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Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pleasureland

When the glaciers receded back up towards the North Pole ages ago, they left the state of New Jersey pockmarked with endless lakes, streams, rivers, beauty – and flooding. Until the George Washington Bridge was finished in 1931, thousands of New Yorkers yearning to breathe free for a summer, started vacationing here. They built little summer cottages with no heat or basements along New Jersey’s endless lakes and especially her rivers. If those rivers were prone to flooding, well, no big deal really.

But after World War II came the Baby Boomers and their parents, looking for less expensive lands and homes, and lower taxes. My own parents found themselves taxed right out of hoity-toity Westchester County. The owners of the rental cottages converted them to permanent home status and sold them to bargain-hungry homeowners who had no idea of the history of the places to which they’d moved. The houses were cheap and the areas were pretty.

In the summertime.

My parents were too smart to buy a home in the plains; they bought a house on a high hill, with a steep driveway. But my grandfather bought one of those converted summer cottages on Bergen Boulevard in West Paterson (now Westwood Park) right on the Passaic River. The 1968 flood was particularly bad. There aren’t enough people who are even old enough to remember it anymore. Here at home, the flood washed away the Bloomingdale Cornet Band’s bandstand. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was spared; the house was built on a high foundation and they only had basement flooding. But they couldn’t get out and we had to get Grandma out in a rowboat. The houses across the street were completely flooded over though.

My grandparents have long since passed away, but I checked on their old house during the 2007 flood. Everything looked just the way I remembered it. Meanwhile, in the 1968 flood the section of Oakland along the Ramapo River known as “Pleasureland” was completely underwater. Route 287 hadn’t been built yet and Route 202 was the only way to get to the New York State Thruway.

Then in 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers built floodgates on the Ramapo River at Pompton Falls, between Wayne and Pompton Lakes, which also suffer from flooding. Now, in Pompton Lakes, flooding regularly occurred at the junction of the three rivers – the Ramapo, Wanaque, and Pequannock, which altogether eventually form the Pompton River. But not in the section below the falls. Whatever flooding occurred there was only minor.

Until they put in the flood gates. There’s a dam at the end of Lower Twin Lake, too. However, there’s also a stone levee leading along the brook until it reaches the Wanaque River. Those living along the levee are fine. Once the Post Brook waters reach the Wanaque, that section of town also winds up under water.

A co-worker and friend lives just past Pompton Falls. She’s a 28 year resident of Pompton Lakes; she grew up there and so did her husband. When they married, they bought her grandmother’s house. Only once in the grandmother’s ownership of the house did she ever experience flooding (in 1984) and then, her granddaughter says, it was only minor. It’s not like “they didn’t know”. The couple did know; that section did not flood. Until 2007.

During last year’s March flooding, with the floodgates operating at full-roar, the couple was completely flooded out. They lost all their appliances, carpeting, flooring, furniture was all ruined. It cost them approximately $40k to repair the house. The force of the water crashed through their backyard fence. Churches and charities donated clothes, toys, and even some appliances. FEMA paid the rest.

Nine months after that flood, around December, the repairs to their house were finally completed. They were just waiting for the snows to melt so they could begin moving the donated items into their house. Before they could do so, another very heavy rainstorm came along, and destroyed the lower portion of their house again. They had enough time this year to move their belongings to the second story of the house and put their appliances in storage.

Once again, though, the carpeting, flooring, the brand new paint job in the kitchen and living room and their new staircase were damaged. The water came at the house so hard that it cracked their front door. Their front window still bears the FEMA permit stickers from the last flood. Now they must wait for FEMA to finish assessing the damage. Meanwhile, the couple is living in their church’s safe haven home with their two sons until the house can be properly cleaned and sanitized. All the donated items in their detached garage had to be thrown away. Anything that bore signs of rust was condemned.

Meanwhile, the “Pleasureland” section of Oakland has sat high and dry for five years. Some bitter residents noted that five years is FEMA’s term limit to build on flooded land. If the land stays dry for five years, the owner can rebuild. But the mayors of the town have discredited that rumor, and indeed, anyone who would try to build on the “Pleasureland” property would have to be out of their minds.

According to the Weird New Jersey website: In the 1930s, Oakland was a popular vacation destination. People flocked there to swim and fish in the pristine waters of the Ramapo River and stay in one of the dozens of inns that lined its banks. At the height of its tourism age, the number of people in the town would swell to four times that of its regular population during the summer months. The former farmland was developed into recreational facilities. Restaurants, hotels, inns, bars and gas stations sprang up to accommodate the influx of vacationers. Small cottages were built and rented out in the “Pleasureland” section of town, sometimes referred to as “The Colony.”

There were a dozen “beach” resorts lining the banks of the river in all. Historians can’t agree on who opened the first resort, but they generally acknowledge that Muller’s Park (a former horse farm) was one of the very first. Located between Pleasureland to the south and Sandy Beach to the north, William Muller built the first public swimming pool in town in 1935.

Oakland’s tourist industry lasted about 50 years. Then in the early 1960s, with the closing of Sandy Beach, the area started to decline sharply. The clear waters of the Ramapo had become polluted due to the poor septic systems, which were originally built for summer cottages. Those cottages were increasingly being converted into year-round dwellings. As Oakland became more of a permanent residential town, tourism dwindled and one after another the beach resorts shut down.

By 1985 there were only two left, FRG Sports Complex (located on the former site of Muller’s Park) and Pleasureland, which were adjacent to each other. Because FRG no longer attracted area residents as patrons, its owner Frank Gallo began soliciting guests from New York City Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. On Sunday, Aug. 4th 1985, one such group was bussed in to celebrate Jamaican Independence Day.

Ten months earlier, Gallo had gone before the Oakland planning board with a proposal to rezone the tract and construct a huge complex of 1,000 luxury high-rise condominiums. The planning board absolutely rejected his proposal. This high density project - two nine-story buildings, and at least two 7-story buildings would be in the middle of flood plain and the planning board said absolutely not. So if Pompton Lakes residents are a bit suspicious, they have good reason to be.

Right next door, just on the other side of an eight-foot tall chain link fence was the adjacent FRG Sports Complex. Some 3,000 people had gathered at the 50-acre park to picnic and enjoy the resort’s pools, volleyball, badminton, and table tennis facilities. Most of the visitors were brought in by charter buses from the New York City boroughs. All seemed to be going well, until around 4:30 in the afternoon.

A man who had been sitting in a covered pavilion area, where guests were listening to music and dancing, suddenly stood up and began firing an automatic weapon into the crowd. According to a local newspaper reporter who happened to live nearby, a blue van moved slowly through the entrance gate of FRG and parked just a few feet off the driveway near the pool. Without warning, the door burst open and several men leaped out and sprayed the area with machine gun fire. Then the van drove away. Next door in Pleasureland, 500 people panicked trying to climb over the resort’s fence to get away. Before that horrific day was over, two people, one a bus driver who had brought one of the groups in, were dead and nearly twenty others injured.

The police found 65 handguns, machetes, and knives. It looked to the police like the combatants had come prepared for a war. Of the 3,000 people, 1,968 had come out as a part of a charter out of Brooklyn. The name of the group was the West Indies Cricket Club. Police and the reporters believed, although they couldn’t confirm it that the gunmen were members of Florida-based drug and gun group that had links to Brooklyn.” The two gangs were, allegedly, The Showers (Jamaican Shower Posse) and The Spanglers.

Local residents had been complaining about the noise from the big parties Gallo bussed in. The “Oakland Massacre” was the last straw, though. Seven men, many illegal Jamaican aliens, were arrested and held at the Bergen County jail, charged with possession of handguns, aggravated assault and attempted murder, with bail being set at $100,000 to $150,000.

According to the book “A History of Oakland: The Story of Our Village,” by Kevin Heffernan (The History Press 2007): After the gun battle, FRG never reopened after the day of the shootout and the land on Route 202 remains vacant to this day. Frank Gallo reportedly moved to Florida.

Pleasureland, the last remaining vestige of Oakland’s bygone era as a resort town, closed soon after.

In order to save the homes up on Pompton Lake and farther north along the Ramapo River, the Army Corps of Engineers installed the floodgates. However, flooding has worsened along the Ramapo below the dam, flooding areas that had never flooded before, and worsening the flooding farther downstream, all the way to the Passaic River.

Gov. Christie and FEMA must now decide whether it’s worth preserving the remains of the abandoned Pleasureland and the homes along the Ramapo in Oakland at the expense of homes that stretch for nearly ten miles below Pompton Falls. Or buy them out and raise the foundations of the affected homes in the area just below the falls. The floodgates were an expensive project, paid for by both state and federal taxpayers. The choice is either buyout a relatively small number of homes above the dam or forever bail out the homes below it.

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