visiting Montclair. A major figure in the nation’s most prominent landscape architecture firm, he is here to scope out the raw, scrappy land that will eventually become Anderson Park: a field of scrubby, shin-high brush; several swampy acres with cattails; even some houses that will need to be moved. Toney’s Brook along the east side is an open ditch.
That afternoon Olmsted appears before the Essex County Park Commission to endorse the land being donated by Charles W. Anderson, a Montclair resident and New York insurance agent. It would, he says, make a fine suburban park.
When Essex County’s new park opened three years later, it was such a hit that the Township of Montclair decided to create its own park system. That may seem an unarguable move today, but it was vigorously debated in the Montclair of 1906. Before being put to a vote, the issue twice consumed the front page of the newspaper. Handbills went up all over town. Jacob Riis, the urban reformer who documented slum conditions in his book “How the Other Half Lives,” came to Montclair to argue that the town should provide parks “for the people, big and little.”
With tuberculosis a scourge in New York’s crowded tenements, the public health benefits of fresh air were cited in rapidly growing Montclair. One doctor, thinking of Italian immigrants and African-Americans living in substandard conditions in town, said parks would provide “breathing spaces” for “the poor mother airing her sick baby in the summertime.” Wealthy residents, businessmen and real estate agents saw parks as “beauty spots,” and anticipated the increased property values they would bestow. Progressives considered parks a form of social justice. James Trimble, a former Democratic politician and Socialist, wrote to the newspaper: “The rich man can plant his home in the midst of his own park; the people must provide the poor man’s.”
The opponents crossed racial, gender and economic lines, objecting to the parks proposal for different reasons. Some developers argued that parks were a luxury, and that tax money was better spent on new schools and sewer lines. Women, not yet allowed to vote, resented that they had no voice in how their taxes were spent.
And although reformers considered parks a perk for low-income minorities, Montclair’s black voters feared that increased taxes would translate to higher rents. They also refused to support civic leaders who they felt ignored their interests. As the Rev. John Love of Union Baptist Church put it: The push for parks would make Montclair “a town where it will be impossible for a poor man to live, except as a laborer or house servant. Besides, the white people never do anything for the Negro, politically.”
In this charged atmosphere, Montclair voters headed to the polls. They voted on tracts of land totaling about 75 acres, selected by a citizens’ committee. To this election in April 1906 we owe Nishuane Park, Edgemont Park, Essex Park and Glenfield Park (that last one later transferred to Essex County).
More than a century after Anderson Park inspired a townwide park system, Montclair owns about 130 acres of parkland. It surrounds or borders five Essex County parks and reservations totaling more than 700 acres. Most residents are walking distance to some portion of the more than 830 acres of parkland within or immediately adjacent to our town’s borders. For a community whose population has more than doubled since 1906, that is a goodly supply of breathing space and beauty spots for us all.