Wednesday night, I made a pilgrimage to the new Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. I went with my friend Terry, who is our school's varsity soccer coach and a hugely knowledgeable soccer fan. What I have to report is exciting for a number of reasons.
First of all, there is exciting news for residents of New Jersey that live on the North East Corridor Train Line. Newark, New Jersey-- usually known for its riots and political corruption-- just recorded its first homicide free month in forty years. You can read the article here and I highly recommend browsing through the comments; one man claims that the only reason for the lack of shootings is that it "rained all month" and njbratty's multiple paragraph reminisce is priceless . . . here is a sample:
Now days I may be Ugly and fat ;C X-D but certainly at 15 till 30's i was Just Another Good Looking Chick :) (lol) I cant say in my entire Life that in Newark I got Miss respect in any way shape or form -- remember i was 15 years Old and walking just alone . * wink
It goes on and on. But the point is: Newark is a destination again. It's a big city with great food, some excellent museums, a performing arts center, easy access to an excellent soccer stadium, and-- if you're there in a rainy month-- fairly safe.
Perhaps the drop in crime and the upswing in image is due to Newark's well-spoken young mayor, Cory Booker. Booker, who played tight-end for Stanford, is known for his "feud" with Conan O'Brien and for his crime fighting stunts. To get an idea of what Newark politics was like before Booker, I highly recommend the documentary Street Fight, directed by Marshall Curry, which details Booker's 2002 campaign against the completely corrupt but totally charismatic machine politician Sharpe James.
We were headed to the stadium via Newark; it was supposedly a short walk or PATH ride from Newark Penn Station. The most stressful part of the trip was in the New Brunswick train station; we wanted to catch the 5:14 express (37 minutes) but there were long lines in front of the ticket machines and the woman ahead of us in the regular line was paying by CHECK. She even took the time to fill in her little ledger to ensure that her account was balanced. The wonders of double entry bookkeeping.
We had to jump on the train without tickets, so we suffered a five dollar penalty. We would have been on time, but we stopped for beer-- I'm not sure if this is the tradition elsewhere in the country, but in New Jersey, whenever you ride the train, you drink beer from a paper bag. Though we were late because of the beer and the check writing lady, having beer made us not mind the five dollar penalty and the check writing lady.
The train was an air-conditioned double-decker: clean and new, and the A/C was critical because it was 96 degrees outside. The only rough patch on the train was when Terry named all thirteen Major League Baseball parks he had visited. I concentrated on drinking my beer while he performed this feat-- note for next time, I should have bought a 40 instead of a 24 oz. can.
There are advantages and disadvantages to traveling with me. I like to read. This is a disadvantage when I ask, "Would anyone like a little history of the area?" and someone makes the mistake of saying,"Sure," and then I ramble on like an autistic version of Rick Steve for twenty minutes. But it's usually an advantage when you're heading somewhere new because I do my homework. In this case, I had printed out a couple of maps,and researched a number of cheap authentic restaurants in the vicinity of the train station. Unfortunately, in the rush to get beer, I left all that information on the counter. We were in Newark, and our information was here:
So we had to wing it. Ferry Street is right next to the station and it has some of the most famous Portuguese places and a festive atmosphere. We would have sat outside-- there are plenty of patios and outdoor tables, but it was 96 degrees. And there hadn't been a homicide in over a month, we didn't want to press it.
We went to Iberia Peninsula, which is one of the more well known places and sat at the bar. The restaurant is rather impressive inside: high ceilings, an endless bar, and a wooden old world feel. Sitting at the bar worked out well for us, though I'm not sure why. We had eight beers and two appetizers: shrimp in green sauce and some calamari, and after four or five of the wait staff perused our bill, they handed it to us. The total was 22.50, which seemed odd, because the two appetizers should have cost twenty dollars. I asked if it was correct and the bartender said, "Happy hour." Not only was our bill cheap, but the dude next to us-- who seemed to be some sort of backpacker type, maybe German (oddly, he didn't know the difference between a mussel and a clam, and thought scallops were oysters) gave us some of his mussels and clams out of the giant pot of seafood he ordered . . . he didn't realize the portion was going to be so huge. When I told my wife this, she said, "You took food from a stranger?" and when she phrased it like this, it did seem kind of stupid. I guess sometimes stories like these end with you being in a strange dirty hotel in a bathtub full of ice and your kidney is missing, but like I said, murder is down in Newark, so maybe organ theft is down as well.
We could have taken the PATH to Harrison, but from Ferry Street it's an easy ten minute walk to the stadium-- just across the Passaic river-- and you can see the stadium the entire time. We didn't get shot once during the walk, although the waterfront is pretty grim here. The stadium is surrounded by abandoned lots and empty warehouses (although one is used for PATH parking) but supposedly the area is soon to be developed.
The stadium itself is a masterpiece. Terry said the design is based on smaller sized European stadiums (and he would know, he's been to a number of games in Europe, but thankfully, he didn't name all of them). It holds 25,000, and there's not a bad seat in the place. Wherever you are seated, standing, or waiting to get a beer (6 dollars for a regular, 9 dollars for a large) you have a fantastic view of the pitch. As I entered the bathroom, I heard a young man say to his child, "Never in his life did Daddy think they'd build this in Harrison."
Tickets were cheap-- 18 dollars for any seat in the stadium-- and it wasn't very crowded because it was an US Open Cup game, which is not part of regular season play. The Red Bulls have now advanced to the third round, and the generally second string crew that played looked excellent, creative and fast paced. They got out to an early lead and the Rapids never mounted much of an attack. If you care about soccer, you can read about the game and the US Open Cup here. If you care about grilled sausage, you'll be happy to know they sell chorizo sandwiches at the concessions inside the stadium.
I can't wait to take my kids to a game. I often take them to the museums in Newark (and we haven't been shot at, not even once!) and now I can add this to the list of convenient things to do there. We took the kids to a Somerset Patriots game the other night (minor league baseball) and though they were amused by the shenanigans and contests in between innings, they couldn't follow the ball when it came off the bat, so they really weren't watching a baseball game. With easy and convenient access to quality soccer, hopefully, they won't ever have to try to watch baseball again.