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Playing chess at Military Park, a  highlight of Newark New Jersey.
The Reading room at Military Park, a highlight of Newark New Jersey.The Reading room at Military Park, a highlight of Newark New Jersey.

Why Are We Going to Newark?

In praise of a much maligned New Jersey City's Museums and other attractions

“Why are we going to Newark?” Sari asked as we approached Broad Street. Are you in for a surprise, I thought, confident that Military Park, the first stop on our downtown tour, would deliver.

With a recently completed $3.5 million makeover of the park,residential towers going up on Broad Street and retailers like Whole Foods poised to move in, downtown Newark has more to offer than ever. But few would expect to find chess, poetry, a monument by a famous sculptor and a host of things to see and do within a couple of miles.

At Military Park, little kids can manipulate soft playground equipment while older children and adults can play board games or ping pong or visit the “reading room,” a nook stocked with newspapers, books and magazines that silently urge passersby to sitawhile. “This is really nice,” Sari said.

So nice that the state chapter of the American Planning Association just named Military Park one of New Jersey’s “great places,” adding that it has gone from “a worn out, wasted space” to downtown’s “outdoor living room.” Ben Donsky, who led the redevelopment and is VP of the partnership that runs the park, thinks of it as Newark's town square.

Kids playing chess at the park.Kids playing chess at the park.“Urban parks are there for people to use, and we need to give people reasons to use them,” Donsky said. So the park’s calendar is packed with activities: tai chi, author talks and tours at lunchtime; instruction from members of the Newark Chess Club between 4 and 5 pm; line dancing, poetry readings and occasional concerts in early evening--and family yoga on Saturdays for as long as the weather holds out.

The sword, filled with flowers at the Military Park.The sword, filled with flowers at the Military Park.Whether you take the NJ Historical Society’s guided tour or stroll through the park yourself, you can’t miss the monuments. Cannons on the south end bring to mind its use as a training ground for soldiers in the 17th century; a bust of JFK, high on a pedestal, sits nearby.To the north are statues of two men—a war hero and a legislator—with Newark connections. A colossal bronze by Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame takes center stage.

“Wars of America,” erected in 1926, features 42 people, including Borglum himself and his wife and son, and two horses, with an 80-yard Tudor sword at its feet—a representation, Borglum said, of a nation “answering the call to arms.” 

Originally used as a reflecting pool, the sword lay dry for 20 or 30 years, Donsky said. “So we decided to repurpose it as a floral display.” When the flowers wither, it will be filled with evergreens and lights—ample reason to return for a winter visit.

The Newark Museum

Leaving the park, Sari and I crossed Broad Street and walked less than a half mile to our next destination: The Newark Museum at 49 Washington St (the suggested entry fee is $12 for adults and $7 for children, seniors and students; Newark residents pay no fee).While Sari grew up in a New Jersey suburb and visited the museum once years ago, she, like many others I’ve talked to about it or brought here, had no idea of its scope or size. “Isn’t it small?” asked my cousin Harriet, a lifelong New Yorker, when I suggested devoting several hours to a museum visit. The opulent Newark MuseumThe opulent Newark Museum

Uh, no.

Since 1926,when the museum moved here from the library down the street, it has expanded in various directions. Additions include an old YMCA to the south; the Ballantine House, a restored mansion that was home to the eponymous brewers to the north;and a third building to the west. A redesign by the architect Michael Graves deftly connected all the pieces.

All told, the complex has some 80 galleries, with major collections of American,African and Asian art and antiquities; ascience halland planetarium, currently featuring companion programs about comets, asteroids and meteors;and a one-room schoolhouse, fire museum and sculpture garden in the rear. The museum’s Tibetan collection, begun with a 1911 purchase from Christian missionaries, is one of the oldest and most comprehensive. Dynamic Earth exhibit at the Newark museum.Dynamic Earth exhibit at the Newark museum.

If you don’t have time to fully explore the Tibetan galleries, take a few moments to view its star attraction: an 
authentic Buddhist altar consecrated by the Dali Lama (or go to the museum website for a virtual tour). For me, standing quietly in front of the lavishly patterned altar, created by a Tibetan painter who was an artist in residence in the late ‘80s, is a form of meditation. At its center sits a Buddha in a yoga pose, surrounded by offerings of fruit, flowers, water and lights.

The Ballantine House, too, has a too-good-to-miss exhibit. Called Party Time, it’s in the opulent dining room.

At first glance, it looks like a lavish dinner party. Look again, and you notice that the guests are dressed in African prints and seem a bit tipsy, as they sit, sprawled out, arms splayed or feet on the table and drinks askew. Most importantly, neither the guests nor the waiter, who carries a peacock on a platter, have heads.

Unusual art at Ballantine House in Newark.Unusual art at Ballantine House in Newark.The Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare started making headless figures “as a joke,” he said in a video), a reference to the beheading of the rich in the French revolution.The installation is “a metaphor for the gap between the wealthy and the not so well off,” he noted, but it’s also fun, not to be taken too seriously.And the perfect place to end our visit.

Newark's Ornate Public Library

The next stop—the main branch of the Newark Public Library at 5 Washington St—harkens back to a time when the city itself was well off. From the outside,the library appears stately and austere. Enter and you quickly realize it’s museum-like. Pause in the vestibule to see the bronze and marble sculptures. Then walk in and look around—and up. You’ll see multiple arches, a sweeping marble staircase and a center atrium, topped on the fourth floor witha stained glass laylight. The building, dedicated in 1901, was designed to resemble a 15th century Florentine palazzo.

The sThe Fountain of Knowledge in the library.The Fountain of Knowledge in the library.econd floor features a glass-encased gallery, exhibiting the works of an African American book illustrator on one visit and the foods of Latin America on another. A triptych, “The Fountain of Knowledge,” covers the wall opposite the stairs.

The mural, which shows the Greek god Apollo dispensing water from the fountain, was commissioned in 1927, but covered by wood panels for decades. The reason? No one is sure, but some say it was because of objections to the nude figures. “Rediscovered”in the late 1980s, it has remained unveiled and proudly naked ever since.

My favorite place in the library is still the children’s room, tucked to the side on the first floor and looking just as it did when I was a kid. But Sari loved the dramatic interior design. “What a great place to sit and read,” she said, noting that shehad added it to her short list, along with the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, of libraries worthy of a return visit.

Ironbound shopsIronbound shopsDining in Ironbound

By now, it was time for a snack. With the opening of The Burg, the restaurant charged with bringing happy hours, gourmet burgers and salads to Military Park, delayed until the end of the year, we set off for the Ironbound. Named for the railroad that borders the district, it’s a gritty Portuguese and Latino neighborhood with crowded streets and dozens of restaurants and bakeries. Iberia Peninsula, a favorite of mine, is on Ferry St, the district’s main thoroughfare, about a half mile east of Penn Station.

The portions are huge, so two can easily share an entrée and a couple of appetizers. Or, if you’re a meat lover, try the rodizio and watch the waiter shave meat off long skewers and pile it high on your plate. For dinner on a recent visit, I ordered mariscada in green sauce and my husband had bacalhau, salt cod, served with fresh-baked bread, salad, and a pitcher of sangria—and took home enough food for another meal.

Nova Alianca

We skipped dessert, opting instead to browse in the shops, then stop at Nova Alianca, a bakery a block or two away. Two delicious cream-filled,sugar-dusted pastries or tarts and coffee will cost about what you’d pay for a single dessert at the restaurant.

If it’s entertainment you’re after, downtown Newark offers several choices. On Friday nights from 7 to 11 pm, you can listen to jazz at The Priory—a club housed in an old Catholic church on West Market St about a mile and a half from Military Park. Call 973-242-8012 late in the week for the lineup. Reservations aren’t required and there’s no cover charge, but you
 will be expected to order drinks and light bites from an appetizer menu.

Another option: See a hockey game or rock concert at Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils, a few blocks south of Military Park. Or see what’s happening at NJPAC, elegant but understated in brick, exposed steel and glass. “An iconic marble monument to culture was not going to cut it,” said Lawrence Goldman, president of NJPAC from its inception until 2011.“It had to be the people's art center." 
Jazz at the Priory

A Double Problem

In thinking about putting a performing art center in the city, Goldman recalled, “we had a double problem—persuading suburbanites that 
they could enjoy a cultural experience in Newark and convincing Newarkers that it was relevant to their lives.” They succeeded in doing both.

Today, NJPAC, just across the street from Military Park, has arichly varied slate of events: a speaker series whose lineup includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the nation’s largest poetry festival, plus theater, dance, rhythm and blues, jazz, opera, and classical music. Also on the agenda are outdoor concerts in the summer and jazz brunches at Nico Kitchen & Bar, the sleek restaurant at NJPAC.
The revitalization of the area was part of the mission from day one, Goldman said. With plans for One Theater Square, a residential and retail tower adjacent to NJPAC in the works along with other downtown upgrades, that goal is finally being realized.

Helen Lippman

Helen Lippman
 is a freelance writer based in Montclair, NJ. She was born and raised in Newark, which is still her favorite city.

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Train is a book about modern train travel. Here, Amtrak train waits to depart.
Tags: Railroad travel India United States Luke Dowley
Tom Zoellner’s book “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern WorldTom Zoellner’s book “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World
Traversing this World on the Rails That Connect our Cities and Coasts

Tom Zoellner’s book Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World - From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief describes the authors adventure across the country and the world using the rails that in years past connected coasts, industrialized lands, and prompted growth and economic prosperity.  His first hand accounts give the reader insight into the lost glory that once surrounded the world of train travel, and the beauty that has withheld the test of time.  

Zoellner’s adventures range from coasting through plains in India to winding through the Andes in South America.  Each story highlights how the train system has changed since the height of train travel, and exposes some unique cultures that can be found while rattling along the railway. 

The New York Times called Zoellner’s book “
an engaging attempt to recapture the power and poetry of train travel.”  Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World - From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief is sure to keep you engaged and inspire you board a Train adventure of your own.

An excerpt from Train

Two nights later the Cardinal chuffed up at the Charleston station an hour behind schedule.  I shoved the last of my pasta dinner at Laury’s into a Styrofoam carton, paid the bill in a hurry and scrambled onto the train with about ten seconds to spare -- only to get immediately shooed out of the club car by an irritated steward, though it wasn’t quite closing time.  He just wanted to go to bed.

I tried to feel a little sympathy.  Amtrak service employees are lucky if they can catch three solid hours of sleep a night.  I retreated into the rear coach and found a window seat next to a thin lipped man wearing sunglasses, looking a bit like the wanted poster for D.B. Cooper. 

He gave one-word answers to my questions, though he smiled and shook his head when I offered him one of Amtrak’s small pillows, covered in a synthetic-crinoline slip.  I rested my head against the glass and watched the old chemical plants of the Kanawha Valley, lit up like war monuments.  This acrid region was at its apex in the fifties, but some money was still left here in the business of pesticides, caustics, solvents and plastics.

The smeary red-and-yellow lights of a Quick Mart store hurtled past, and the brief sight made me homesick in a way I couldn’t name.  I closed my eyes until we got to huntington, West Virginia, the river city named for Collis P. Huntington, the California entrepreneur who had been a director of the corrupt old Central Pacific and also controlled the C&O in the 1870s when he built a massive division point here and named it for himself.
Many of Amtrak's lines still follow lines established in decades past.Many of Amtrak's lines still follow lines established in decades past.

The Cardinal swayed and rocked at about ten miles an hour crossing what seemed like an island sea of parallel tracks, all glistening in the light from the high stalks of security lamps.  This was a huge classification yard for coal, and nearly deserted. 

Beyond it was a courthouse and a radio antenna blinking reassuringly in cherry red.  All is well.  All is well.  Then we were back into a patch of woods, and it felt like a scene from World War II, a sooty forest in central Europe, where uniformed guards with Same Browne belts and vicious dogs were lurking nearby, waiting to demand passports and drag away the unlucky. 

The Forest of darkened sycamore trees opened up into a vista of the plain of the Ohio River, this wide and depressed tar-papered spine of a younger America.  Coal barges were still sending their carbon loads downriver to utilities that used Mississippi water for coolant. 

This was not the border of wartime Germany, it was the border of Ohio, but going over felt like a significant crossing nonetheless.  I watched little farming towns pass by in the silent of the night before I gave up, inserted earplugs and popped a sleeping pill that I’d tucked into the watch pocket of my jeans
An old American steam locomotive.  An old American steam locomotive.

By the time we got to Cincinnati, I was fast asleep, and when I awoke, Indiana was showing itself off in a rolling portrait of pin-neat barns and square fields, the very picture of American probity and cleanliness, as if in direct rebuke to the demonic chemical scenes of the night before. 

Oh, traveler, this is where you want to be, the farms seemed to announce, though their fields were all sprayed with ammonium nitrate and potassium.  This is the heart of the country. 

I squinted at the D. B. Cooper look-alike.  He was still in his sunglasses and overcoat and staring ahead motionlessly; it was impossible to tell if he was awake. 

Woozy and nearly thrown off balance by the sea motion of the cars, I stepped over him carefully on the way to the club car for a cup of coffee.  But I was awake enough to imitate the mariner’s walk I’d seen Amtrak conductors make during rough stretches: extend the feet slightly outward, spread the legs a little more and walk like a penguin.

In a blue vinyl booth was a young man with a resolute beard and a bare upper lip.  A fat pen was clipped to his white shirt, which had sparkly buttons with purple glitter.  He was wearing a black coat , the usual garb for Anabaptists, and his hair was curled in a loose pageboy.
Many developments around the world were dictated by the railways pathMany developments around the world were dictated by the railways path
The Plain People

Trains through Pennsylvania or the Midwest are almost always carrying at least a few families from the various sects of Amish, the “Plain People,” believers in a renegade form of Protestantism who settled in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  None of them are left in Europe. 

They can be courteous to outsiders, though they stay mostely on their guard when in public.  I said hello, and he offered it back,  His name was Noah, a freelance carpenter, and he was traveling with his wife to see relatives in Nebraska, wish a stopover in Chicago.

“I don’t like cities,” he said with a shy smile.  He had a thick voice, accented with some sludgy German.

“Tell me something.  I’m honestly curious.  I know that Amish tend to avoid technology.  You ride in horse buggies and no phones.  But why are trains ok?”

“Oh trains are ok.  We can even ride in cars.  We just don’t own them.”

“Why do you choose the train?”

“It’s cheaper than paying someone to take us to Nebraska.”

That seemed hard to argue, and he wasn’t inclined to offer any elaboration.  We sat in companionable silence as morning Indiana gleamed around us.  Noah went back to his reading, which was a pulp stock magazine called Olden Says, with a mailing sticker on it.  He was absorbed in a short story called “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.”

Across the aisle a man sat wit his laptop open, a flash drive plugged into its side.  His young son sat on his lap.  The Browser page was set to an Amtrak route map, in which the father was trying to inspire some interest.

“Chicago,” he said pointing.  “See that?  Chicago.”

“I don’t want to go there,” said the boy.

Tom Zoellner

Tom Zoellner grew up in Tucson, Arizona and graduated with a B.A. in history and English from Lawrence University.  He has written four other books in addition to Train, including The Heartless Stone: A journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire and An Ordinary Man, the biography of Paul Rusesabagina, a New York Times best seller, whose story was later captured in the dramatic film Hotel Rwanda.  Zoellner now works as a professor of English at Chapman University and lives in LA

Buy this book on Amazon Train by Tom Zoellner 

Luke Bio Pic lnd thumb

Luke Dowley is an editorial assistant for and is currently entering his final year as an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  

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