Oh! What a beautiful city! Rest in Peace & Much Respect to Dr Clement Price!


by Dr. Clement Price
Delivered June 2, 2012 on the occasion of the opening of Riverfront Park Segment 1

Let me begin with the first three stanzas of the Negro Spiritual, Oh! What A Beautiful City:

Oh! What a beautiful city!
Oh! What a beautiful city!
Oh! What a beautiful city!
Twelve gates to the city

Three gates in-a de east
Three gates in-a de west
Three gates in-a de north
Three gates in-a de south
Making it twelve gates to the city

My Lord built-a dat city
Said it was jus-a fo’ square
Wanted all-a you sinners
To meet Him in-a de air
Cause He built twelve gates-a to the city

The Passaic River was the first gate to the place that ultimately became Newark.  Perhaps more than other, better known rivers it is the Quintessential American River.

It makes its way across Old American territory, territory that changed over time in profound ways, ways in which we can see the complicated rise of the United States and what that rise cost parts of our natural world by the beginning of the last century.

At a program such as this one, let us acknowledge our Indian forebears on this our inherited habitat where they once lived and thrived.  From the land and the river, the Indians took what was needed, leaving it as their forebears had found it.

The great historian of New Jersey, John Cunningham, uses the following words to describe this area, when it was settled by the next group to occupy this place, the Puritans, those who landed with Robert Treat from Milford, CT, in 1666. At first, they shared the land, and the River, with the Original People, the Lenape. The Lanape, according to Cunningham, “especially cherished the banks of the Passaic River and the waters of the Newark Bay, for here the forests and marshlands abounded in animals and the shallow waters yielded fish, claims and oysters in abundance. They dried their game and the fish for the winter and chose shells suitable for making wampum.”

When the Puritans settled along the banks of the River, the Passaic became a conduit to their future.

What happened here after the Original People left, and the early generations of Anglo Americans passed on, is a complicated story. It is a story of progress at the expense of a once lovely American River. It is a story that unfolded with the parallel expense to those who over time nearly forgot the River was here because they did not use it. Their 20th century progeny did not even see the River because by then it was obscured by old, derelict factories and warehouses concentrated along the River bank. Many of those mid-twentieth local residents seemingly cared little about what had happened to the River. In this sense, the modern history of the Passaic has largely been a sad story.

The River begins in Mendham, New Jersey, in Morris County and follows the most circuitous and adventuresome of routes till it ends more than 80 miles from its origin…in Newark Bay.

One must wonder if the Passaic River’s circuitous route from Morris through Passaic County,  into Essex County and off into the Newark Bay is a metaphor for a larger story. The Passaic is indeed one River, but seeming it has existed on two planets.

The first planet, let’s call it Planet Bucolic, is old, largely preserved to look and feel old and the river there, even now, seems pristine and precious.

The second planet, let’s call it Planet Liberty, is also old. It has not had a well preserved look for nearly two centuries. Through the lens of the nation’s industrial past, it too looks old. But not since the early decades of the 19th century has it looked pristine or precious.

I call the second planet Liberty because it was so closely tied with the rise of America, much more so than Planet Bucolic. The nation rose as an urban nation, one that drew to old rivers like the Passaic several generations of immigrants. They sought Liberty along the river as workers, as bathers, as boatmen, and as fishermen unecumbered by their racial stock or their national origin.

Liberty along the river was also associated with a new class of Americans in the 19th century—industrialists and others with mounting wealth and influence. Along the banks of the Passaic, the liberty they enjoyed in the United States enabled them to at once make great fortunes and to exploit the River, to make of it what they willed. All of this occurred before concepts like corporate responsibility, environmental stewardship, and workers rights had come into being.

And so the river, if you will, our Planet Liberty—our urbanized, industrialized, exploited Passaic River—paid dearly for what was not known at that time. Or, could it be that looking after the River’s well being, and the bank that embraces it, was not feasible in a society in which liberty had multiple meanings and multiple consequences.

As the River went, so did far too much of Newark, the County Seat. Newark and all of its residents, not just those in this special community, the Iron-Bound, witnessed how closely tied we are as city people to nearby waterways, to natural habitats, and to recreational spaces. These are places that give meaning to our lives and to the quality of memories drawn from our childhoods.

And so, this wondrous event today builds upon years of efforts to acknowledge the importance of the River in the lives of those who were here before us, the Original People, the Lenape and those with whom they encountered when Newark was founded.

Today we also acknowledge the great civic struggle that was waged to bring government to the rescue of this space and to what we see today—the recovery of part of the water’s edge.  Civic activism, especially when it brings forth our better angels, is a very good thing indeed. So, let’s salute the Iron-Bound Community Corporation and other locally-based civic organizations that saw this day in their future.

As with so much good work that finally gets off the ground in Newark, this recovered space has forged a county/city partnership that will expand parkland north along the River. So, on behalf of my fellow citizens in this old community, and thousands more across the City, I salute Joe D, the County Executive, and his administration and Mayor Booker’s administration, for working together to bring us back to River today and in perpetuity.  I want to especially thank Damon Rich, who worked so hard to bring the City to this effort.

Oh! What a beautiful city!
Oh! What a beautiful city!
Oh! What a beautiful city!
Twelve gates to the city

Clement Alexander Price

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