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Saturday
May042019

'This is not the Star-Ledger': Reflections on 20 years with NJ's largest newspaper

The old Star-Ledger building, bordered by Washington and University on Court Street in Newark. I confess that I previously wondered how I might climb on a planter to pry off and keep a small metal sign that read "One Star-Ledger Plaza." I didn't do it, and now it's gone. On the night of Nov. 24, 2010, I left One Star-Ledger Plaza with a box full of keepsakes representing my 11 years and 8 months of working as a journalist from the gray, rectilinear building at Court and University streets in Newark. 

I got into my car that night -- on the eve of Thanksgiving -- with a feeling of hopefulness about the future. I had taken a buyout, and I had big plans. I had no idea then that my plans would mesh with enough years of freelance work that I would have a Star-Ledger byline -- in print --  to mark the 20th anniversary of my March 22, 1999 start date.

That byline appeared with the bittersweet knowledge that my work with New Jersey's largest newpaper would come to an end in a few week's time. I was informed in January that the home renovation column that I had written on a mostly weekly basis for about 8 years would be eliminated with the latest round of budget cuts. 

I left the paper in 2010 with the title of "lifestyle editor," which meant I was responsible for selecting the  paper's home, garden and food content. At a time when many of the paper's editors didn't write articles, I chose to be a "contributing editor" in the active sense of being an on-staff section editor who also kept sources, did interviews and attended trade shows on my own time to write stories and keep on top of news and trends. It is work I still enjoy and seem somehow suited for.

The walk to door of the old Star-Ledger building in March 2019. That work continues with At Home New Jersey, and I am so pleased to have cultivated a loyal readership over the years since the first issue appeared in March 2012.  At Home has been produced consistently every other month since then as my personal effort to keep local lifestyle journalism alive in print. Granted, this isn't news that on its face can change the world, and I don't aim to do so.

I do hope, however, that in some small way the selection of printed articles has helped improve life for individuals and families with its focus on nutrition, relaxing activities and attention to physical and mental health. 

I remain thankful for the many good things that have come my way as a result of my time at Court and University streets in Newark. The paper sold the building, and the staff moved to new buildings in September 2014.

I have checked in periodically to see what the old building was to become. I remember a few years back seeing a yellow construction permit adhered near the door I had entered for so many years to climb the stairs to the second-floor newsroom. The permit didn't give much of a clue about what was to come.

When I returned during my anniversary week in March, it was to a building with a completely transformed interior. Outside the entry door was an emphatic sign: "This is not the Star-Ledger newspaper."

Apparently, I still have a face that is honest enough to open doors, and so the young woman at the desk of what is now the chic, white-washed lobby of the arts organization Crozier, buzzed me into the access-controlled area. She sat where Fran the receptionist used to sit, but gone was the glass window and the booth where Fran and the rotating crew of retired Newark police officers who were our security guards used to sit.

In place of the glass case that had held the paper's awards and trophies of accomplishment there was a black and white graphic painting above a small table and two chairs. It was a vignette that could easily have been put together by the paper's former art director, Pablo Colon, who in the building's last days as the newspaper's headquarters dabbled in commercial interior design to polish up several areas. 

A seating area in the place where a case filled with the paper's awards once stood."I used to work here when it was the Star-Ledger," I told the young woman who granted me access to the building. I asked her about the building's present function, and she told me that Crozier is an arts organization affiliated with museums and other groups, and that the building is used mostly for storage, but people do work there. "This is not the Star-Ledger," she said, obviously not hearing my introductory statement and figuring I had not read the prominent sign to the left of the entrance.

"I know," I said. "I used to work here when it was the Star-Ledger." With that I thanked her for letting me in and turned to leave. "Are you a journalist?" she called out after me. "Yes," I said.

What it means to be a journalist has changed so much since 1999, but I still have the requisite curiosity, and so I had to find out what was going on across the street with the extensive expansion of what used to be the Star-Ledger parking garage. When I started working there, I was so happy to be able to park freely in that garage. We could even park there to take a cab -- or the bus (thanks for the money-saving tip, Fred Kaiman) -- to Newark Airport, which is a just few minutes away. (At my previous, smaller paper in Pennsylvania, we actually had to pay to park in the paper's garage, which we needed to do to work in a downtown area.)

The former Star-Ledger parking garage, updated in a major way. The old Star-Ledger garage was still there, but the top level was curiously enclosed within a heavy wire cage. Next to the garage, what had been an outdoor parking area was now home to a towering yellow and white structure, which I estimated to be four stories tall. On a rainy day, I photographed the building, still unsure of its purpose.

On the Court Street side, there was a sign in one window: "High School Students Entrance." As I photographed the building, I saw nearby doors open. Youngsters who looked to be high school age poured out. I went across the street and began to question one young man who answered me quietly and apprehensively. "Is this a high school?" It was. What high school? "North Star," he answered.

As the corner filled with a crowd of students ending their school day, I made my way through them to the building's main entrance on Washington Steet. I went to the door and rang the bell. I was looked over and granted entry. I asked the two staffers behind a glass window about the school.

Over the years in previous visits, I had watched the steel beams that support it rise. I figured it was being turned into a larger parking garage. I always meant to check into that, but with busy days, I always forgot to do so.

I learned that the school, which serves kindergarteners through 12th graders, opened in August of 2018. I asked about the parking garage. "Is it used only for parking?" It is, but I was told that there is now an athletic field on the top level of the garage.

A school, North Star Academy, grew up from the open parking lot outside the garage. I visualized the stairs up, and the door leading to this deck where staffers joyfully celebrated spring with the help of the Malcom X Shabazz High School band.

For years, the band would march around the block  following a wheeled cart that pushed the oversized hot dog and bun that would top the Munchmobile. The procession streamed into that same garage, and on the top level met staff and the smell of smoke from grills that charred hundreds of hot dogs in honor of the Munchmobile launch.

I always seemed to be on deadline on Munchmobile Day, but I never minded putting calls on hold for the ear-splitting spectacle of a high school band marching through a working newsroom. It was one of the things that made me really love working at the paper. But things change.

"So that's why the top is closed in?" I asked the school staffers, "to keep the balls in?" That is the reason. They told me that the field is used for gym classes and for track practice, basketball, soccer and other sports.

Perforated metal panels cover concrete areas of the old garage.  NorthStar Academy is a part of Uncommon Schools, a network of charter schools with campuses in Newark as well as in Camden, Boston, Brooklyn, and other areas of New York. According to the Uncommon Schools website, there are 53 related schools educating 19,000 students from kindergarten through high school.

I'm happy that an open lot that once made parking spaces for journalists with a mission to keep the public informed gave way to a building that seeks to educate and prepare young people for adult life and responsibilities.

From a design standpoint, I love the way they tied the old garage to the new building. Perforated metal panels, painted yellow and white to match the building's facade were installed on the University Street side to soften the walls of the gray concrete garage. The previously black railing for the stairs leading to different levels of the garage are painted yellow, the only apparent alteration to the glass staircase enclosure that looked so otherwise unchanged to that I was tempted to test my old access card. Instead, I got out of the rain and into my car to head home. But not before taking one last shot.

The path to the gas station, Ward's, The Ark (now Briick City Deli), Queen Pizza, banks, Newark Penn Station, Military Park and points beyond.

Wednesday
Mar272019

Harvest Quilters Show 2019: an April 6 showcase of textile art in Scotch Plains

Renate Bieber of Westfield and one of her quilts. She is featured artist for this year's Harvest Quilters' show.Like many quilters, Renate Bieber knows that stitching together pieces of cloth to form a material mosaic can be a meditation. 

 

In the more than 30 years she has been quilting, it has been not only to sew together patterns and scenes, but to relax.

 

Community service has been a focal point for Bieber, who was born and raised in Germany and worked as a Foreign Service National at the American Consulate in Munich. She always made time for quilting during a stint as a stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher, and while also volunteering. She has lived for 27 years in Westfield, where she and her husband, Michael, raised three children, now adults.

 

“I started out making a very traditional baby quilt in 1987, when my first child was born, and that was the path I happily followed for many years,” says Bieber who has made more than 50 quilts over the years. 

 

About two dozen of her quilts will be among those displayed on April 6 at the 36th annual quilt show of the Harvest Quilters of Central New Jersey. The show, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., will be at  Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, 1961 Raritan Road in Scotch Plains. (Monthly guild meetings also are held at the church.)

 

Showcased at the event will be more than 100 hand- and machine-sewn quilts of all skill levels from a variety of age groups. Traditional and art quilts are included, as well as those from the "New Jersey Challenge" competition where quilters were encouraged to incorporate something that reflects the state. Art quilts, wall hangings, table runners, lap- and bed-size quilts can be seen. Story boards tell how and why many of the quilts were created.

 

The show, "Sharing the Quilts XXXVI," will include quilting demonstrations, presentations and raffles. At 10 a.m.,  award-winning quilter Elsa Hahn will lead a session on American barn quilt painting. At 2:00pm, Dana Balsamo, an American Quilter's Society-certified quilt appraiser, will present "Evaluating your Quilt: Is it a Treasure?" Balsamo, who works with antique and vintage textiles and their conservation through her Princeton company Material Pleasures, also will be available for written quilt appraisals and verbal evaluations. For children, there's a scavenger hunt to locate a variety of motifs on show quilts.

 

A display of Underground Railroad quilts will explore the folk legend of how quilts in the 1800s may have played a role in the network of escape routes used by fleeing slaves. This is just one way that quilts -- the homespun art of women’s history --  have factored into American lives and the stories of our country’s development, according to show organizers.

 

Admission is $7 for adults, and $3 for children under age 12. Proceeds will benefiit the guild's charitable and educational efforts. Visit HarvestQuilters.com for more information and to download a discount coupon. The quilt show is wheelchair accessible and will bring in vendors as well as a tearoom for lunch and snacks.

 

Harvest Quilters have been presenting annual quilt shows since 1983. The annual event and monthly meetings provide an opportunity for quilters to mingle and compare techniques while everyone, including the least experienced and beginners, can learn. Those attending the quilt show can ask questions about the quilts from the very members who created them, and they can vote to award ribbons to the quilts they like best.

 

For Bieber, a 2015 Harvest Quilter’s challenge led to a change in style. For the challenge of creating an art quilt depicting a common idiom, she left tradition behind and stitched “Still Waters Run Deep," an original, three-dimensional water lily-themed design.

 

The piece won a guild ribbon and, later, first place in the craft category at Union County's Senior Citizens Art Exhibit. It was jury selected for state-level competition. Two of Bieber's other original art quilts, “Poppy Day” and ‘Whirligig,” also placed at the county senior's exhibit. All three quilts will be among those displayed at this year's quilt show. Bieber's work was previously displayed at a Kean University exhibit.

 

“I enjoy the process of making quilts, giving them as gifts or using them in my daily life,” says Bieber, who grew up in Munich, Germany, where all children learned to knit, crochet and embroider in elementary school. She learned sewing in the upper grades.

 

Her quilts celebrate family and friend’s birthdays, graduations and weddings. Pieces in her "My Journey" exhibit at the quilt show will demonstrate how fabric selection transformed three quilts made from the same pattern. Her daughter’s Halloween birthday quilt has "spider webs" of sparkling silver thread. Bieber also quilts unique utilitarian items, and on display will be her Challah cover, tea bag caddie, thread catcher and sewing needle case.

 

A graduate of Eastern Illinois University, she has held numerous positions in the Westfield Chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s service group, of which she was president from 1996 to 1998, and voted Woman of the Year in 1999. After many years of volunteering, she was elected PTO president of McKinley School from 2000 to 2002. Bieber also ran the box office as director of ticket sales for the Westfield Community Players from 2008 to 2017. She has been a Harvest Quilters member since 2005, and serves as the guild's meeting leader and publicity chair.

 

LEARN TO QUILT

 

Several area sewing studios offer classes for those who would like to learn quilting, or expand their skills.

 

Cultured Expressions: This sewing and quilting Studio at 1417 Main St. in Rahway offers classes, events and quilting-related excursions along with fabrics and supplies. Click on the shop name to get the current class list and more informaton.

 

Fabricland: The new location of this venerable New Jersey fabric store, now at 270 US Route 22 West in
Greenbrook, features a 2,000-square-foot sewing school, and quilting is always on the class list. The fabric store shares its showroom with the related family business, Metropolitan Window Fashions. Click on the store name for more information.     

 

Urban Sewciety: This sewing and quilting studio at 307 South Ave. West in Westfield focuses on after-school classes and summer camps, but offers programs for adults, too. The store hosts events and sells unique designer patterns along with fabrics and supplies. Click on the shop name to see the calendar of events and classes. 

 

 

Thursday
Feb142019

Happy Valentine's Day: What's happening to the flowers?

Where have all the flowers gone?

All of my loved ones know that the best way to make me happy is to take me with them to pick out my flowers for Valentine's Day or birthdays or whenever.

Since arranging flowers is a hobby of mine, I always want something different to play with. And not everyone knows what flowers would please someone picky like me who is always looking at all sorts of them. I routinely visit florist friends, even when I don't plan to buy, just to talk with them about what's in their cases.

For years, Wegmans stores in many parts of New Jersey were my favorite place to shop for flowers. Wegmans would routinely have unexpected varieties. About 10 years ago, I would buy flowers every week, and I discovered safflowers at Wegmans in Woodbridge. Who knew that a name  associated with salad oil is also related to a gorgeous flower? The flowers and plump buds with soft, thistle-like tops, dried to a paper-bag brown on tall stems. I still have them, and I have not seen any anywhere since.

More recently in 2017, I got the most beautiful Valentine's Day flowers: bright pink scabiosas from another Wegmans store. It was a delight to watch these flowers, actually clusters of miniature blossoms, open in layers. I've since learned that scabiosas are easy to grow in the garden, but I saw them for the first time in a water-filled plastic flower bucket at Wegmans. I'm always excited to find cut flowers that I have never seen before, and Wegmans was a reliable supplier in that regard.

Not so this year. This year, the Wegmans store we went to had hundreds of bouquets, moved to the front of the store near the entrance as an apparent reminder to Valentine's Day buyers.

In all the rows of this display, there were so many bunches of common flowers. Roses that looked battered and too far open to last until Valentine's Day, along with spider mums, alstroemeria and the other sorts of flowers that always seem to appear in mixed supermarket bouquets.  The prices for these tired flowers was high, starting at $25. I refused to let money be spent on my behalf for inferior flowers whose quality did not warrant the higher price. Wegmans typically does not sell mixed bouquets in plastic sleeves. Instead, their mixed arrangements are most often sold in vases at various sizes. Clusters of one  type of flower, in bundles of a single color, are what's usually available. 

I tend not to like mixed bouquets, but at Trader Joe's on Monday this week, the "mini bouquets" at $3.99 each caught my eye. Three of these were purchased for me, and I put together the arrangement shown. Each had calla lilies, which I adore, tufts of refreshing green dianthus, sprays of small red and hot pink roses, and the exciting contrast of purple statice. In these arrangements, I did not mind the alstroemeria, which complements the other flowers. Don't get me wrong, alstroemeria is a lovely flower, but it's everywhere. I can usually get lots of them in good shape for about $4 at any ShopRite.

Anyway, I cut the stems relatively short and tucked them into a little red vase previously rescued from a thrift shop. (It still had the .99 cents price tag). I have been filled with happiness each time I pass these flowers in their red vase. 

On the day before Valentine's Day, and even tonight at 7 p.m. when I made a quick supermarket run, it was sad for me to see men grabbing up uninspired bouquets at the very last minute. I wondered about their wives or girlfriends, and I wondered about their lives. Getting flowers that were obviously purchased hastily out of a sense of obligation doesn't seem very romantic.

Is it the afterthought that counts here? Perhaps.  I suppose any flowers at any time are better than no flowers at all. 

 

Tuesday
Nov202018

New Jersey wild turkeys: a Thanksgiving delight 

Four wild turkeys were among a gang of eight visiting a wooded area of Monmouth County on Monday.I was pulling into the driveway of our art director's Monmouth County studio yesterday when I saw a cluster of huge birds crossing the road.

 

“Turkeys!” I shouted with excitement as I parked haphazardly, grabbed my camera and ran  into the woods after them. They did not look exactly like the fancier wild turkeys I used to see behind my house when I lived in a wooded area of Pennsylvania, and I was not sure if they were turkeys or turkey vultures (an image search would later solve that). Either way, I knew I had to get shots of them.

 

I found the birds, eight of them, feasting amid the fallen leaves. I followed them quietly and cautiously, using a zoom lens to get my shots. As this gang of birds roamed from place to place looking for the choicest fall eats, I inched closer and closer. At one point I was standing as still as I possibly could while taking photos, and they were near enough that I could have reached out and grabbed one.

 

I thought, maybe the presence of turkeys at this time of year was why the pilgrims were said to have feasted on turkey. Then I began to ponder how I would have no idea how to go through the processes that would be required to get a living turkey from the woods to oven-ready. The thought made me thankful for present-day Thanksgiving where others relieve us of such thoughts when they prepare turkeys to be seasoned, stuffed and roasted.

 

Who could harm a bird with such beautiful plumage, so lush and intricately patterned? I could not imagine hunting them, and I pushed back guilty visions of one plucked and cooked as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. These probably weren't Thanksgiving-type turkeys, anyway, I rationalized. And they'd probably taste gamey.

 

A wild turkey moves in close to eye me suspiciously but without fear.Their faces and long, graceful necks were disturbed by numerous pink globular growths. In my image searches online, their long necks would differentiate them from the apparently no-neck turkey vulture.

 

As I admired the unusual elegance of these birds, they came closer, and that actually made my heart sing. “Oh, hello!” I said to them quietly as I continued to take close-range pictures. Then they started to make turkey sounds, and the experience was heightened.

 

Years ago, I was in the chamber where lions were kept at the Philadlphia Zoo. While I was walking through, one lion began to roar. It was a powerful, awe-inspiring noise that no recording could ever capture. Within that room, the sound reverberated. I felt so fortunate to have been there at that moment. I had been to many zoos and seen lions in most of them. But to hear one speak made a rare and unforgetable moment.

 

I have mixed feelings about animals in capacity (especially when I recall from the same Philly Zoo visit the madrill who was pacing around his room and glaring at those who observed him through a window. There was what could only be characterized as rage in its colorful, expressive face that seemed so close to human.)

 

But in the woods, with a camera, there were no ethical issues to contemplate. I was so happy to have spent time seeing and hearing these turkeys in this week of Thanksgiving. Their presence was another small joy to be thankful for.

 

 

Tuesday
Jan302018

Flowers, fashion and furnishings: Exploring the passions of Empress Josephine 

Josephine de Beauharnais by Keizerin der Fransen (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)The fine taste of Joséphine de Beauharnais informed 18th and 19th century style, from couture fashion to interior design, all based on her Caribbean heritage, her narrow escape from the guillotine, and her legendary love for flowers.

 

On Saturday, Feb. 10 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., garden historian Lesley Parness will present “Josephine – The Empress Gardened,” a lecture about the French empress, made possible by Somerset County Park Commission. Admission is free, but pre-registration required by Feb. 9 for the lecture at the commission's North Branch Park headquarters, 355 Milltown Road, Bridgewater.

When divorced from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the powerful style-maker and lifelong fashionista known as Empress Josephine focused her energies on her estate, Château de Malmaison. There, her passion for plants grew and bloomed, stopping a war, costing a fortune, setting explorers to sail and starting a floral industry that endures today.

 

Parness, a retired superintendent of horticultural education at New Jersey's Morris County Park Commission, has five decades of travel, academic studies and work to provide a rewarding context for her own love of plants.  She now offers illustrated lectures and hands-on workshops on topics that connect “people and plants with science and story.”

 

For more information and to register for the lecture, call (908) 722-1200, ext. 5721 or visit SomersetCountyParks.org.