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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The market meltdown hits Plainfield

Talk in Congress has been of protecting the interests of Main Street while dealing with the bailout of Wall Street.

Well, Plainfield has two things to tell those in Congress: 1) here, we call it 'Front Street' not 'Main Street', and 2) you're too late.

Though work continues -- apparently at a snail's pace -- on Dornoch's Monarch at Plainfield senior center/condo project, there has been an ominous silence on the sales front.

Dornoch's Monarch at Plainfield. Named after who?

Some time ago, the Council approved the use of a vacant city-owned lot across the street as a sales center for the project, but no sales trailer has appeared to date.

Meanwhile, the Heartstone proposal by Clay Bonny for 12 market-rate condos on West Front Street between the Horizons unit and McDonald's has fallen completely off the radar.

Rumors that the developers have met their demise appear to be premature.

Dornoch plods along in Plainfield, and in Rahway actually got under way (finally) with steel work on its 36-unit Savoy condo project in late July (see here). Bowing to changes in the market, Clay Bonny just won approval from Rahway's planning board to rejigger his 80-unit Station Place condo project into a 116-unit RENTAL project instead (more here).

There are whispers that Omnipointe, whose plans to build a large residential/retail complex on the G.O. Keller site at South and Leland Avenues, have been the subject of much speculation, is rethinking its proposal. Seems that research suggests there is currently no market for its favored mix of doctors' offices, health-allied businesses and condos at this location. (Anyone witnessing the fight over closing Muhlenberg might have guessed as much.) Did I mention that their attorneys are Wiener Lesniak?

The market meltdown is making it difficult for everyone in the development daisy-chain:
  • Construction loans for developers are harder to come by;

  • Banks are skittish about mortgages where property values -- even on new construction -- are in decline;

  • Buyers are nervous about investing in a down market as to whether their purchase would soon be 'under water'.
Small wonder then, that developers throughout central New Jersey are turning to local governments to approve conversions from condo to rental projects.

The possibility must be considered that both Dornoch and Bonny would approach Plainfield with such a request. This would be a bitter pill indeed for the administration of Assemblyman Jerry Green and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who have staked the success of her term on successful residential/retail development.

The mayor's 'Pocket Park' -- The political equivalent of planting ivy?

And it helps to explain why Robinson-Briggs, with an eye toward her putative run for a second term but without consulting the Council or getting a (necessary) resolution of approval, unilaterally declared the vacant spot on which Bonny proposed his Heartstone condo project into a vest-pocket park. (For a previous story on the park, see 'Plainfield's latest park not it's greatest'.)

Whether or not John Lennon actually said it, it is certainly true that 'life is what happens while you're planning something else'.

-- Dan Damon

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Five for Monday

Texas Weiners I's owner Tom Pavlou will celebrate the eatery's 85th birthday TODAY with special one dollar prices on its classic 'Texas weiner', as well as other food items.

On Watchung Avenue just steps off East Front Street, it is in the same location as when it opened in 1924, making it Plainfield's oldest continuously operating luncheonette in its original location.

Far as I know, the debate still rages over whether it is the first New Jersey eatery to coin the unique spelling of the famous Viennese sausage -- known to the rest of the world as the 'wiener'.

If you have an interest in knowing what goes on in government and how to get your hands on public records, you will want to make it to a free symposium Wednesday at Rutgers.

Titled (OPRA) Finding Out: How to Exercise Your Right to Obtain Public Records, it will help you understand NJ's public records law and make it work for you. Speakers: Guy Baehr, Rutgers professor and former Ledger reporter; Tina Renna, chairperson, Union County Watchdog Association; and John Paff, citizen-activist.

At the Rutgers Student Center, Room 410. College Avenue Campus, New Brunswick. The symposium is free and open to the public and Rutgers students.

Girl Scouting is getting a boost in Plainfield with a Girl Scout Information and Recruitment Evening this Friday.

Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence and character. Come learn how you and your daughter can get involved in an organization that helps girls become leaders, learn about themselves, and serve their community.

Children welcome. Light refreshments will be served. At Washington Community School, 427 Darrow Avenue (parking in Spooner Avenue lot). Information: Call Fatima Latif at (908) 232-3236 x1218.

A reader alerted me over the weekend to take a ride by the Plainfield Health Center at Rock and Myrtle Avenues.

The lawns haven't been attended to in some time -- perhaps weeks -- and are overgrown and full of weeds. On the berm adjacent to the parking lot, it looks tall enough to bale for hay.

Now, what's that all about?

Lastly, one of my favorites: City Communications.

There is a page on the city's website where you can view or download flyers for various events (see here). Nice touch.

Now if whoever is tending the page would just check them before they post them. For instance, the flyer above is marked as the 2008 Fire Safety event. You will note the flyer is for last year.

Will it be updated? Probably after someone reads this.

-- Dan Damon

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

The house where Paul Volcker lived

Learning that former Fed chairman Paul Volcker ("Will a Plainfielder save capitalism as we know it?") lived in Plainfield, I was led on a bit of a hunt to find out just where.

His biography indicates he worked at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York from 1957 to 1962, at which point he joined the administration of president John F. Kennedy.

This seemed the most likely period to begin researching, as he would have been a young man -- 30 in 1957 -- with a family and the beginnings of a promising career. Born in Cape May, raised in Teaneck, and a graduate of Princeton, it seems quite natural that he would have chosen to hang his hat in New Jersey.

But Plainfield?

My mind raced to big old houses on leafy streets in the Netherwood Heights or Sleepy Hollow areas.

But it was not to be.

Using the Plainfield Public Library's online database of Plainfield city directories (you must use it at the Library, as their license does not allow direct Internet access), I had my answer in just a few minutes.

A few minutes, that is, after finally being shown how the 'search' function works (answer: no space between 'city' and directories').

While I might have taken hours leafing through the paper versions, searching the online PDF version was a snap.

There he was in the 1960 volume: Volcker, Paul A., economist, 912 Carnegie Avenue.

No leafy neighborhood this, Carnegie Avenue would have been pretty raw looking in the late 1950s, part of the housing boom in Plainfield that accommodated the veterans of WWII who came home to start families, finish college and get on with their lives as the 'greatest generation'.

Paul Volcker chose a modest but thoroughly respectable small starter home. Perfectly fitting, once you know a little bit more about him.

P.S. -- Note to Maria, in search of Evergreen School memorabilia: This means Volcker's daughter Janice and son James very likely are Evergreen School alumni; he and his wife may even have been active in the PTA (no PTOs in those days).

-- Dan Damon

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Things to do today: Library Book Sale

Things to do today --


Post Office

Dry Cleaners

Get Gas

Plainfield Library Book Sale
9:30 AM - 3:00 PM

Proceeds benefit Library programming and projects.

-- Dan Damon

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Friday, September 26, 2008

'And be sure to check everything that holds liquids...'

Gaylord Farms in the 1940s.

As an innocent young whippersnapper, I worked at Connecticut's famed Gaylord Farms Hospital, which had begun life in 1902 as a tuberculosis sanatorium but had moved on by the 1960s to become one of the leading rehab hospitals in New England.

Among the hospital's more famous patients were Eugene O'Neill and Thornton Wilder.

But the hospital had another, less glamorous side that I was quickly introduced to by Head Nurse
Mary Margaret, a full-starch old-school practitioner-cum-administrator who could have been the inspiration for Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks' High Anxiety.

That less glamorous side was that Gaylord was a swanky but low profile drying-out tank. The whispers were that Wilder, famous for 'Our Town' and 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' had been such a guest, at least once.

What Head Nurse
Mary Margaret taught me was that I was not to trust appearances, but to verify them.

Those who checked in to dry out often arrived chauffeured, with piles of suitcases and wardrobes containing clothes and other necessities for an extended stay.

My assignment was to help a nurse go through absolutely every piece of personal luggage and investigate everything that could possibly hold liquid to see if the guest was attempting to smuggle hooch onto the premises. Every lotion and shampoo bottle, all perfume, toilet water, cough syrup and other 'medication' containers were to be opened, sniffed and the contents discarded if they smelled boozy.

We were told to be ruthless about it because it was for the good of the patient. How could anyone expect to dry out otherwise?

Which brings me to the point of today's post: Bailing out Wall Street.

Some sort of fix is needed.
It is not likely to happen on its own. There will be a bailout. The question is how much will it cost?

That cannot be known because we do not know how much of this 'toxic waste' is on the books of the banks and financial institutions in such fraught condition.


Because they have hidden it, lied about it, don't want to reveal it, and hope it will never be found out. Just like the incoming patients at Gaylord.

But we need to find out, to get to the very bottom of the bottom of the mess in order to understand what it is going to take to fix it.

Or else, like those patients who dried out only temporarily and then relapsed, we will be faced with yet another 'emergency' and another bailout.

Thank you Head Nurse Mary Margaret for the life lesson you taught.

It's for the patient's own good.

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

City Hall Annex: Backup without access

Preparing to hoist the backup generator.

There it was, smack-dab in the middle of Watchung Avenue near 5th Street, blocking everything.

But what on earth was going on?

Turns out Plainfield's City Hall Annex was getting delivery of a backup generator to power the newfangled data center built in the attic (and the rest of the building) in case of an emergency.

The whole operation was done crisply and efficiently.

The enormous rig parked in the middle of the street, planted its feet to left and right on large metal pads that distributed the weight of the load, preventing punching holes in the street while hefting the generator, and then lightly and gracefully hoisted the shiny new equipment over its new pad next to the Annex, thence to be guided down by a couple of workers with ropes.

The complex made to look simple.

Sort of like the Robinson-Briggs administration.

But it brought a question to mind.

As I understand it, whenever a public building gets a construction permit, whatever the purpose, the building must also at the same time come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Now, as anyone in a wheelchair can tell you, the Annex is not now and never has been accessible. Should a disabled person need to meet with the City Administrator in his office, they would have to pull themselves up the three flights of stairs hand-over-hand, baluster by baluster.

Shouldn't the Robinson-Briggs administration now be obligated to install an elevator?

Or maybe the rules don't apply at City Hall?

Up, up and away.

And gently nudged into place.

-- Dan Damon

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Of lipstick and pigs: A digression.

Hard as it may be for Plainfielders to believe it, sometimes -- just sometimes -- things happen outside our parochial purview that require notice.

As in the state of the country's financial system, which has been laid low by the dirty deeds done in the name of the subprime mortgage scam and other financial finaglings and those caught holding the -- now nearly worthless -- goods as a result.

But bear with me a moment.

As is my usual routine after posting the blogs, yesterday I got on the Stairmaster for a workout and turned on CNBC and watched the performances of Bernanke, Paulson et al before the Senate Banking Committee.

Talk about lipstick on pigs!

We were treated to a college professor who acknowledges he has no Wall Street experience and who for months has told the country that 'everything is under control', now coming to claim that the world as we know it is on the verge of collapse -- unless Congress does what it is told.

And the Wall Street pro who said all along we should let the markets take care of themselves and now has the chutzpah to demand not only $700 billion, but that Congress should be glad to give it to him without the right of the courts or any agency to inquire or challenge what is done with it.

Members of my generation, the first to be 401k-ized, are NOT amused. In fact, thanks to these gents dawdling at the levers of the economy, the bitter joke making the rounds is that our 401k's have become 101k's.

So the scepticism of Senators of both rightish and leftish persuasion was welcome.

Perhaps the classiest was the way Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) set a trap for Bernanke and crew. By posing a bland statement that surely they must have considered several options before settling on the one they brought to Congress, and forcing them to verbally acknowledge same, he set the spring. (What, after all, would they look like if they told the Senators and the world that no other options had been considered?)

Then, smiling slightly as he inserted the shiv, the Senator asked if they would please outline for us those other plans considered and the reasons for which they were rejected.


It was good political theater.

But the jaw-dropper was when I heard Bernanke say, in response to a question, that the intention was to use some of the money to buy 'secondary liens'.

Secondary liens? You mean, all the crap piled on top of the mortgages when this whole thing was flying high?

Immediately, I thought of the $300,000 house on Berkeley Avenue that was foreclosed on a few months ago -- with an upset price of $960,000. Meaning that on top of the basic mortgage, more than $600,000 in cash had been extracted, for which the secondary lienholders were left holding the bag.

So, the bailout will benefit people who should have known better than to lend such sums in the first place?

You're damned right there are questions that need to be answered before Congress goes for it.

And I hope they are.

Plainfielders should hope so, too.

-- Dan Damon

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mayor monitor Muhlenberg?: A word of caution

Commissioner Heather Howard is offering Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs the opportunity to manage the 'Community Advisory Group' (CAG) called for in her letter of July 29, approving the closure of Muhlenberg by Solaris Health System.

The word comes by way of a front-page story in today's Courier (see more here), though the Commissioner's letter is dated September 9 -- two weeks ago today.

Mayor Robinson-Briggs may want to look twice before she leaps.

Keep in mind that Robinson-Briggs never saw fit to involve herself in the affairs of Muhlenberg (though she is, ex-officio, a member of the board) until after Solaris announced last Spring that it would close the 131-year-old hospital. (That's 2+ years for anyone who's counting.)

It's the 'A' in CAG that gives the game away. This is to be an advisory group only.

In other words, a toothless dog. Not exactly the kind you would want guarding your home or your junkyard.

Add to that that managing large groups representing diverse opinions and hewing to strict schedules and timelines are not exactly Robinson-Briggs' strong suit and you have an interesting recipe.

Some might think Commissioner Howard wickedly clever to suggest this role for Robinson-Briggs.

Will the Mayor take the bait?

The word of caution?

'Pride goeth before a fall' -- Proverbs 16:18.

-- Dan Damon

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Will a Plainfielder save capitalism as we know it?

A former Plainfielder, actually.

Paul Volcker, chairman of the Fed under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan wrote a joint OpEd in last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal urging the resurrection of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), used to bail out the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s (see more here).

Paul Volcker lived in Plainfield when he was an executive at Chase Manhattan Bank and, as his daughter Janice noted in a 1987 NY Times article, he was old-fashioned and frugal then -- meaning a banker who believed in sound loans and a dedication to public service as a virtue.

Well, old-fashioned this former Plainfielder may be, but he is remembered for breaking the back of 'staflation' while Fed chair, and is still widely respected. And he is listened to.

Fed chair Bernanke (himself an expert on the Great Depression) and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson heeded the ex-Plainfielder's advice and made a proposal at the end of last week along the lines Volcker suggested.

But there are thickets to watch out for.

The proposal is to pay a 'fair' price for the distressed assets (the list of which ballooned over the weekend) -- and therein lies the difficulty. Who knows what a 'fair' price is? How does one go about discovering the 'fair' price?

And that is where Volcker's suggestion needs fine tuning -- or maybe even an alternative strategy.

Charles Calomiris, of Columbia's business school, suggests that Volcker's idea is fraught with problems -- how to price the securities, and how to make defensible decisions being chief among them -- that would be avoided by a plan he proposes (see here). His plan is similar to one the Japanese used during their banking industry's crisis (imperfectly, to be sure).

Yesterday, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters (see here) that stronger oversight is needed than Paulson and Bernanke have proposed.

Tuning in to Bloomberg Radio at 5 AM, I was surprised to learn that the proposal is being broadened from subprime mortgages to just about any debt that the banks speculated in (credit cards, auto and student loans, etc. -- or as the King of Siam would say... etc., etc. etc.).

With everyone piling on and trying to get a piece of the action, Schumer is right to sound a warning.

As Schumer says,
"We understand the need to act and to act quickly. But we feel ... taxpayers have to come first ... They have to come ahead of the bondholders, the shareholders, and the executives."
A sentiment former Plainfielder Volcker no doubt concurs with. As well as this current Plainfielder.

But will the taxpayers be put first?

Stay tuned.

-- Dan Damon

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Olive Lynch's Open House, or Wall Street meltdown meets Main Street red tape and it ain't good.

Olive Lynch's 'Coriell Mansion', at the corner of Central and Stelle Avenues, and the adjoining ranch home at the corner of Stelle and Madison are on realtor's open house today, from 1 to 4 PM.

The public is welcome to come out and look, and the hope is that some -- potential -- buyers will as well.

The sight is not pretty, but it is not the state of the Coriell Mansion, which is frozen in the midst of a complete restoration of the exterior and renovation of the interior that is shocking.

Rather, it is the unprettiness of a dream crushed by market realities and bureacratic snares.

I will let Olive tell the tale in her own words, via an email she sent and is willing to share --

Let me tell you about what happened.

It took me 3 years to get through the city process to get the building rezoned from a 4-family to a single family with a B&B variance. In the historic districts, B&B's are an allowed use. But, because I wanted to do events, weddings (which are not allowed per the Plainfield zoning
code for a B&B), I had to get a variance.

I went before the Planning Board, then the Historic [Preservation] Commission, then the Zoning Board of Adjustment, then back to the Historic
[Preservation] Commission. The process cost me out of pocket $60,000 for architect's drawings (for the house), engineer's drawing, attorney's fees (I had to go 4 times to the zoning board meeting, because they kept putting me at the back of the agenda and "continuing" me) and a planner. I was required to change my engineer's site plan about 8 times ... Sometimes one change was put back to what it was originally, in the going back and forth between the zoning board, fire department and historic commissions. I was required to get a tree expert to analyze whether the proposed circular drive would harm the large oak tree at the street.

After I got through this process, then came the bonding. I was required to put up $60,000 in CASH as a bond for the site work. I had these funds, but I was planning to use this to do the site work. So, I had to put that money in an account and it was held by the city until the work was deemed complete. Unfortunately the engineering firm that the city used way overestimated the costs ... And after the fact, I really should have only had to put up $20,000 or so.

I also had a delay related to the fact I wanted to put in pavers at the driveway apron, instead of asphalt. The city engineer at the time (now not there), demanded I create engineering drawings. What made me angry, was in his letter to planning, he stated these drawings then could be
used as a standard for any one else who wanted to do pavers in [a] historic district. I objected, provided engineering calculations from the paver manufacturer, that the concrete pavers could meet the load requirements(in fact, better than asphalt).

So ... I went through a lot before I could even start work.

Next came getting financing. I put together a complete SBA proposal package and went to 2 local banks, and 3 other banks trying to get an SBA loan. I had $100,000 in the bank. I was turned down by all of them, citing that Plainfield was not a viable location for a Bed and Breakfast. It didn't matter that the Pillars had been there for 10 years.

I finally got a home construction loan through Wells Fargo (because a B&B is your home). This, with my cash on hand, should have been enough
to complete the project.

Then I was informed by the city and state that I required fire sprinklers throughout the building. When I did my research with the B&B association of New Jersey, they said I would not need sprinklers, so this was completely unexpected. The average price I got for this was $100,000.

Also, the city inspections department has, to date, rejected every drawing, plan, spec submitted by my architect, plumber, contractor and electrician. I went to the permit office many times, where they could not find my file, and I had to resubmit drawings and diagrams.

Also, when we got into the project, we found that the repair done [before I bought the property], right over the porch, was dangerously substandard. It is incredible to me that the city approved the architect's plans and passed it in inspection. When we opened that part of the building up, my engineer and framing contractor said eventually the house would have come down, and that the building was actively moving downward. This surprise cost a substantial amount of money, not in my original budget.

So ... Since January I have gone through approximately 18 banks looking for the additional funds to complete the project. I have been turned down by every one. The criteria:

1. In the past year, since the building was last appraised, the mansion value has dropped by $200,000. This is based on recent house sales. This was huge, because banks determine what they will loan by the appraised value. This property is especially difficult, because ther are no 15,000 sq ft single family homes ... Even when the appraiser looked up to 30 miles away.

2. Banks again did not want to invest in a B&B in Plainfield ... It doesn't have the right population mix to support such a business (that was their opinion).

3. With the bank crisis, funding that could have been available for a special project (ie, banks that would have funded a "riskier" loan for a higher interest rate) ... All that funding has dried up.

4. I went to brokers that specialize in funding B&Bs ... Much of their funding has dried up, and the few that remain are being very conservative, and did not like my project because I was the sole source of income, the location and it was a start up.

So, a post-mortem is:

The city of Plainfield's process caused me $60,000 and three years. If I had gotten through the zoning process in a few months, at that time the funding would have been available, and the B&B would be open already. My feeling is at every turn the city put up roadblocks on this project. Given that bank funding will be very tight for the next 2-3 years, I realized I would not get the funding for years, so I'm selling.

Above, the newly built elevator shaft awaits its elevator.

The adjacent ranch home is also on Open House today.

Coriell Mansion

Realtor Open House
1 PM - 4 PM

Contents Sale
Final Day: Sunday
9 AM - 4 PM
At Central & Stelle Avenues
CASH only

-- Dan Damon

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Olive Lynch's giant house sale today

The Coriell Mansion.

Olive Lynch's 'Coriell Mansion', at the corner of Central and Stelle Avenues, is the site of an enormous contents sale Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 AM to 4 PM.

Furnishings Olive acquired in preparation of opening her Bed And Breakfast inn will be available for purchase -- cash only.

Items include furnishings for six bedrooms, oriental rugs, three grand pianos (including a Steinway), chandeliers, a pool table, outdoor furniture, china, crystal and much more.

In addition, both the Coriell Mansion and the ranch Olive and her mother occupied at Madison and Stelle will be on a realtor's Open House on Sunday, September 21, from 1 - 4 PM.

Coriell Mansion
Contents Sale
Friday - Saturday - Sunday
9 AM - 4 PM
At Central & Stelle Avenues
CASH only

Realtor Open House
1 PM - 4 PM

-- Dan Damon

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bishop George Benbow arrested in child molestation

As word seeped through Plainfield Wednesday afternoon of the arrest of Bishop George Benbow of the Christian Fellowship Gospel Church on charges of child molestation, those who know him were stunned.

Benbow, who is also president of the city's clergy organization, Concerned Urban Clergy, has been a prominent and highly regarded minister in the community for a number of years and was recently lauded by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs in a proclamation.

Both the Courier and the Ledger posted the stories online Wednesday afternoon, but the Ledger's link has disappeared from the website though the story is still up (see here).

Clergy contacted by the Courier expressed respect for Bishop Benbow's role in the community. Assemblyman Green did not comment on Benbow's character.

Many who are active in uplifting the Plainfield community are members of this fine church. Besides the alleged victims, please keep the church members, their pastor, and his wife and co-pastor Anita Benbow in your thoughts and prayers.

And remember, under our 900-year-old legal tradition, accused persons are considered innocent until proven guilty by a jury of their peers.

-- Dan Damon

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Get cracking, photogs!

'Everybody', by Paul LeGrand,
from the 2007 Plainfield Public Library Photo Contest.

The Plainfield Public Library's 3rd annual 'Documenting Plainfield' photography contest is under way.

This year's theme is storefronts and shopping scenes.

Amateur and professional photographers are welcome to submit up to five photographs of contemporary images of the shopping experience anywhere in Plainfield (photos need not be only of downtown or South Avenue).

Complete submission rules and instructions can be found on the Library's website (here) or picked up at the Library, Park Avenue and West 8th Street. Entries must be received at the Library or postmarked no later than October 3, 2008.

In addition to cash prizes for winners in various categories, entries become part of the Library's permanent collection of Plainfield photographs.

The contest is made possible through the support of the Plainfield Cultural and Heritage Commission and the Friends of the Plainfield Public Library.

For more information, contact Jessica Myers, head of the Local History Department at (908) 757-1111 x 136 or visit the Library's website.

-- Dan Damon

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Welcome to Plainfield's newest crime wave

Good morning, Dan.

Plainfielders must be on the lookout for
Plainfield's NEWEST crime wave, home and auto breakins and thefts.

While Plainfield's civilian police director, Martin Hellwig, was busy telling attendees at Mayor Robinson-Briggs' August 26 forum how violent crime had declined, Plainfield's NEWEST crime wave was already under way -- a home invasion in which an 82-year-old man was savagely beaten (more here).

Last night, I got an email from FOSH board member Jennifer Costello about a car breakin and theft in the Hillside/Woodland Avenues neighborhood, and decided to write about it today, as several cops have told me that car and home burglaries have risen dramatically in recent months -- though you won't know about it as the Robinson-Briggs policy is NOT to release crime information unless it cannot be avoided. (For today's editorial by the Courier challenging the city's policy of secrecy about city business, check here.)

Here is the text of the email sent by Jennifer --

We were given this information and wanted to pass it along to our our FOSH neighbors.

A local resident living between Woodland and Hillside Avenue (West of Woodland) had their car broken into last night. It was parked 200 ft. from the road in their driveway (well in their backyard). The police told him they believe thieves skipped over their Mercedes and the neighbors Jaguar and targeted their Toyota because his wife left her briefcase on the seat and the tempting 'suction cup holder' for the GPS device attached to the windshield. After destroying the door lock and failing to get access, they simply smashed in the drivers window and rummaged through everything w/o opening the door - which is why the car alarm never went off.

The police said there has been a very sharp increase in both car & house burglaries in the area within the last few months. They strongly recommend not leaving any valuables within view of house or car windows, as well as installing motion sensor lights (which they didn't have, but soon will). The police have stepped up patrols, but since the crimes are widespread it is difficult to target just one area.

They have lived in Plainfield for over 14 years & this is a disappointing first for them. Keep your guard up!

'Keep your guard up!' is certainly good advice.

This morning, when I went out at 6:30 AM to go pick up the dead-tree versions of the papers, guess what?

Our two Toyotas had both been broken into, which has never happened in twenty-five years living in the West End. (Could it have been because the former neighbors always had a dog that barked loudly?)

The contents of the glove compartment, strewn about.

Thank God, the Girl Scout cookies weren't taken!

My little Echo, without power locks or alarm system, suffered the indignity of having all my glove compartment contents and maps strewn about as well an emergency tool case dropped in the hedge. Recovering the registration and insurance cards from under the car, closer inspection revealed the only apparently missing item was a little baggie in which I keep quarters and dimes for Parkway change. Total, the police officer taking the report asked politely? "Couple of bucks," I said, "less than $5."

Since this was NOT an emergency, I called the ordinary police business number (753-3131), and after the phone-tree rigamarole (the answer is press '1' for police dispatch if you don't want the messages) and got a very polite and thorough dispatcher who took my name, address and couple of pertinent details.

When asked if I knew who did it, I burst out laughing. "Why do you think I'm calling?" I finally got out. The dispatcher informed me, in very serious tones, that it was a standard question. Perhaps a former girlfriend did it in anger?

A former girlfriend? Hmmm. I'll have to give
THAT one some thought.

In the meantime, as Jennifer warns all: Keep your guard up!

-- Dan Damon

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Hundreds throng Saturday's quinfecta of events

Plainfielders had a wealth of opportunities to get out on Saturday, despite the heat, humidity and general sogginess outdoors.


There was no parking for blocks around as families crowded the 9th Annual Environmental Fair. Here are some pictures I snapped of folks enjoying themselves.

The only smudge? One comment on the blog post advertising the day noted that there was debris right in front of the podium as Mayor Robinson-Briggs and Assemblyman Green spoke and that no one thought to clean it up first.


John Grady and Dotte Pollard's book signing at Borders was a smash success. By the time I got there, just before the midpoint of the two-hour event, they had completely sold out the store's stock and polished off the stack that John had stashed in the back of his station wagon.

Not to fret! Borders will be restocking the book (Plainfield, New Jersey's History and Architecture), and copies will also be available at Swain Galleries and the Drake House. Read the reviews here.


Though I was not able to be there because of the overlapping events, reports were that the rally was well-attended (though perhaps not quite as well-attended as Councilor Burney estimates here) and enthusiastic, with Newark mayor Cory Booker's remarks being the high point of the afternoon.

With the Monmouth/Gannett poll indicating a dead heat in New Jersey, the notion that Obama can coast to a win has gone out the window. Will the Obama campaign relent on its spend-as-little-as-possible mantra in NJ and at least distribute some yard signs? We can only hope.

The combined Obama and local Democratic candidates' headquarters is at 311 East Front Street. Volunteers welcome!


This is always a highlight of the Plainfield Symphony's annual season, and reports are that guest conductor Michael Avagliano did not disappoint with David Ramelis' introduction to the symphonic orchestra, 'Phil Harmonic and His Fabulous Orchestra'.

The Symphony's 89th season features four performances from October through March, all under guest conductors while a search committee seeks a permanent music director to replace Sabin Pautza, the Symphony's longtime conductor.


Despite overcast skies and the occasional spritz, hundreds gathered at the gracious home of Mr. and Mrs. William Gearhart on Rahway Road to sample dozens of red, white and sparkling wines and dine on Sandy Spector's excellent hors d'oeuvres and the largest roast haunch I can recollect in a long time.

Dozens of items were on display for a successful silent auction and exclusive tours were offered of the Gearhart's stunning home. But perhaps the most excitement was generated by the announcement that Library Board member Vicky Rappold and her husband Charles were donating $10,000 to the Children's Room makeover currently under way, in the name of the Gearhart's.

I think it is fair to say that summer is over, and the Fall 'season' has begun in earnest.

-- Dan Damon

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tough times, tough measures: Dan pinches a few pennies

Plainfielders may have noticed that the cost of just about everything is starting to go up -- noticeably. (Except gas, which is coming down, but that may be only temporary.)

One of the disadvantages of being retired is that you live on what is euphemistically called a 'fixed income'. So, when the little bags of pretzels I like to snag for snacking during the day went from 25¢ to 30
¢ at the convenience store, I took note.

That's a 20% increase, for Pete's sake.

Then the Times ran a little article about Aldi's, the German discount grocer. I remembered that they had opened a store where the old Acme had been on Park Avenue just over the South Plainfield line.

I actually went in shortly after it opened, but was turned off by the presentation -- everything sits out in the open in cut apart shipping cartons and there wasn't a brand name in sight. Reminded me of the Two Guys shopping experience from the 60s.

Learning that Aldi's also owned Trader Joe's, I decided to check it out again.

Forget the shopping amenities -- this is an experience that is all about price. Nearly everything is a house brand, which really means it is stuff made by the name-brand manufacturer but sold under Aldi's brand name, minus the marketing costs of the big guys.

Can you save quite a few pennies? Check out the results of my little excursion.

I bought three items and compared them with prices from a chain grocery in the area: a bottle of canola oil, and standard-sized boxes of clones of Cheerios and Rice Chex.

Here's the tale of the tape --

Canola Oil
Rice Squares
Oat Cereal


If you're thinking that pinching a few pennies here and there might not be a bad thing, head on down Park Avenue and check it out. Aldi's routinely beats the prices of even Wal-Mart.

Note that this is NOT a comparison with 'warehouse' shopping. We're not talking about buying a case of cereal or canola oil at a time here; many people don't want or need that kind of savings.

I decided that my Aldi savings could alleviate the shock of my little bags of pretzels quite a bit and I could learn to live with the ambience. Plus I got to chat with a few friends who, it turns out, were on the same mission.

Be forewarned: Bags are 10
¢ apiece. Bringing your own is perfectly fine.

-- Dan Damon

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Former chief Santiago cleared of offenses

In a front-page story today by the Courier's Brandon Lausch, we learn that all of the serious charges against former Plainfield Police Chief Ed Santiago (six items alleging insubordination and failure to obey instructions) were dismissed outright by hearing officer Edward Kologi (
see more here).

That was on August 7th.

The city just coughed up the documents to the Courier late yesterday afternoon after an OPRA request. So much for 'open and transparent' government in Plainfield.

Kologi left stand two items concerning failing to 'enforce traffic' involving the mobile electronic radar speed board that is moved from place to place and an officer's lapsed certification. Says Santiago failed to get the portable sign fixed quickly when there were problems with it.

You may want to run out and check it right now -- if you know where it is. The last time I saw was on Park Avenue, advertising the Bike Rodeo at Library Park as part of the August 'National Night Out' programs.

It wasn't working properly then either, with several characters blocked out by a section of lights that stayed permanently lit instead of flashing.

Who's in charge of it now? Is someone filing charges? Let's hope so. We must have the rule of law and procedures, right?

A huge public outcry attended the moves by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs through then-Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig to discipline and remove Santiago, and -- eventually -- to abolish the police chief's position. The whole brouhaha was widely perceived in the community as a personal vendetta by Assemblyman Jerry Green against the chief.

The dismissal of the administrative charges still leaves at least one lawsuit pending against the city by former Police Chief Santiago.

Back in January of this year, I predicted that Santiago may yet have his justice served (see here).

He is now one step closer.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

PMUA Fair Greens Plainfield

Saturday's 9th Annual PMUA Environmental Fair will be jammed with activities and information for kids of all ages, including the rock climbing wall, providing a thrill of which kids just cannot get enough.

Winners of the PMUA's summer art contest and the schools district's environmental poster and essay contest will be acknowledged and will receive prizes for their entries.

Demonstrations and information will be available at tables hosted by the Trailside Nature and Science Center, Edison Wetlands, the Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club.

Local organizations also offering environmental and recycling information include the Plainfield Police and Fire Divisions, the Tri-County Chapter of the American Red Cross, the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Health Services, the Senior Center and El Centro.

9th Annual PMUA Environmental Fair
Saturday, September 13
11 AM - 3 PM
Library Park
(Rain date: September 27)

-- Dan Damon

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