Monday, February 25, 2019

Warrior Writers at Stockton

Somalia vet Sarah Mess reads poetry at Stockton University
(photo/Jan Barry)

A Warrior Writers workshop at Stockton University in Galloway, NJ on Saturday drew more than a dozen diverse participants to write and talk about often harsh experiences in the military and beyond, including brushes with death, survivor guilt, sexual assault, and hidden impacts on family members.

The multi-ethnic group included a wife who attended with her husband, a sister who came with her brother in memory of another brother who died young after serving in Vietnam, men and women veterans of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps who served in war zones from Vietnam to Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a wide variety of other duty stations including Germany and Guantanamo Bay.

Several workshop participants then presented selections of their poetry or prose in a performance in the college theater. The writing workshop and performance were adroitly guided by Valerie Stemac, an Air Force veteran whose transition from PTSD patient to poet is conveyed in a new HBO documentary, “We Are Not Done Yet.”

The film is about a group of combat veterans and otherwise severely injured soldiers who create a collaborative poem in writing workshops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, which they perform together at a theater in Washington, DC, under the direction of actor Jeffrey Wright. Warrior Writers has helped facilitate workshops and performances at military bases and art centers in the Washington area, in collaboration with Seema Reza, co-founder of Community Building Art Works.

Formed in 2007 in Philadelphia, PA, Warrior Writers has fostered workshops and public performances in cities and towns across the U.S., embracing veterans of all eras. In New Jersey, monthly writing workshops are hosted at the VA Vet Center in Secaucus and at Frontline Arts in Branchburg. Public performances have included appearances at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, art galleries in Jersey City, Montclair and Somerville, and the New York City Poetry Festival.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Saving the Meadowlands

Meadowlands, Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst  (photo/Jan Barry)

Imagine the Grand Canyon sliced and diced by highways lined with billboards, power plants, warehouses, shopping malls, sports stadiums, trash landfills and housing tracts. That’s the state of the New Jersey Meadowlands. 

What’s left of the once extensive wetlands that stretched from Newark Bay deep into Bergen County are a few parcels of cattails, phragmites and cottonwood trees scattered along the Hackensack River corridor. These hemmed in spots are home to bald eagles, great blue herons and a profusion of wildlife.

These endangered natural areas precariously exist next to the relentless roar of trucks and cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and North Jersey’s dense network of state and local highways. Recently, environmentalists and local officials scored a hopeful victory in blocking a Bergen County plan to pave over a small parcel of wetlands bordered by the Turnpike to create a dinosaur amusement park.

Meadowlands protest, Ridgefield
(photo/Jan Barry)

Yet the green teams were unable to stop developers’ plans to build a shopping center one exit south on the Turnpike, next to a grove of cottonwoods that house an eagle nest.

The latest environmental battle in the Meadowlands is over a proposed fracked gas power plant that would be sited on the edge of a strip of wetlands bordered by the Turnpike and Route 1 & 9, barely a mile from a PSE&G natural gas-powered electricity generating plant on the Hackensack River. The existing power plant is near the endangered eagle nest.

The proposed plant in North Bergen would sent electricity to New York City. It “would emit more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than any existing power plant in New Jersey,” according to the North Jersey Record, citing a review of federal data.

The power plant plan, which quietly received some preliminary permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection, set off alarm bells in Meadowlands communities and beyond. Mayors and councils in more than 40 North Jersey towns have signed onto resolutions opposing the proposed project. They are calling on Governor Phil Murphy to stop the project.

Power plant protest, Ridgefield Park
(photo/Jan Barry)

"We cannot afford to power New York City on the backs of the environmental health and safety of the Meadowlands and New Jersey residents," Westwood Mayor John Birkner Jr. said at a rally last week attended by several mayors of Bergen County towns who joined environmentalists at a protest highway billboard in Ridgefield Park. The proposed plant is in neighboring Hudson County, where it is supported by local officials and construction unions.

“This plant would be a major blow to air quality, in a region that already has some of the worst air pollution in the entire country,” the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter stated. “Bergen and Hudson Counties already have an F rating by the American Lung Association for ozone pollution. Our ozone levels are so high that it may put sensitive individuals at risk, including children, the elderly and people suffering from asthma, heart disease and other lung ailments.”

Opponents of the proposed power plant have organized petitions, town meetings, roadside rallies and a billboard campaign asking passersby to call Governor Murphy to reject the project. Murphy maintains that the proposal is under DEP review and not his call. Citing a variety of studies and reports on environmental hazards of gas-fired power plants, the Bergen County League of Municipalities sent Murphy and the DEP a resolution opposing the proposed plant. These hazards include increased flooding in the Meadowlands due to global climate change fueled by burning fossil fuels.

The county organization of mayors proposed “an alternative approach to producing electricity from solar panels [which] would avoid all of the environmental and health issues noted in this resolution while still providing new jobs and other financial benefits to local towns and would be in conformance with Governor Murphy’s goal to increase the use of renewable energy.”

Bergen County officials took similar heat from environmentalists and local officials over a plan to rent out a 35-acre wetlands parcel off the Teaneck exit of the Turnpike to a private company that runs a dinosaur amusement park in a DPW parking lot in another section of Overpeck County Park. Earlier this month, County Executive James Tedesco’s office announced it is dropping that plan.

“It’s a victory for wildlife, it’s a victory for nature,” Don Torino, the head of the Bergen County Audubon Society, told the North Jersey Record. “The people of Bergen County didn’t need something else to pay for … they need nature. Especially in that part of the county.”

The Record article on the issue noted that opponents suggested alternative ideas.
“‘I don’t want to see another inch of Overpeck Park developed,’ said Diane Koszarski, a retired librarian and puppeteer who stuck a sign in front of her Teaneck home after she learned of the county’s plans. ‘There must be another way to work with the dinosaur park people so kids can enjoy it without impinging on a really fragile and important part of our ecosystem.’ ”

Overpeck County Park is largely a reclaimed landfill and lake in the northern reaches of the Meadowlands. The 811-acre site was donated by the towns of Teaneck, Leonia, Ridgefield Park and Palisades Park in the 1950s to be a county park. County officials allowed extensive landfill dumping until a state judge ordered the county to create the park that was planned for the area. 

The 35-acre parcel in Teaneck was isolated by construction of the Turnpike and intersection with I-80. That parcel is connected by Teaneck Creek with a 46-acre wetlands that was restored by volunteer groups that created Teaneck Creek Conservancy to maintain hiking trails and outdoors education programs. Bergen County has promised for years to clean up contamination from illegal dumping on both parcels.

Town by town, that’s the story of the Meadowlands: official promises to maintain open space undercut by deals with developers and dumpers.

And yet, bald eagles are drawn to fish in the Hackensack River and nearby ponds, especially in winter when water bodies further north are frozen. An Audubon Society birder last month reported 21 eagles settled into trees along a pond in Little Ferry, where aerators keep ice from freezing the center of the former brick-making quarry.

Eagle nest area, Ridgefield (photo/Jan Barry)

A mile or so away, the Bergen County Audubon Society fought to save a 10-acre preserve around an eagle nest off Overpeck Creek in Ridgefield. “That’s a grassroots victory,” Don Torino told a crowd of supporters at a recent celebration in an industrial park that provides spectacular views of bald eagles swooping and soaring about the nest. The bulk of the eagle nest area off the Turnpike intersection with Route 46 has been bulldozed for a shopping center.      

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sharleen Leahey: Singing Out for Activists

photo: Left Forum 2015

Sharleen Leahey is a movement troubadour. She sings Pete Seeger songs, Woody Guthrie songs, her own songs about timeless issues and issues of the day. Her latest CD collection is titled “For the 99.” The first verse of the title song pulls listeners into the middle of a demonstration, whether in New York or New Brunswick, Washington or Newark:

We are gathered here in the people’s square
So we can have our say
We have come today to protest the way
Our rulers have behaved

A Somerville, NJ resident, Leahey ranges around the world in addressing war and peace issues, social justice issues, human rights issues. Here’s two verses of “Good People”:

Drone over Afghanistan
A village laid waste
The pilot can’t get hurt ten thousand miles away
Nintendo death the modern military way
Brought by the good people
Homeless on the street
An old woman stripped of pride
Half a block from the new boutiques
She’s standing on a church breadline
This ain’t the ‘30s
It’s the new millennium time
Where are the good people?

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