There was a time not long ago when Newark's Military Park was a desolate and neglected urban space, home to junkies and prostitutes, defiled with the detritus of human vice. Today that forlorn image is long forgotten, replaced with the laughter of children, the meditative "ohms" of yoga and the thwack of ping pong balls.
Four men, black and white, younger and older, played the game on two classic green-topped ping pong tables, their paddles flailing in a frenzy, focused smiles plastered on their faces.
Steps away, a solitary man engaged in a more quiet pursuit that offers many people solace, even in the midst of the hustling city - diving deep into a book taken from Military Park's free mobile reading room, which includes several newspapers stretched out open on wooden poles for those in need of a quick current events fix.
Deeper into the manicured lawns of the park, the unmistakable sound of kids at play echoed across the verdant swathes of grass, anarchic joy transfixed in their eyes at they chased each other down with long, blue foam tubes provided by the park as the kids whacked each other gleefully like crazed Smurf Jedi Knights.
Under the stewardship of the Military Park Partnership, a nonprofit corporation, the park has undergone a revitalization. The park's renovation includes new restrooms, free daily programs such as yoga and drawing classes, plus outdoor concerts. A new restaurant inside of the park is scheduled to open soon.
The privately-operated Military Park Partnership is staffed by Dan Biederman and Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which transformed Manhattan’s Bryant Park. The partnership managed the redesign and construction and is managing the ongoing maintenance of the park.
Matt Christensen works for the park partnership as an official ambassador, performing a meet-and-greet role for newcomers to Military Park.
"Open spaces like this give cities positive energy. And it gives my daughter a place to run around and express her energy," said Kristine Perez, 22, who recently moved to the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark with Persephone, her two-year-old daughter, from Astoria, Queens. "All this green space is so good for her, and it's good for everybody around here."
A few yards away from Kristine and Persephone, three men were locked in mental combat as they played chess while the sun went down, another part of the new Military Park's positive rituals.
But it was two local ping pong players, taking a time-out from their game, who placed the continued revitalization of Military Park within the framework of the continued resurgence of downtown Newark. For them, all the chessboard pieces are in place for the city's success.
Ping pong is among the activities in Newark's Military Park.
"Look - the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is right there. The Prudential headquarters building is right down the street, and the new Prudential building is right across the street," said Scott Hatchett, 55, of Verona, while his friend Marcus Stockton, 29, of Newark, nodded his approval. "The Robert Treat Hotel. The Indigo Hotel. Whole Foods is coming. It's all around us and around this park. In past years, good things didn't happen in this park. Now, they do, daily. It's a new day in Newark."
An Irish proverb maintains that a man becomes the song he sings. For Hatchett, who remembers watching the late soul music icon James Brown perform in Newark close to Military Park, two songs come to mind to capture the essence of what the park, a symbol of New Jersey's largest city, has become now: "I Feel Good" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."
"This park shows everybody that Newark isn't dead. Newark is alive," Hatchett said before he went back to playing ping pong before the setting sun went all the way behind the city's horizon. "And Newark has a future."