Branch Brook Park
Having lived in a bustling city most of my life, I find the energy and fast-pace of constant motion invigorating, comforting, and sometimes a necessary evil. Even more important, and I know this is true for many, is the need for open green spaces and fresh air, commonly known, as "parks". Fortunately Newark is home to a number of these urban escapes, my all-time favorite being the incomparable Essex County Branch Brook Park, a 360-acre (one to explore almost every day of the year!) playground of green grass and trees, and overall happy place.
Conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. in 1867, work on the park began in 1896. The historic park was an Army training ground during the Civil War, and a tent city in WWI and WWII. As the first county park opened for public use in the United States, (which led to Essex County developing the first County Park System in the country), this landscape work of art is listed on the NJ (1980) and National (1981) Registers of Historic Places.
One of the most remarkable features of the park is the famed Cherry Tree collection, and their history. In 1927, Caroline Bamberger Fuld donated 2000 trees, which the Olmsted Brothers firm laid out the design to be reminiscent of the way they would be seen in Japan. After years of neglect, followed by tons of love and attention, the number of trees had rivaled that of DC. More recently, our beloved Branch Brook Park has taken the lead not only in the number of trees, but in the variety of the collection.
In Spring 2015 another 1000 trees will be planted, bringing the number of cherry trees throughout the park up to 5,000, whereby solidifying the fact that Essex County Branch Brook Park is indeed, #1.
Every day for approximately two weeks in the beginning of spring, thousands of visitors flock to the park for the Cherry Blossom Festival, to see the trees in full bloom, the park aflame in a variety of pink hues. At the end of those 2 weeks there is ‘pink snow' everywhere. The entire experience is truly breathtaking and energizing (from many sleepless nights after spending the day among the trees, I am convinced that- when in bloom - these trees actually emit energy not found elsewhere).
Seeing the park as beautiful and well cared-for as it is today, it's hard to realize that about 20 years ago it was in disrepair, completely under-utilized and many of the donated cherry trees had died, or were dying.
Thanks to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo's sincere commitment to parks, and the public/private partnership of the community organization Branch Brook Park Alliance, the park experienced a 15-year, $50 million restoration and reactivation initiative, and the park as we see it today is the direct result of what started as the efforts of a few concerned residents (never underestimate the power of a few concerned citizens and community leaders).
The reactivated and restored park boasts a number of new treasures and rehabbed favorites. The comprehensive list of accomplishments is significant; to mention a few:
The Music Court in the Southern Division, off of Park Avenue. This area has been well guarded by the iconic Prudential Lions, which have stood poised in front of the lake for more than 50 years. In 2011, the Lions were restored and dedicated to two of the park's most ardent supporters, Pat and Art Ryan. The Lions are the mascots, if you will, of the Prudential Music Court, which boasts new restrooms, an educational center, and stunning vistas of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Lenape Walking Trail, Middle Division. A popular new addition to the park, which has everyone walking in circles, is the rubberized two-mile loop of the Lenape Walking Trail. Peppered with exercise stations with descriptive ‘how-to' cards, the track silently beckons fitness-minded visitors, and simultaneously encourages those who may need a little more support.
Children's Garden, adjacent to the Cherry Blossom Welcome Center. Half an acre consisting of seven plant beds, and 700 plantings, creating a living, breathing classroom for children to learn about gardening, and gain an appreciation of the great outdoors.
Located in the City of Newark's North Ward, and touching Belleville, this outdoor haven is bordered by Route 280 on one side, 21/McCarter Highway on the other, and is traversed by Bloomfield Avenue, Park Avenue and Heller Parkway. As it is a stop along NJ Transit bus routes and the Light Rail, the 4-mile long, ¼ mile wide gem is easily accessible via most modes of transportation.
From miles of unobstructed paths for walkers, runners and cyclists, to tennis courts, a roller rink, baseball fields, bocce, acres of grass, trees and tons of open space, this is a year-round attraction in which visitors can enjoy a new activity and experience each season. And, on any given day, the thoughtfully designed park is used as a playground, fitness center, classroom, meeting space, a tranquil spot to relax and unwind, a way to create memories with family and friends, a place to find peace and solitude. If you have been there, you probably have a story about the park; we'd love to hear yours. Please email your favorite Branch Brook Park memory to xxx and we will post them at a future date.
A "Care of the Park" initiative is in place for volunteers who want to be involved with maintaining the beauty, peace and investments made in the park, for more information about Care of the Park, or any aspect of Essex County Branch Brook Park, please visit www.branchbrookpark.org, www.essexcountyparks.org OR better yet, visit the park!
Alyson Nash is a Luxury Travel Advisor and Event Planner based and residing in Newark since 2001.
Photo Credits: Alex Bryden