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Monday, February 29, 2016

"De-Listing" Norman Ortega's Plainfield Latino blog

Logo of Norman Ortega's
Plainfield Latino blog,
which will no longer appear on
CLIPS as of tomorrow.

Today will be the last day that a link to Norman Ortega's Plainfield Latino bog will appear on the CLIPS blog.

I have been pondering the move for some time, since Mr. Ortega seems to have forgotten the terms I laid down in agreeing to add it to the blog roll to begin with: that all articles be signed and that the blog publish on a regular basis.

Sort of like the stock exchanges, where a stock is de-listed if it doesn't meet the listing criteria, Norman is being "de-listed" from CLIPS.

Begun a little over a year ago as a simple blog (like this one, or Bernice's or Olddoc's), Ortega soon changed the format to a snazzy magazine-like style with posts filed under such headings as News, Events, Letters and Editorials. Despite the spiffy format, it has never lived up very well to its promise -- posts seem to be filed in an arbitrary manner, many articles lack an author's name, and there is no masthead listing the blog's contributors or how to contact them individually (for an excellent example of one, see NJ Spotlight's here).

Though Ortega originally proposed the blog would be a voice for the entire Latino community, it soon became evident that it really wasn't going to showcase the diversity of opinions among Plainfield Latinos on the issues facing the community.

Instead, it became a megaphone for a few people, took on a mission of attacking Mayor Mapp almost exclusively, and failed to recognize Latino achievements among any but Norman's tight little circle.

The capper came when Ortega decided not to recognize the achievement of Plainfielder Christian Estevez in being elected statewide president of the Latino Action Network (see my story here) -- even after I pointed the news out to him.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, there is then the problem of veracity. Ortega's style seems to be: Ready, Shoot, Aim. Except that very often there is no "aim" step.

From the Bilingual Day Care Center to the matter of Maria's Restaurant on North Avenue to the Community ID cards, Ortega has played fast and loose with the facts, spreading false information and confusion.

He misrepresented the policy decision in outsourcing Bilingual Day Care. He posed as Maria's supporter (even starting a fundraiser, which netted $250, of which $75 was from me) -- and never gave the city credit for putting together the loans and other resources for her to open in a new location. He has willfully sown confusion on the matter of community ID cards.

Who needs all this?

In addition, Ortega used the blog to thump for his failed 2015 run as an Independent for City Council -- not exactly what we were told the blog was to be about from the beginning.

So, if you want to follow Ortega's "adventures in journalism", be sure to visit the site today and bookmark it. It will be dropped from the CLIPS blog roll as of tomorrow.

And to Norman -- Good Luck, as always.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Plainfield Dems pick 2016 Council candidates

Rebecca Williams

Charles McRae

Plainfield's Democratic City Committee met Saturday morning and voted by acclamation to nominate Councilor Rebecca Williams (2/3 at large) for the Citywide at-large seat which is up this year, and longtime community activist Charles McRae for the Ward 3 seat.

City Committee chair Adrian O. Mapp put forward the names after they were recommended by a screening committee of 7 who interviewed five prospective candidates for the two slots (full disclosure: I was a member of the committee).

The screening committee worked to narrow down a starting list of forty samples questions to a manageable size, and ending up adding two of its own: on willingness to campaign and to disclose reasons for one's vote as a Councilor.

The interviews took place last Sunday and Monday and the recommendation were delivered to Chairman Mapp on Wednesday, February 24, as per the schedule determined at the January PDCC meeting.

Screening committee members were --

  • Ward 1: Maureen Powell, Pedro Estevez
  • Ward 2: Mary Burgwinkle, Jim Spear
  • Ward 3: Joylette Mills-Ransome (chair), Dan Damon
  • Ward 4: Councilor Barry Goode
Interviewees were scored on a sliding scale in six competencies: Leadership, Communication, Consensus-building, Problem-solving, Decision-making and Strategic thinking.

Candidates must now circulate their petitions, which are due by April 4. This year's primary election is on Tuesday, June 7.

Incumbent at-large Councilor Tracey Brown is indicating she will run off the line for her current seat. She is joined by Alma Blanco running for the Ward 3 seat. Ward 3 incumbent Gloria Taylor did not indicate any interest in running again to the PDCC screening committee.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Nearly two in five Plainfielders are foreign-born

Nearly 2 in 5 Plainfielders are foreign-born
according to data from
NJ Spotlight.

New Jersey Spotlight, the award-winning website that focuses on public policy issues in the Garden State, is virtually based in Plainfield, where its managing editor, Lee Keough, and her husband Tom Johnson, who covers its energy and environment beat, live.

Today's issue features an interactive map and article on the number of foreign-born residents in New Jersey (see here).

As you can see from the chart above, extracted from the map, nearly two in every five Plainfield residents is foreign-born -- mostly, though not entirely, Latino.

This in-migration has dramatically changed our community, in which Spanish is now commonly heard on the street and in the shops, and where the school district has become majority Hispanic. As the trend continues, which is expected to happen, the changes will become even more pronounced.

One of the interesting findings of the NJ Spotlight is that if it weren't for the influx of foreign-born residents, New Jersey would have had a net loss of population since 2000.

It seems reasonable to make the same inference about Plainfield. Those wishing to make a living buying and selling goods and services in the Queen City are beginning to come to terms with this new reality.

Plainfield's future looks ever more diverse and cosmopolitan. Good for us!

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Remembering Marjorie Patterson

Marjorie Patterson, 1963.
UPDATE Thursday, 9:30 AM: A brief obituary in the Courier is online here.
Plainfield has lost another thread to its heyday past with the passing of Marjorie Patterson this past Saturday.

I first met Marge in the lat 1980s, a few years after I had moved to Plainfield and she had retired from the YMCA. In 1991, a group of Plainfielders, led by the Rev. LaVerne Ball of Rose of Sharon Church and the Rev. Margot Campbell-Gross of the First Unitarian Society met to search for a response to the Rodney King incident that was appropriate for Plainfield.

I was part of the original group, as was Marge Patterson, among several others. Out of those discussions grew the founding of Faith Bricks & Mortar, which became chartered as Plainfield's first Community Housing Development Organization (CHODO), a designation that has since become known as Community Development Corporations (or CDCs), with the broadening of the purview to include all sorts of community development activities.

Marge was an authoritative figure in the community, deferred to by many, who had then recently retired from what I gathered was years of service with the YMCA. She belonged to the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and devoted her life exclusively to the YMCA, as did so many others of her era, foregoing marriage and family to advance the interests of young people in the community.

Marge was always vague about her age, so it was some surprise to me to learn that she was 93 at the time of her passing.

While I have not been able to find an obituary on either the Ledger or the Courier, there is a wonderful brief biography from the Plainfield Public Library's finding aid for her papers (see here), which were donated to the library in 2011.

Here is an excerpt from that biographical sketch, which includes not only her YMCA career but her civil rights activites right here in Plainfield --

Marjorie Patterson worked at the Plainfield Area YMCA from 1947 until her retirement in 1987. She dedicated her life to helping the youth and underprivileged community of Plainfield.  Her first years with the YMCA were spent as a program aide at the Moorland Branch - known as the “Black Y”.

She spent many lunch hours “sitting in” at restaurants where blacks were refused service. She often met the director of the local NAACP branch for lunch (or lack of it). Because the Moorland Y had to raise its own money, she became an extraordinary fundraiser. As quoted in a newspaper interview, Marjorie said. “we had two bowling alleys, and when money was needed, we’d organize a tournament. We had suppers and dinners…everybody helped out.” She was called the “Pied Piper of Teenagers” when she led forums and training for young people. The Royal Banquets of the Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y Council for area youth that she helped to organize became an annual tradition in which teenagers from seven local communities were recognized for leadership.

Marjorie Patterson served the YMCA in leadership roles on numerous regional boards, the national council and several task forces.  She directed day camping for two years, worked with young adult, junior high school and grade school groups. She directed the teenage program for ten years.  In 1966, Marge was chosen as one of the 21 American leaders to give guidance to an international YMCA teenage conference in Norway.  In 1968, she was promoted to Youth Executive of the Association.  She was instrumental in forming the Women’s Auxiliary, Moorland Players, Youth and Youth Adult Clubs, Semper Fidelis, and Mixmasters.

On March 10, 1973, a surprise testimonial dinner was given in her honor to pay tribute for her years of outstanding community service.  An assembly of over 175 of her friends and colleagues attended the event.  Despite her significant contributions and service to the community, she was still paid less than what the City of Plainfield paid a starting policeman, and $2,500 to $3,500 less in salary than other Plainfield YMCA executives.  In February 1986, Marjorie was named “Citizen of the Year” by the Union County Association of Black Social Workers.

She served on Plainfield’s Human Relations Commission for 13 years, and was chairperson and president of the Tenants Organization of Plainfield, and an officer with the local NAACP chapter. She was a member of Camp Crusade, the Community Welfare Council, Union County Welfare Advisory Board, and United Community Services. Her dedication and willingness to aid Plainfield’s youth and community earned her the heart-felt nickname of “Plainfield’s Little Dynamo.”
In preparing this piece, I tried to gather some information on the Moorland Branch -- known as the "Black YMCA," on the site now occupied by Neighborhood House -- to no avail, which is both disappointing and startling, as the Moorland Branch was an integral part of the history of Plainfield's African American community for generations, but has disappeared without a trace.

There are no images in the Plainfield Public Library's extensive collection. Although there is a finding aid for a collection of YMCA papers (see here), there is no mention in the abstract of that collection of the Moorland Branch, which was an independent organization until absorbed into the main YMCA. This, as Marge would say, is a serious lack.

Moorland YMCAs are part of the racist heritage of both Plainfield and the YMCA organization. Jesse Moorland (see more here), was a Black Congregational minister and YMCA executive in the early 20th century. He was a prodigious fundraiser and helped fund "colored branches" throughout the United States. He joined with his friend Carter G. Woodson in starting what has since become Black History Month, observed nationwide in the month of February.

There will be a viewing at 5:00 PM, Friday, February 26, followed by the funeral at 6:00 PM at Rose of Sharon Community Church.

Rose of Sharon Church is at 825 West Seventh Street. Parking available in the church lot, on the street and at the adjacent Queen City Academy. The church building is handicap-accessible. Arrangements are by Judkins Colonial Home (see their website here).

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Plainfield Dem Committee meeting Saturday

City Committee meeting set for Saturday.

Chairman Adrian O. Mapp has called a meeting of the P
lainfield Democratic City Committee (PDCC) for this Saturday, February 27, at 10:00 AM in the student center of duCret School of Art, 1030 Central Avenue.

Among the items on the agenda are a report of a committee studying the PDCC's bylaws and a discussion of the 2016 municipal primary campaign.

A committee of seven active Democrats, representing all four wards and chaired by Joylette Mills-Ransome, was appointed at the last meeting in January to interview persons interested in the two Council seats which are up this year (Ward 3, Citywide at-large). A report of that committee was due to be submitted to the chairperson today.

Chairman Mapp also solicited interest from those in serving at poll workers. Poll workers are appointed for yearly terms and work the polls at both the June primary and the November general election. In addition, they must attend a mandatory training session. The stipend is $200 per election day, which runs from before the polls open at 6:00 AM until after the polls close at 8:00 PM. Those interested in serving were asked to contact the chairman through the PDCC email at, marking the subject line "Poll worker".

Visitors are welcome as observers at Plainfield Democratic City Committee meetings but do not participate in the discussions unless permission is arranged with the chair before the meeting.

Entrance to the student center is directly off the parking lot at the rear of the duCret campus.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Remembering Molly Banta

Mary (Molly) Banta, longtime Plainfield
High School teacher and community activist.
(Image courtesy of Nancy Piwowar.)

Mary Banta, beloved longtime Plainfield teacher and community activist, known to all as "Molly," passed away Monday after a long battle with cancer.

Born at Muhlenberg Hospital in 1956, Molly was the granddaughter of Henry Banta, also a lontime Plainfield High School history teacher and administrator and her role model.

In her youth, growing up in Westfield, Molly was active in YMCA youth programs, competing in regional and national competitions as a synchronized swimmer. A graduate of Westfield High School, she earned a bachelor's degree in history from Goucher College in Baltimore.

She later earned a master's degree in history from University College, Dublin (Ireland) of which she had many fond memories, and avidly appreciated her Celtic culture and heritage along with her lifelong best friend Joy Mattson.

In the course of her 22-year career as a history teacher at Plainfield High School, and later PAAAS, the district's advanced high school, Molly influenced the lives and love of learning of generations of Plainfield young people.

Molly Banta (3rd from left, back row) is shown with
fellow board members of the Historical Society of Plainfield
in March, 2015. (Photo, David Rutherford. See here.)

Living not far from Cook School, Molly was also tirelessly involved in community activities. She was an ardent supporter of the Drake House Museum, at which she served as a docent and volunteer, as well as the Historical Society of Plainfield, on whose board of directors she served with distinction.

A lifelong Democrat, Molly was active in local politics as a member of the New Democrats political club and a district committeewoman on the Plainfield Democratic City Committee.

Visitation is at the Dooley Funeral Home, 556 Westfield Avenue, Westfield on Friday (February 26) from 4:00 - 8:00 PM. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at Holy Trinity Church, 315 First Street, Westfield, Saturday (February 27) at 9:30 AM.

In lieu of flowers, Molly requested donations be made to the Historical Society of Plainfield (see here) or Center for Hope Hospice in Scotch Plains (see here). Condolences may be left on the Dooley Funeral Home website here.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Monday, February 22, 2016

One reason Trump and Bernie are getting a hearing

Jes' lending a hand. (Image,
Plainfield Today reader Tom Crownover posted a finny bit on his Facebook page (see here) that perfectly illustrates one reason Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are getting a serious look-and-listen from American voters in the presidential primary campaigns.

Here it is --
Though both Trump and Bernie have tapped into American anger and frustration with their government, they have quite different agendas.

The Donald is preaching a message of exclusion, fear and bigotry.

Bernie is hopeful and offers a plan for the 99% to get the 1% under control.

Scorn for both houses of Congress is almost universal -- with the exception that voters may give a break to "their" congressional rep.

The question isn't whether America will move forward -- it will -- but in which direction?

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Is Norman sleeping at the switch when it comes to Latino news?

Norman Ortega, failed Council candidate, is the power
behind the Plainfield Latino blog.

Part of the deal if one is going to blog about Plainfield
issues and news is that  you can't just lie on your couch and wait for the news to be thrown in over the transom. This is as true of Norman Ortega as a Plainfield Latino contributor as it is of any of the rest of the Plainfield bloggers.

On Thursday, I responded to an email from a representative of Quality Insights, the organization that is conducting a series of workshops on diabetes management at the Plainfield YMCA in upcoming weeks. The advisory I got included information in Spanish.

I had already seen the flyer for the series around City Hall and in the community. I thanked the rep and suggested she also get in touch with Flor Gonzalez' Latin American Coalition, as well as the Plainfield Latino blog. She answered immediately that was doing same.

VoilĂ ! The flyer was posted to Plainfield Latino on Friday. Was it because I had steered the organization to them in a gesture of goodwill?

Who knows, but it is curious that it comes on the heels of another -- and much more important -- event of which Plainfield Latino has yet to utter a single word.

And that is the election of Plainfield's own Christian Estevez as the new president of the statewide Latino Action Network, news of which I published on February 1 (see story here).

So, a blog that purports to cover issues of concern to Plainfield Latinos but publishes only infrequently, does not publish a roster of its contributors, and misses important stuff can hold itself out as speaking on behalf of the entire Latino community? Just because it says so?

I don't think so.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Plainfield BOE involvement in fraud scheme needs closer look

Board of Ed president Wilma Campbell, facing April elections,
cannot be happy with Plainfield District's involvement in fraud scheme.

The Plainfield
Board of Education has been implicated in a fraud scheme to which a Linden businessman pled guilty in federal court, according to a report in the Star-Ledger (see here).

Robert Dattilo, owner of Bayway Lumber, admitted to defrauding several agencies -- including the Plainfield school district -- by billing for more expensive merchandise than actually supplied, by substituting lower quality or deective merchandise, by billing for more units than actually supplied, and by bribing agency employees with "gifts" -- including sports event tickets, computer equipment and cameras -- and then inflating the invoices to recoup the cost of the "gifts."

He kept records of all the dealings in a ledger he referred to as "the bank." Invoices were sometimes inflated as much as 200 to 300 percent.

Plainfield school officials did not return phone calls from the Ledger, but the matter certainly merits closer investigation: When did the incidents occur? Were Plainfield school district employees knowingly involved and did they take "gifts" (which would be considered bribes under the circumstances)?

Did any Board members have knowledge of the scheme? (I recall member John Campbell demurring on a question about policy at last fall's candidate forum, saying he was more a "building and grounds" person. (Campbell is the husband of the BOE president.) Did he have knowledge of the fraud being perpetrated against the district's taxpayers?

The incident reminds me of the Red Circle sports equipment refurbishing scandal of a few years ago, in which Plainfield school district employees were also involved. That scam also involved employees accepting "gifts" (also including sports tickets and computers, as well as clothing) in exchange for knowingly authorizing payment of inflated or fictitious invoices. (See the US DOE's scathing report on that incident here.) Two school officials -- one from Elizabeth and another from Long Branch -- pled guilty in that case. Though Plainfield district employees were implicated, no charges were ever filed, nor is there knowledge of any administrative action being taken against any employee in the matter.

The question arises whether Plainfield school district officials -- and perhaps even Board of Ed members themselves -- were aware of the fraud and took part in covering it up.

This cannot be a happy development for Board President Wilma Campbell and her team as the April school board election draws near.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Just Turkey: Requiem for a dream

The former Just Us Turkeys restaurant on Tuesday in the rain.

It was sad to see a post on someone's Facebook page recently that the Plainfield restaurant "Just Turkey" is closed.

Making a go of it with a small business is tough (I have experience to prove it). Making a go of a small restaurant is even tougher. Most restaurants close within a year of opening.

For anyone with an entrepreneurial streak, the dream of making a living doing what one loves is alluring.

In the case of Just Turkey, I have some thoughts about what may have made its success even more difficult to achieve.

Though the restaurant was known a Just Turkey, the actual name on the sign is Just Us Turkeys, though the "us" and the final "s" are in tiny letters.

Many may have thought, as I at first did, that the menu was solely based on turkey. The number of potential patrons that would find that compelling must be almost infinitesimal.

It's a cute name, but probably dinged the possibility of someone eating there from the get-go.

When I went there for lunch with a couple of friends, I was pleasantly surprised to find a BLT on the menu, and ordered it. It came on artisanal multi-grain bread, with luscious tomato slices, crispy and cold lettuce and perfect bacon -- neither limp nor carbonized. Not only was it excellent, I would say it was the best BLT I have ever eaten.

Unfortunately, it was barely weeks before the restaurant closed.

My suspicion is that the name failed to properly advertise the experience awaiting inside.
The old real estate cliché certainly holds true.

Restaurants need to be where other retail activity is going on. Even having other restaurants nearby is a plus as they help to make the neighborhood a dining destination.

However, this location was unfortunately in a bleak stretch of South Avenue with no foot traffic and no adjacent retail stores.

The two large and vacant factory buildings across the street made passersby want to keep going, not stop to check things out.
A related factor is to consider the fate of the previous occupant of the property.

In this case, it had been a once-popular Italian bakery, known for its bread and rolls.

But it had gone out of business several years earlier as the market for bread-based bakeries dried up (the Johnston Avenue Bakery suffered the same fate). Supermarkets now offer many different kinds of freshly baked breads, rolls and pastries -- to the detriment of the older, smaller standalone businesses.
An acquaintance from my Brooklyn days and his wife opened a small restaurant on Atlantic Avenue years ago.

Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue was a busy street, already known for its ethnic restaurants. Their food was excellent and the venue attractive. The place eventually became a true success story. I use the word "eventually" advisedly.

The owner told me that the best possibility for success in the restaurant business was to have the resources to run the business for five years without making a penny!

While one may just make ends meet with the restaurant business -- including rent, wages and supplies -- it leaves the owners trying to figure out how to keep their family housed and fed in the meantime.

No wonder so many restaurants fail before they can succeed.
But the dream never quite dies. And another adventurer will eventually try.

And perhaps succeed.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Three concerts this weekend offer musical feast

Plainfield's own Stefanie Minatee will be featured Friday evening.

ers with cabin fever have three chances to fight the winter blahs this weekend with a trio of exciting concerts: Shiloh Baptist's Black History Month Concert, the Plainfield Symphony's free Family Concert and Crescent Concerts' 2016 Young Artists Concert.
Plainfield's own Stefanie Minatee and the Jubilation Choir will headline this Black History Month Concert Friday evening at 7:30 PM.

Back from a recent tour of Spain, the choir has recorded with the late Ray Charles, Queen Latifah and Dorothy Norwood.

Tickets are $10 each, at the door or online at Shiloh Baptist Church is at West 4th and Liberty Streets and is an accessible facility. Parking available in the lots on the 5th Street and Liberty Street sides of the building.

'Musical Heroes' is the theme of the Plainfield Symphony's annual Free Family Concert Saturday, February 20, at 3:00 PM at Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The program includes 'Musical Selections from Star Wars', 'Phil Harmonic and His Fabulous Orchestra', and Mozart's Piano Concert No. 15 with solosit Nathan Jiang. The concert is under the direction of conductor Michail Avigliano.

Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church is at Watchung Avenue at East 7th Street. Parking available in the church lot, on street, or in Swain Galleries lot.

Polishing off the weekend is Crescent Concerts Annual Youth Concert, Sunday, February 21, at 3:00 PM also at Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church.

This year's featured performers are Kimmy Norrell, voice, and Christine Change, Jasmine Cheng, Brendan Eric Tang, and Eric Wang, all on piano.

Tickets are $20/person and may be bought at the door.

Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church is at Watchung Avenue at East 7th Street. Parking available in the church lot, on street, or in Swain Galleries lot.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Pat Brentano on suburban lawnscapes at Library Wednesday

Artist, environmentalist and former Plainfielder Pat Brentano
will give a talk Wednesday morning at the Library.
Many Plainfield residents remember Pat Brentano as a local artist who lived with her husband (Jon Bramnick, minority leader of the NJ Assembly) in a gracious home on Watchung Avenue that had access to the neighborhood's tiny landlocked "lake".

Her art has always been concerned with nature and environmentalism and she was recently profiled in TAP into Plainfield for her innovative efforts to encourage the use of native plants in suburban lawnscapes (see here).

On Wednesday, Pat will give a talk at the Plainfield Public Library entitled "Rescaping the Suburbs: Bringing Native Planting Back to the Garden."

An environmentalist as well as an artist, Brentano offers busy suburbanites an opportunity to think how to use their lawns and gardens as places to preserve, protect and display native flora.

Pat's work has been featured at museums, galleries and arboretums across the country. She was the 2011 Artist in Residence at the Evansville Museum in Indiana. Locally, she has had commissions by Reeves Reed Arboretum in Summit and The Raptor Trust in Millington among many others. In 2015,  Brentano Bramnick received the Richard Kane Conservation Award from NJ Audubon for her work to transform the suburbs into a migratory bird stopover.

Hosted by the Plainfield Garden Club, the talk will begin at 10:30 AM sharp in the library's Anne Louise Davis Meeting Roon. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Established in 1915, The Plainfeld Garden Club's purpose is to promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and the conservation of our natural resources; to stimulate an interest in public plantings in the Plainfeld area and to help maintain them; to keep its members and the public informed on governmental matters which concern our natural resources; to sponsor and to participate in public shows and displays which encourage the appreciation of good horticultural practices and procedures; and to support the purpose of The Garden Club of America. Visit the Garden Club's website here.

The Plainfield Public Library is at Park Avenue and West 8th Street and is an accessible facility. Parking is available in the 8th and 9th Street lots. For more information about library hours and programs, visit the library's website at

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Monday, February 15, 2016

State reneges on deal with city over National Starch property?

Satellite view of 1700 West Front Street,housing PAAAS and
Jefferson Schools, sold by state to the District for $1.
CORRECTION: The ill-fated agency which began the "swing school" concept was the Schools Construction Corporation, which folded in something of a scandal  over its finances. It was replaced by the Schools Development Authority.

The deal disclosed in the Courier to sell the former National Starch property on West Front Street to the school district for $1 after spending $25 million on its acquisition and remodeling (see story here) got me to thinking about the history involved.

Back in the halcyon days when Dr. Larry Leverett was Plainfield's superintendent of schools, the district and the state embarked on an ambitious program of expanding and upgrading existing school buildings, including making them ADA-compliant.

The resulting disruption meant that alternative space needed to be found to move students into while work was being done on their building. Hence, the "swing school" concept.

At the time the ill-fated Schools Development Authority (SDA) was bankrolling these efforts throughout the state. In Plainfield, a search was conducted for an appropriate site for a "swing school".

At the time, I was the city's public information officer and remember having several conversations with the late Al McWilliams, who was mayor at the time.

One property that was considered as a potential site was the former Wardlaw-Hartridge School (now Koinonia Academy) on Plainfield Avenue. It had the advantage of existing buildings already certified for school use, as well as a spacious campus.

The site had been on the market since the new Wardlaw-Hartridge campus was developed in Edison and the lower-school was moved there. Although the asking price was "squishy", it seemed the trustees would consider offers in the range of $1.5 to $1 million.

As the site was being looked into, it was purchased by the Koinonia folks, who were a breakaway from a New Providence church.

The alternative was the National Starch headquarters on West Front Street, This complex, Plainfield's only "Class A" office space had been occupied by the local Social Security office after Unilever consolidated its operations and moved National Starch personnel to offices elsewhere.

After Social Security was moved to Somerville, the office building sat empty for some time. There was, however, another entity -- Townley Labs -- in the former R&D section of the complex (the one-story portion bounding Rock Avenue).

Altogether, the property brought in $400,000 annually in property taxes -- not an insignificant sum for Plainfield.

Mayor McWilliams was very reluctant to let this kind of ratable be lost to the city forever, and told me he had extracted an agreement from the SDA to return the property to the tax rolls once all the schools to be upgraded or expanded were completed.

I believed at the time that he had gotten a document -- either a letter or a more formal Memorandum of Understanding -- affirming that agreement.

To date, city officials have not been able to find it, but I am told a search is going on.

Did the state welch on its deal with the city? It will be interesting to find out.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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