Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Housing Project for Veterans Deserves Community Support

A proposal by the Reformed Church of Highland Park's Affordable Housing Corporation to convert the vacant All Saints Episcopal Church on South Third Avenue to 11 housing units for struggling veterans deserves the full support of our town, its government, and its residents.

Yet the plan currently before the Zoning Board, which would create five studio apartments on the 83-year-old church's second floor, three apartments on its first floor, and three apartments in the basement, one of which would be a two-bedroom unit, is being fiercely opposed by about 40 neighboring residents. Why? The answer, at least the one opponents state publicly, is that conversion of the church into apartments, which would necessitate placing dormers on the building's roof, would "ruin the character of the building."

Opponents of the plan have gone so far as to apply to get the church registered on the state list of historic sites in their attempts to halt the project even though trustees of the housing corporation have committed to protecting the architectural integrity of the church along with its stained glass windows.

Is this opposition really due to historic concerns, or are those stated concerns masking something much uglier--the old Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality, defined by people's supposed desire to do good as long as there is no negative impact, whether real or perceived, to their neighborhood?

According to the project proposal, veterans would be moved in only after spending up to four months in Veterans' Administration (VA) supervised residential treatment for vocational training plus another one to two years in transitional housing. These will be veterans with minimal physical or emotional handicaps, and the housing corporation plans to partner with the Behavioral Health Care of UMDNJ in Piscataway to assure that any supportive services needed will be provided.

The plan also calls for an office in the building for Greenfaith, a 16-year-old interfaith environmental group. How can any of this be anything but a win for a town that has pledged itself to economic, environmental, and social sustainability?

Interestingly, opponents of the project object to its requirement of variances for slightly higher housing density and more parking spaces than allowed by borough ordinance for this area. Yet some of these people are the same ones who actively supported higher density housing as proposed by the mayor in other parts of town--on Raritan Avenue, Cleveland Avenue, and South Adelaide Avenue--as part of the now defunct redevelopment plan.

That means their objection is not to higher density in and of itself. And if the housing corporation has already given their word that the historic character of the building will be respected and maintained, what is really the issue at hand? Why such strong objections?

Whether we support or oppose any individual war or military incursion, these veterans are people who put their lives and health on the line every day for us, to protect our freedom. They deserve nothing but the best society and every community can provide. Yet 3,500 veterans in New Jersey are homeless, and veterans' services across the country are grossly inadequate.

In 1988, when working on the Dukakis campaign, I was ecstatic when one month before the election, I was given a ticket to attend a speech Michael Dukakis was giving in Boston's famous Fanuel Hall, the birthplace of the American Revolution. It turns out the theme of the event was veterans and the gross neglect of veterans under the Reagan Administration. Listening to the horror stories of men and women who had served this country and come back to be abandoned to its streets, feeling the deep-seated pain and betrayal experienced by those who risked their lives for our freedom quickly brought me from excitement to tears. This was so wrong. And it still is.

Here in Highland Park, we have a lot of people who like to consider themselves "liberals" or "progressives." Unfortunately, for some of these people, these words serve more as labels and status symbols than real, genuine convictions. Sure, they support helping disadvantaged kids in New Brunswick--as long as their kids don't have to go to school with them. Yes, they're all for helping the poor in Newark, Camden, and Washington, D.C. Just don't ask them to bring any of "those people" next door because God forbid, at least in their minds if not in reality, that would drive down their property values.

One cannot help asking, how many of those actively opposing this project ever served in the US Armed Forces? How many of them ever put their lives on the line for the freedom to speak and write about everything from this local project to the wars in which these veterans have fought? My guess, thought it could be wrong, is few to none.

Not that apartments for veterans would do actual harm to property values. Some of the same people expressed similar concerns about an earlier housing project the housing corporation successfully built, an addition of six apartment buildings to the Reformed Church to house women ages 18-21 aging out of foster care. That project, titled Irayna Court, not only had no negative effect on the town; it stands as an example of what a small community of compassionate people can do for those most in need.

Real progressives operate from compassion. Real progressives put human life first, certainly before any monetary concerns. Real progressives understand that a community that looks out for its own people is the most desirable, most benefic, most valuable community in the world.

The pseudo-progressives have vowed to continue their opposition at the next Zoning Board meeting, which will take place on Monday, March 23 at 7:30 PM in Borough Hall. This time, let's have an equally strong contingent show up on the veterans' behalf. After all, they fought for us, and not just with words in a town hall. Fighting for their getting decent services and homes is the least we can do to thank them.