Essex and Union counties has between 50 and 70 parks designed by one phase or another of the Olmsted firm. Yet, there’s not that same sense of pride about them as I experienced in NYC. Sure they are an assortment of sizes and locations compared to the gigantic and “central” locale of Central Park, but the vignettes created in these NJ parks are spectacular. The use of water and hills…the way trees and tree lines direct the eye…the sense of everlasting nature just beyond the border of the space makes these places incredible. But they are almost entirely hidden from local knowledge though they are embedded into the fabric of the towns and villages they are part of.
One complaint is that there wasn’t a direct path to the lake from the parking lot or a crosswalk that made the journey a little nerve racking because I had 2 kids in tow. But once we got to the water, a pathway drew us south in two ways. First, the lake narrows to the south creating a visual sense of movement. Secondly (and this is how design doesn’t always have to be visual), we could hear the sound of water falling. We couldn’t see what was making the noise, but the two elements made it irresistible to not go and find out.
Unfortunately, this area is fenced and gated off with signs posted to “Keep Out”. My guess is enough people climbed out onto the waterfall and got hurt to require the barriers. These additions do take away from the scene.
At that point, it was time to go. My wife had an appointment to make so we all had to switch to a more utility mentality of getting back to my truck to leave. We didn’t get to see everything, but there’s something nice about that. It leaves a wanting while leaving. We all wanted to come back and explore more.
These are all of the good things about the park. There are a few negative points too. The park isn’t maintained with great care. I guess in its heyday every blade of grass was manicured, but the spaces are only maintained good enough. The lakeside pathway is caked in mud and falling apart in places. There’s little trace of the park being updated…all of the plants and trees seem to be marginal. That said, we were practically running the entire visit. It was enough exercise to put my youngest to sleep after the fieldtrip. And yet, the lack of care given to the park makes me thing about how many outdoor spaces aren’t simply forgotten but merely tolerated with the minimal amount of attention.
I read a history about the Union County Park System. It highlights how different economic and social changes have negatively effected the system from the Great Depression in the 1920’s to funding being focused on highway construction post-World War 2 to how other factors in the 1970s and 80s drew people from the parks. Maybe people are beginning to see these parks as a valuable asset. People want to have incredible places to see nature. Public parks are ideal for this and the park system in Union County is posed to offer something quite unique indeed. For me, I’ll find any excuse to drag my family to see a work of art nearby anytime.