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.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Journalism Involves Telling Both Sides

It is common knowledge that journalists are supposed to be objective when covering politics and controversial situations. That is why an article by Tom Hayden about Mayor Frank that appeared in The Star Ledger on February 28, 2009 comes off as so strikingly inappropriate. From reading the article, one would think Haydon thought he was writing a press release promoting Frank. His portrayal practically celebrates her highly controversial first mayoral race, accepts her statements at face value and blindly repeats them, quotes only her supporters, and does not even acknowledge that there is an entire other side to her term in office. This kind of journalism that does nothing more than promote individual politicians is a disservice to the public, which has a right to know all sides of any issue, especially when controversy is involved. Haydon should have at least quoted some of Frank's critics, questioned her claims, and provided an objective overview of her administration. Unfortunately, he did not do that.

And there most certainly is another side. Far from being the dynamic, accomplished mayor he portrays, Frank used this town as a stepping stone in her quest for higher elective office and spent more time cultivating relationships with politicians outside of Highland Park than serving our community. Our Y is gone; the Corner Confectionary is gone; the roads and sidewalks are in terrible shape; the Police and Fire Departments and First Aid Squad never got the equipment they need and were promised; the grant money we got from the state all went toward politically connected architectural firms and planners for what turned out to be a dead end redevelopment plan, and now the state has no more money to give. The truth is that Frank has left this town in shambles, and the public has the right to know. That is why I sent the letter below to Tom Hayden and am now choosing to share it with everyone.

Dear Mr. Haydon,

I am a writer and politician in Highland Park who has also "built strong political connections" over the past 20 years and additionally have been a de facto leader of the political opposition to Mayor Frank since she first ran for office in 1999. I am writing regarding your article of February 28, 2009, which contains several inaccuracies regarding Frank and does not tell the whole story of her tenure in office, which has been extremely controversial.

First, Frank did not "author" the New Jersey Family Leave Act of 1989 or the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Yes, she took part in crafting them, but she was one of thousands of volunteers who worked on this project. She has consistently misled the public and the press by misrepresenting the situation and acting as though she singlehandedly spearheaded this work. That is absolutely not the case. For her to claim this as solely her accomplishment devalues the efforts of other volunteers across the state and country who worked equally hard on these bills.

Frank's 1999 campaign was exceedingly negative and severely divided the community. Many of the people, especially women, who initially supported her changed their minds within a few years when they realized that she ran the town like a dictator. Our system is supposed to be weak mayor-strong council, and she undermined that completely. She also deliberately targeted long term hard working council members when she first took over as mayor with lies and defamatory statements in an effort to get them to resign and replace them with her loyalists, many of whom had no qualifications for the council positions at all.

I ran against her council candidates in 2002 and 2005 and came within a hair's breadth of winning. I too, ran off the party line in Democratic primaries, and my supporters consisted largely of lower income residents and disenfranchised members of the community unhappy with Frank's reckless spending and astronomical tax increases. On several occasions, she responded to people who said they couldn't afford her taxes by saying, "then move. You could get a lot of money for your house."

During my campaigns, she spread vicious and false rumors about me including accusing me of being a racist and of attempting to overturn an election. She filed false police reports claiming I threatened her, which I never did, and complaining that I was copying her hair and wardrobe. After each election, she and her machine lied about the results in repeated letters to the editor in an attempt to marginalize me and my supporters and twist the results of the elections. She also attempted to get both me and my 2005 running mate fired from our jobs by approaching our employers and asking them to fire us. Thankfully, neither listened to her.

Frank pushed a redeveopment plan that generated tremendous controversy, as she refused to rule out the use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes. She told the owners of several blue collar businesses (a mechanic shop, a used car lot co-owned by my brother, and a gun and boat shop) that their businesses did not belong in the downtown. The redevelopment push was done in backroom deals with little to no transparency. In 2005, business owners held several public protests against her redevelopment plan. They were ultimately successful, and every redevelopment project she had initiated and supported was stopped. When one councilwoman, Carolyn Timmons, decided she could not support redevelopment due to the possible use of eminent domain, Frank forced her to resign her council position and went behind her back to get her fired from her county position.

In 2007, Frank lied about a huge cell tower placed in the center of town, claiming Verizon misled her. The opposition found a dated copy of the contract, and it was clear she was lying. This year, she pushed for artificial turf being placed at the high school football field. When confronted with the fact that this turf could be toxic and contains the remains of recycled tires, she claimed that the county grant that funded the project demanded the use of artificial turf. However, this was a lie, as the county Parks Superintendent assured concerned citizens that artificial turf was never a requirement for the project.

Many people in this town have built strong political connections, myself included. Because I openly fought her and confronted her about her repeated lies, Frank attempted to sabotage my political relationships and spread false, vicious rumors accusing me of being mentally ill. I have worked with Democracy for America on the 2004 Kerry campaign, testified before the State Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee on eminent domain abuse as a representative of the NJ Coalition to Stop Eminent Domain Abuse, was appointed by former Governor Richard Codey to the state Natural Areas Council, and am also a member of both the Democratic National Committee Women's Leadership Forum and of the Bipartisan Commission on the Appointment of Women. Yet Frank has refused to acknowledge any of my service to the town and my extensive political connections on the state and national levels.

This town is still very heavily divided politically, and Frank's supporters are largely wealthy upper class PTO parents who have no sense of the impact of the tax burden on most of our population. The campaigns I put together were far more grassroots than hers ever were, as they truly empowered the poor, the disabled, and the disenfrachised. Yet Frank pretends these campaigns never happened and that she never had any opposition.

She also recently ordered the Police Department to give over 600 tickets to people for failure to shovel their walks after a snowstorm in spite of the fact that many did shovel. Her relationship with the Police Department, Fire Department, and First Aid Squad is completely hostile. I urge you to contact representatives of these groups to hear this other side of the story.

Debbie Walsh has been a supporter of Frank's from the beginning, so it is not surprising that she would say the things she did. However, Walsh also misused her position as Director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics, which is supposed to be bi-partisan. At the 2000 and 2001 Ready to Run seminars, for which I paid over $100 each, Walsh objected to my discussing my struggle with Frank during public sessions in which every participant discussed their political battles. Apparently, criticizing incumbent politicians is okay to her, but criticizing Frank is not.

Frank leaves this town with a huge budget mess, broken streets and roads, a football field of artificial turf, a constant turnover of borough employees, and nothing positive to show for her nine years in office. The vision she so heavily promoted of Highland Park 2020, her redevelopment plan, is dead, as such a blatant example of social engineering should be. I can assure you that many residents, including members of the Police and Fire Department and First Aid Squad are happy to see her go.

To find out more about the other side of Frank's administration, please visit my blog at . As a journalist myself, I believe the public has the right to know both sides of the story, and unfortunately, your article told only one of those. I would be happy to speak with you further at any time to share this other side.

Laurel Kornfeld