THE ‘ENERGIZER BUNNY’ OF PRESERVATION

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Considering its dire implications, the news earlier this month that a Red Bank house had been had been designated one of New Jersey’s 10 most endangered historic sites was oddly encouraging to a near-octagenarian with a weatherbeaten voice and fu manchu straight out of the ’60s.

Oddly, that is, because inclusion on the list put together by Preservation New Jersey provides no guarantees that the house will be saved. It offers no legal leverage against a present or future owner who might decide to knock the house down. There’s no money in it, either.

In sum, the appellation is as toothless as a newborn.

Yet George Bowden was ecstatic. He’d known that the house, once the home of pioneering African-American newspaperman T. (Timothy) Thomas Fortune, might land on the list, but asked that that not be publicized until it was official, after which “we can blow it sky high,” he told redbankgreen with characteristic enthusiasm.

Once it was announced, Bowden started making plans to leverage the endorsement of historians across the state. He began planning outreach to community groups, leaders of African-American congregations — he’s even reached out to Oprah. Whatever it takes to get the word out.

“You can try to prevent it through the press, or local support,” he says, “but there’s no legal groundwork for preventing demolition.”

“He’s like the Energizer bunny,” says Ed Zipprich, a candidate for council this year who serves on the borough’s Historical Preservation Commission that Bowden heads.

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FORTUNE HOUSE’S GOOD FORTUNE, FOR NOW

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The T. Thomas Fortune House, home to one of America’s first African-American newspaper publishers — and coiner of the term ‘African-American’ — is among New Jersey’s 10 most endangered historic locales, a statewide conservation group said yesterday.

The inclusion of the house by Preservation New Jersey is the latest in a series of designations granted to the structure at 94 Drs. James Parker Boulevard. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and to a comparable New Jersey list three years later.

Still, like the designations that came before it, the latest one conveys no special status should the current or a future owner of the property decide to tear it down. And that possibility has Red Bank history buffs on edge because the house is up for sale by its longtime owners, the Vaccarelli family.

“It doesn’t give us any leverage to stop a demolition,” says George Bowden, chairman of the borough’s Historic Preservation Committee. “But the concern is there. This is one we don’t want to go down the tubes.”

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STRAW POLL CRUSHES BRICK WALKWAYS

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An eleventh-hour move by the owners of a handful of properties in the historic downtown district of Fair Haven to opt out of the sidewalk reconstruction project that begins this week failed last night.

Led by attorneys Brooks Van Arx, whose own office is in the district, and Roger Foss, the property owners asked the council for an exemption from a plan to replace all the walkways in the district with a stamped concrete material starting tomorrow. The aim, the lawyers said, was to preserve existing brick sidewalks at no cost to tbe borough.

“We believe it adds an historical flavor,” Von Arx said of the brick along River Road in the vicinity of DeNormandie Place. “It makes a beautiful, beautiful corner for that historic section of Fair Haven, and we think it’s worth preserving.”

But after borough engineer Rich Moralle (that’s him at the easel in the photo) raised issues of cost, timing, contract law and aesthetics, Mayor Mike Halfacre — who opposed the last-minute changes — called for a straw poll of the council that appeared to kill the alterations.

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BAUER HEADED INTO PORT

Virginia S. ‘Ginny’ Bauer, New Jersey’s Secretary of Commerce and the widow of a man killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, is Gov. Jon Corzine’s choice to fill a seat on the board of the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Star-Ledger is reporting.

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The Red Bank resident, then living in Rumson, vaulted into the public eye by helping secure tax benefits for the families of attack victims in the weeks immediately following the attacks. Nearly two years later, she was picked by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey to head the state lottery. A year ago, she moved to the commerce department at Corzine’s request.

Since the attacks, the Ledger says,

she has become a leading advocate for families of 9/11 victims and has been actively involved in the redevelopment plan for the site, which the Port Authority owns.

Bauer would be the first 9/11 widow from New Jersey to serve on the Port Authority’s board.

Corzine called her the “perfect choice” to fill one of the state’s six seats on the 12-member board that oversees operations of the financially self-sufficient public agency.

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STATE’S BEST DOWNTOWN, RIGHT HERE

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It’s turning into a break-out-the-Champagne kind of week for downtown Red Bank.

First came news last week that Tiffany & Co plans to open one of its high-end emporiums on Broad Street.

Now there’s a poll released Monday by Monmouth University and New Jersey Monthly magazine that finds Red Bank is the ‘best downtown’ in Central Jersey.

The poll of 801 adults found that six percent considered Red Bank the best downtown in the state, tied with Newark. In the central swath of the state, Red Bank won the ‘best’ designation from 28 percent of respondents, widely outpolling Princeton, New Brunswick and six other towns.

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‘NIGHT FOR DARFUR’ AT R-FH

It’s long been kind of an orphan among international issues, crying out for a solution. But the genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan continues.

Indeed, there was this last week, from a New York Times story on efforts by the United Nations to put a fact-finding team on the ground there:

Andrew S. Natsios, President Bush’s envoy for Darfur, said Wednesday [Feb. 14] that pro-government Janjaweed militias blamed for most of the killing, raping and pillaging were planning new actions — a threat, he said, that could drive out aid workers and close camps, producing a “bloodbath.”

This Thursday WEDNESDAY night, a teacher and some students at Rumson-Fair Haven High School hope to call attention to the crisis. They’re hosting an event that’s free and open to the public at which a Darfurian will provide eyewitness accounts to what’s going on there. There will be other speakers, too, as well as photos from the refugee camps and means for participants to make relief contributions.

The event was the idea of two students who helped organize it with social studies teacher Megan Arnone, we’re told.

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ICE YACHTERS HOPE FOR HISTORY & ICE

Today’s Asbury Park Press reports that the home of the North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club is close to winning state designation as an historic structure.

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The building is in Red Bank on the Navesink River (known as the North Shrewsbury until the early decades of the 20th century), a body of water that this week happens to be nearing sailability—a rare condition in recent years.

The ice yachters hope that the recent Arctic weather blast lasts long enough to give them their first chance to sail locally since 2003, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

The National Weather Service forecasts temperatures that, in combination with wind-chill, could give the ice boaters what they’re hoping for.

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GIVING A TOP-SHELF CAT SOME SKIN

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Ralph Gatta, aka “Johnny Jazz,” did not set out to become an institution. It was never his intent to transform what had been a simple family-owned butcher shop into a working monument to what he considers America’s greatest art form.

All he wanted, really, was to be able to continue experiencing the wonders of jazz after life threw him a curveball back in 1963. With the death of his father, Johnny Gatta, Ralph’s freewheeling Saturday nights at Birdland and other clubs in New York and Newark came to a sudden halt, as he and his mother, Helen, put in 12, 13 hours a day keeping their Shrewsbury Avenue grocery going.

So onto the turntable in the back room went the LPs. And out of the speakers above the shelves of cereal and canned goods and sacks of rice came Bird, and Miles, and Coltrane. All day long. Sometimes at volumes that Helen thought unnecessarily high. But Gatta couldn’t help himself. This is a man who, at 69 years old, still becomes visibly pumped when he hears a great horn riff and sprinkles his speech with references to “top-shelf cats.”

“The bottom line is, without my mother and the music—the music —I couldn’t have done it,” says Gatta. “I just did it for myself, to tell the truth. Because if you’re going to put music in a store, it wouldn’t be real jazz.”

On Sunday, Feb. 18, Gatta will be honored by The Source, an outreach program for students at Red Bank Regional High School.

Why Johnny Jazz? Not because he’s got anything to do with The Source, exactly. But simply for doing what he’s done, which has been to help preserve an art form by infecting his customers, including generations of kids, with his sense of devotion.

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‘Y’ BUILDING ON WEST SIDE SOLD

A gateway property on Red Bank’s West Side, the administration headquarters of the Community YMCA on Drs. James Parker Boulevard, has been sold, redbankgreen has learned.

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The buyer, PS5 LLC, paid $1.3 million for the longtime public school building, according to Y CEO Gary Laermer.

The transaction involves a prominent structure in a section of Red Bank that is heavily trafficked and in need of some TLC.

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ADVICE FOR THE NEW GUY FROM THE EXES

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So, after 18 years riding the bench as a member of the borough council, what kind of mayor will Pasquale Menna be?

At his New Year’s Day swearing-in, Menna said his vision “is to continue the progress” of the McKenna era. He reached out to John Curley, his Republican opponent in the mayoral race—and McKenna’s nemesis—saying, “We’re going to work together.” He rolled out a number of initiatives, from public meetings during budget deliberations to online bill-paying for taxes and water fees.

In sum, he gave every indication that he knows what he wants to do, and how.

Still, it’s nice to have the benefit of others’ experience. So redbankgreen asked Red Bank’s four living ex-mayors for any advice they might have for the new guy.

Read on for their replies, followed by a complete list of Red Bank chief executives from the time the borough was carved out of Shrewsbury 99 years ago.

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ON GOLF, GOVERNANCE AND ‘MEATBALLS’

Now winding down a 16-year stint as Mayor of Red Bank, Edward J. McKenna is scheduled to be feted by borough employees at a party scheduled for 5p Monday, Dec. 18, at the Two River Theater.

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The event is open to the public. Tickets are $10 each. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Here’s something else to nosh on. redbankgreen sat down recently with McKenna in a conference room of his law firm, McKenna, DuPont, Higgins & Stone, for a look-back and look-forward interview. And he was as sentimental and pungent as ever.

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‘NICE LITTLE BRICK WALL’ VANISHES

One of Red Bank’s architectural treasures fell to the sledgehammer this week when workmen demolished the intricate brick fence at the United Methodist Church on Broad Street.

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The removal of the wall, apparently prompted by an accelerating state of decay, took longtime Red Bankers by surprise.

“I’m thoroughly disgusted,” said George Bowden, chairman of the Red Bank Historic Preservation Commission who had written to a church elder more than a year ago urging the church to preserve the wall, without receiving a formal reply. “It’s a tearing of the historic fabric of the town of Red Bank.”

Mayor Ed McKenna, whose law office is a few doors north of the church, said he was “shocked” to see that the wall had disappeared from one day to the next.

Church officials did not respond to requests for comment by redbankgreen, which happened upon the scene as the wall was being taken down Tuesday afternoon.

By late Wednesday, every scrap of brick and mortar had been removed, leaving only the poured concrete foundation several inches below the surface of the ground.

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TERRY GROSS WAFTS INTO TOWN

Terry Gross’s National Public Radio interview show, called Fresh Air, could hardly have a more apt name.

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The variety of fascinating personalities that cycles through her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia is proof that there is an alternative to the same-old lineup of guests making the talk show rounds to hawk big-budget movies and other dreck.

A recent week’s roster included filmmaker Stephen Frears; the authors of new books on the Bush Administration and the Holocaust; and Ray Manzarek, formerly of the Doors.

But that’s just the beginning. Gross is a seductive can-opener of an interviewer, one who almost always manages to get her guests to reveal surprising aspects of themselves and their relationships to their work.

Then again, sometimes she doesn’t. Next Saturday, Dec. 12, Gross comes to the Count Basie Theatre to show that it doesn’t always work out as well as it sounds on the radio.

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RIVERCENTER HONORS MCKENNA

At the annual meeting of RiverCenter on Monday night, Ingeborg Perndorfer of The Language School passed around photos of downtown planters spilling over with colorful flowers. Architect Stephen Raciti emceed a series of awards for downtown building improvements.

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And departing Mayor Ed McKenna, beginning a farewell tour after 16 years in the job, collected a plaque that named him this year’s ‘Red Bank Ambassador’ for his role in the creation of the downtown Special Improvement District in 1989 and of RiverCenter, which manages the district, two years later.

Before there were flower pots and award-winning facades, the downtown had the appearance of ghost town, with high vacancies rates at street level and nearly 100-percent vacancies in offices on second floors and higher.

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DATABASE PLUG: 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

The Red Bank Public Library is closing for up to four weeks starting Monday as part of its $1.6 million renovation project.

That means no book-borrowing, of course—and a break for anyone with books due for return during the closing. Members, though, will still have accces to the library’s electronic databases from their home computers. And on good-weather days, for those laptoppers who really miss the place, there are some nice benches outside from which you’ll still be able to get wireless access to the Internet via the library’s link.

If you haven’t explored the databases, you’re missing out on a treasure trove of information, including some interesting history. For example, in the New York Times archive, which reaches back to 1851, we recently stumbled on this gem, which was published, it so happens, 100 years ago today:

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WHERE HAVE I SEEN THIS?

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A man’s home is his castle, but if he’s got a jones for medieval architecture and a lot of ironstone lying around, who’s to say he can’t fill his yard with castles, too?

Last week’s ‘Where‘ featured a pair of stone pylons resembling castle turrets. To our surprise, none of our readers identified them or their location, which is in front of the house at 80 Church Street in Little Silver.

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‘HISTORIC’ LIST UPDATE

The Red Bank Historic Inventory would grow to 80 properties with the inclusion of ten new—or actually, old—properties under a proposal to the council by the borough’s Historic Preservations Commission.

Layli White of The Hub has a story today. From her report:

The new additions to the inventory, all private residences, would include: 20 Alston Court, 1 Hilltop Terrace, 15 Hilltop Terrace, 45 North Prospect Ave., 117 Prospect Ave., 35 Rector Place, 62-62B W. Front St., 65 W. Front St. (Trinity Episcopal Church), 32 Shrewsbury Ave. and 47 Wallace St.

Bowden said that 1 Hilltop Terrace was one of the properties worth a special mention because it was a service building for a large, Mediterranean-style estate that once stood nearby.

“The main house had 22 rooms,” said Bowden. “Can you imagine having a party in a house like that?”

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GREAT FOOD: $35. WORLD-CLASS JAZZ: PRICELESS.

First, if you want to eat—and you probably will—it’ll cost you $35. The food promises to be terrific, and the money goes to a worthy organization.

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But if you can’t swing the $35, or have other gustatory plans, don’t let the price of a food-access wristband keep you away. Because the main event is a free jazz concert. And this should be one hell of a show.

In fact, it may prove historic. It’s the kind of event that has real potential to boost Red Bank’s national and even international profile.

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HISTORY SAVED FROM THE TRASH

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Somebody out there apparently didn’t think much of Red Bank’s history.

Back in the early spring, borough resident Dana Benjamin spotted an intriguing item for sale on e-Bay: a book of maps of Red Bank from 1914. Her husband, Brian, bought the collection sight unseen for $240, and then went down to Asbury Park to pick it up. There, the seller—whose name Benjamin doesn’t recall—told him his wife had found it in a pile of trash behind Asbury Park City Hall.

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ISLAND STYLE

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Today’s Ledger has a piece about private islands along (or near) the Shore, including Rumson’s Barley Point Island, on the Navesink. That’s an aerial view above, courtesy of the Monmouth County Tax Board, with houses outlined in green.

Barley Point is just one of two such islands north of Brigantine, the other being Middle Sedge Island in Barnegat Bay, according to the story.

Reporter Judy Peet frames the story as a balancing act for residents who get to enjoy idyllic “Robinson Crusoe” getaways most New Jerseyans are unaware of, but have to haul their own garbage back to shore and regularly swat away developers looking to buy them out.

“We always kept our eyes open for people who wanted to take our island away from us,” said (Gerry) Boswell, 62, who has been coming to Barley Point Island in Rumson since infancy. “The only way we can stay simple is by design.”

Peet also gives a compact rundown of Barley Point’s history.

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THE END OF AN OASIS

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Say goodbye to another Red Bank landmark.

Shrewsbury Manor, an idyllic cluster of 59 apartments located next door to the Molly Pitcher Inn, is gradually being cleared out and will fall to the bulldozer sometime after the last tenants have departed in late 2007, redbankgreen has learned.

Samantha Bowers, vice president of Philip J. Bowers & Co., the family-owned real estate development firm that built Shrewsbury Manor 60 years ago and still owns it, yesterday confirmed that the buildings will be razed.

Because of their age, the two-story, red brick structures “require an extraordinary amount of maintenance,” said Bowers. “The buildings have reached the end of their useful life, and so this is, unfortunately, what we have to do. It’s time to redevelop the property.”

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DROPPING IN ON…

When redbankgreen visited Shrewsbury Manor at mid-afternoon Monday, blithely ignoring the orange fencing meant to keep out trespassers, the Independence Day partying was not yet in full swing, but signs of the bash to come were unmistakable.

Both interior courtyards of the apartment complex were dotted with folding tables starting to groan under loads of food and drink. Long-neck bottles chilled in tubs of ice. Four young women played beer pong, a game of startling simplicity in which contestants try to toss a ball into a cupful of beer; when they succeed, their opponents must drink beer. Nearby, a beer-drinking guy exhorted the women to take off their tops when he spotted our camera. They didn’t. Apparently, the combined beer pong scores were still at the level of a World Cup soccer match.

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At the river end of the yard, where a grand vista opens out east along the Navesink, Barbara Cottrell sat quietly in the shade in front of her apartment, chatting with passing neighbors and awaiting the start of the fireworks, the latest installment in a long string of July Fourths spent on or near the waterway.

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THE FINAL STITCH

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A fabric store is retail rarity, and not merely because there are so few left. There’s a special kind of intimacy nurtured within its sound-muted confines.

It’s a place where women—and the customers are almost always women, often accompanied by their daughters—share a passion for craft, for making things tinged with personal significance. Amid the bolts of patterned textiles and filigrees of trim, a bond may develop between the proprietor and her customer, even if the store owner knows the customer only by face or by the project she’s working on. They trade tips and suggestions. Tastes are revealed, and values. They open up to one another, speaking of the highs and lows of life: the births, the marriages, the deaths. Secrets may be shared as well, ones that husbands will never know.

“People who come to a fabric store will tell you all kinds of secrets,” says Gisela Soliman, owner of Town Trimmings, and keeper of confidences. “There’s something about a store like this that invites this.”

At the end of July, the women of The Green who still sew will lose a half-century-old sanctuary of sorts when Gisela closes her door at 24 Monmouth Street for the last time.

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DIBS ON THE BENCH

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Things are about to get rather messy at the Red Bank Public Library. A $1.6 million renovation that could take up to a year is set to begin as soon as next week.

But here’s a possible consolation for some patrons: the library has entered the Wi-Fi era.

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‘PRESERVATION’ ON PRESERVATION RB

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Preservation Red Bank’s efforts to address what it calls serious structural deterioration at the borough train station is featured in the online version of Preservation magazine, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“In a good wind, it looks like it could be knocked over,” Mary Gilligan, a Preservation Red Bank member, is quoted as saying about the structure, built in 1875.

“The stick-style Victorian station’s troubles started sometime around 10 years ago, when the building’s slate roof was replaced with a temporary asphalt one—and it was all downhill from there,” the magazine reports, citing Gilligan as its source. “NJ Transit says the station is ‘structurally sound,’ but agrees that it could use some work.”

Gilligan tells redbankgreen the best thing about the article is NJ Transit’s statement about the building’s soundness, which she believes would make it harder for the agency to tear it down anytime soon. “Not that I think (demolition) is foremost in their minds,” she says, “but any excuse not to put money into fixing it…”

The station is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the state’s historic sites inventory, and has seen the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt on its platforms. In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England popped in.

According to Preservation Online, the trust is “the only private, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to encourage public participation in the preservation of sites, buildings, and objects significant in American History.”

Gilligan, who is a member of the trust, said her relationship to the organization had nothing to do with the story, and that the magazine apparently learned of the train station’s plight via an article in The Hub.