Overcrowding, Sprawl, a Sense of Place, and the Edison Nexus of Politics

Edison
Joshi
Joshi

EDISON – From the vantage point of planning, no one would ever confuse the town with a Norman Rockwell painting. Like so many of New Jersey’s municipalities, maybe most, Edison on first encounter doesn’t resemble a town really so much as a spillzone, as if the geometric oddities of other areas got indiscriminately bulldozed into its boundaries and atrophied to create the disassociated suggestions of shapes, all of it with the nooses of intersecting highways and parking lots around it, and somewhere within it all, the ongoing anonymous procedures of humanity.

But for every town in the state that no one can name, which arose out of the afterthoughts of a corporate developer who strong-armed a local governing body into paving and packing a former livestock grazing area with high rises, fast food stands, and nail salons, Edison is that recognizable Central Jersey suburban beacon for all others, bigger (pop. roughly 105K; 31 sq. miles) and maybe more dysfunctional than most, even if the dysfunction has an endearing quality close to the ruinous beating heart of Jersey.

In a mayoral election year now in which the incumbent – kicked to the curb by the local and county Democratic organizations – hasn’t yet announced whether he will seek a third term as an independent, planning and sprawl and organization and overcrowding (the school district threatened to sue to stop the pop. surge caused by overdevelopment) and did, by a unanimous board vote, and recreation and communal coherence and vision, in short, once again take center – if there is such a concept in Edison – stage.

From a 2019 NJ.com report:

“Enrollment at Edison’s public schools has grown in the past decade. In the past three years, the school gained approximately 1,300 students, including 268 this year, enrollment data from the school district shows.

“Ten years ago, the school district served 13,897 kids, but enrollment for the 2018-19 school year is up to 16,807, and Board of Education President Jerry Shi said the district hasn’t been able to implement a full-day kindergarten program for years because there just aren’t enough classrooms.”

And from Pix11:

“Edison’s School Board voted unanimously to sue the the township because their buildings are getting too crowded.

“My son went through all of elementary school eating lunch on his desk; they don’t have a cafeteria,” said Shannon Peng, a mother of two and a school board member.

“She says they also tried adding biology classes, but couldn’t find the space.”

Maybe seriously trying to address the crisis only happens every four years, but one gets the sense that for all the chaotic ribaldry, they are actually trying to make sense here of nothing less than existence. If they dislike one another, the contestants in the mayoral contest appear to be separately and diligently figuring out to make the town coherent, something Edison’s forbearers evidently didn’t worry about too much, perhaps with a few exceptions.

In a town where sprawl and overcrowding seem somehow to be, in the best New Jersey tradition, perfect together, they all know something is amiss.

Favored to win the mayoral 2021 contest with the state’s entire political establishment endorsing him, perhaps as a sign of Middlesex County’s increasing statewide power, so compelling that even South Jersey powerbrokers continue to make calls into the town on behalf of his local candidacy, Edison Council Vice President Sam Joshi excels at relationship-building. Whatever the larger dynamics of power (“People are afraid of Middlesex,” someone told Insider on Friday afternoon), Joshi continues to maintain amiable groundedness, showing up to an interview alone and without fanfare and eager to talk about his plans for his hometown.

Among many other things, the Edison born-and-raised Joshi has a plan to beautify and contextualize the Middlesex Greenway between Metuchen and Edison, a bike and walking path up-jutted over Route 1 near a PSE&G power plant by a footbridge that looks like the back of an Industrial Revolution brontosaurus.

Joshi’s projects prioritize relieving overcrowding, and as part of that he has a deepened sense of wanting to improve meandering Edison’s sense of place. His project in this particular part of town would make use of Greenway Commission funds, not from taxpayers but from large area corporations, to create an outdoor museum featuring women’s history. “It’s one of the many plans I have- to see this converted into an outdoor museum with monuments along the sides of it and with the backs of buildings converted into murals,” Joshi told InsiderNJ. “It’s important that we showcase women’s history. Every 50 to 100 feet I want to showcase the women’s perspective dating back to the worldwide largest WWII embarkation site through Raritan arsenal. I want to highlight what women have done. Rosie the Riveter is of great significance. I want to incorporate the work of high school students. I want children, especially girls, to feel like they have a piece of their idea incorporated in Edison Township.”

The civilized discussion belied the increasingly bloody ground war in the mayor’s race, where Joshi’s Democratic Primary opponent, local Democratic Party Chairman Mahesh Bhagia, ate a whirlwind of pro-Joshi negative mail in the last few days. Again the question arises. Is Joshi running the risk of too-close an affiliation with the Middlesex County Democratic Committee at a time when people are tired of establishment politics? “I am independent,” said the mayoral candidate. “No one speaks for me. I do have relationships at the local, state, and federal levels. I will leverage those relationships to bring more to Edison. I’m ready to hit the ground running. … I can quickly pick up the phone [and connect with powerful influencers on behalf of the town].

“I am happy to leverage my relationships for the residents,” he said.  “We need more money than ever for Edison.”

As for the prospect of a divided Democratic Party on the other side of June 8th, Joshi noted, “The message is unity; stronger than ever after we win this primary. They’re political opponents, but I’m sticking to the message of unity. …I’ve stressed so many times that I have been part of the Edison system since I was a child.

“My opponent [Bhagia] did not take part in a debate [last week],” he added. “I would debate anytime, any place. I would love Edison to see both individuals. It’s our civic responsibility. We’re the fifth largest municipality.”

The candidate walked over the bridge and pointed to an area wedged alongside the greenway next to the highway that he said would be perfect for a community garden.

Hahn
Hahn

On the other side of town, retired Police Officer Keith Hahn climbed out of his sport utility vehicle in the parking lot adjacent to a dilapidated structure in the middle of a middle class residential neighborhood otherwise known as the former Stelton Recreation Center.

As a cop on the overnight shift, Hahn would drive around town and notice all the things the political leaders should have paid attention to, but didn’t, usually because powerful development interests drove the town agenda – or maybe they just didn’t have the vantage point he did behind the wheel of a prowl car.

Now he’s running for mayor as a Republican.

Of the building in question at 328 Plainfield Avenue, “They closed it in 2018 and it’s been an abandoned building ever since,” said Hahn. “It means there is no recreation center for the children of South Edison to use.” Hahn said the town leaders had forums to discuss plans for the place, but after the 2017 election, they haven’t moved forward, the consequence, he says, of dysfunctional government, and too many people worried about someone else taking credit rather than actually getting something accomplished.

Now Edison wants to build a $65 million recreation center on the site of the old Ford plant.

“I don’t agree with that,” said Hahn. “You want to build that, you might as well build that in Monroe. What we need in Edison is to build four or five recreation centers in neighborhoods, just like this one – to create a neighborhood feel.

“In years past, Edison had a sense of community,” added Hahn, who played pool and basketball at Stelton when he grew up in town. “To put one recreation center in one neighborhood, without a parent with a car, a kid can’t get there, and that’s a problem, especially now with COVID and people are isolated. You need places like this where kids can go. If you don’t give kids constructive things to do, they will find things.

“I think when you have a seven year plan for a billion dollars, it sounds good,” added the Republican. “But when you can’t figure out how to repair this building and put it back into use, how are you going to get done a billion dollar plan? I don’t see it as a feasible plan.”

It’s apparently a crack at Joshi’s vision.

Hahn and Joshi were close once. Before he switched parties and while serving as the Edison Democratic Committee chairman, Hahn helped advance Joshi’s political career. He doesn’t deny the younger man’s ability, but on his own behalf he argued, on the point of how effective he can be as a Republican (not to mention former Democratic) in the mostly Democratic town, “Even though I switched parties, my relationships are good with both sides of the aisle. I didn’t burn bridges.”

Trying to make the case that even Democrats themselves don’t want to be around the government they oversee, he mentioned the name of Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin McCabe. “McCabe moved to Metuchen, not Edison, because Edison has had dysfunctional government for quite some time,” Hahn said.

The bottom line, he said, “is we need significant infrastructure repair, including our curbs and roads.”

“Overcrowding in schools, and our recreation facilities have to be addressed,” he said. Democrats are damaged now, he said, and will be worse after Joshi and Bhagia get through with each other.

“The damage will be unrepairable, no matter who wins,” Hahn argued.

Bhagia
Bhagia

Speaking of Bhagia, he was going door to door in South Edison that same afternoon, not far from Stelton.

An immigrant businessman in the hotel industry, Bhagia originally had the Democratic Party line in this contest but McCabe denied him, ostensibly because of a racist mail piece the party establishment blames Bhagia for, but really, in the candidate’s judgement, because they know he will get tough with their vendors in Edison.

Bhagia represents a significant threat to the power structure here.

“As you can see, the parking lot has not been maintained and has been neglected for many years,” he said, standing near South Edison’s six baseball fields.

Like Hahn, Bhagia wants better maintenance of those physical plants already built.

As it is, Edison is handcuffed to vendors, he said.

“Last month, the township spent $47K on a no-bid contract for an architect to design a gazebo,” Bhagia said.

“These facilities are more important,” he added, referring to the baseball fields and Stelton. “We need to make sure the money is going to these facilities.

What about the waterfront and greenway projects backed by archrival Joshi?

“I am all for the waterfront development and 23-acre plan marina but at the same time we need to go back to the basics, and the township is lagging in basic infrastructure,” Bhagia said. “For the first two years we should focus on that before we develop new areas. The Stelton community center is full of asbestos, and we cant refurbish it [without an environmental deep-dive]. Until we build a new structure, we should use schools in the meantime.”

Now, inevitably the question comes up about how Bagia will govern when nearly the entire Democratic establishment came out against him on the nod from McCabe and company.

To Bhagia, the Middlesex Democrats represent an agenda separate from the taxpayers in his hometown.

“There are 25 towns in Middlesex County,” said the Democratic candidate. “Edison paid $69 million in county taxes, plus $5.7 million in open space taxes, compared to Woodbridge, which is almost equal in size as Edison; and what are getting in return? We don’t have a community center or arts center. The county is not spending any resources in this town. The mayor needs to work with the county to get resources for this town.

“The mayor needs to stand up and get the money back for this town,” Bhagia said. “My philosophy is we agree to disagree. This is a disagreement on the issues, not personality. We need to focus on what the taxpayers are paying. Our goal is to have an open and transparent government and improve services and zero percent tax increases in 2022.”

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, left, and Lankey.
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, left, and Mayor Lankey.

 

Somewhere out there sat Edison Town Hall.

Having crossed the local party organization (Bhagia) and presumably the county party organization (McCabe), or maybe just exhausted his time in a place where corralling eight years in office is a significant political achievement, Mayor Tom Lankey pondered the vast and divisive terrain.

“We inherited Stelton,” he said of the dormant, asbestos filled former rec center. “We had town hall meetings then COVID hit.”

That rarity in Edison politics otherwise known as a two-term mayor, Lankey suffered political damage when voters in 2019 overwhelmingly shot down his 40-year proposal to have Suez take over the township’s water system, later scaled back but initially an $800 million dollar deal, which would net the town $30 million for infrastructure improvements.

“The water deal was going to fund it completely,” Lankey said ruefully, considering Stelton, the same project his foes clamor about now for bot getting done, who also opposed the Suez deal.

Lankey wants a completely new rec center on the old Ford site, and in the meantime wants to work with the schools superintendent to consider options for Stelton.

Again, COVID interfered with his timeline.

Infrastructure was awful when he got into office, he said.

“Streets hadn’t been paved in forever,” Lankey said, and he made that a basic priority as mayor.

As for the ball fields, “We’ve been talking to the leagues and looking at redoing all our parks. We have 28 parks and many of them need to be redressed and repurposed. They were built in the 1960s and ’70s and needs have changed. We need more cricket fields, more tennis courts. We need baseball and softball renewed but maybe not as many.”

In a town usually overrun by vitriolic politics in a county stampeding toward new ranges of statewide power, Lankey – even as he apparently heads for the exits, although he reserves the right to run as an independent, and may yet do so – continues to enjoy a good reputation. People praise his temperament.

Never having considered himself a politician, he maintains a good sense of humor through it all, and tries to remain upbeat – and alert to people’s sensitivities in the mindblender of Edison’s particular take on contemporary mores and politics. As he walked into a fundraiser last month, the backers of his former ally Bhagia called him a racist because he maintains ties to someone who posted anti-Chinese  comments on Facebook.

“The guys calling me a racist were the same guys who four years ago were arguing over who would hold the Lankey for Mayor sign,” he said, without bitterness.

InsiderNJ referred to his attitude in the aftermath of that event as that of a “sad puppy,” and amid the thousand electrical shocks that Edison is heir to, to paraphrase Shakespeare, infrastructure issues as far as the eye can see, and no obvious way to pay for them, not to mention overcrowded schools and the ongoing, nagging ontology of a town that sprang to life and sprawled without a master plan, long before any of the current players occupied the limelight, the mayor did linger on the words.

A sad puppy?

The concept itself was too absurd to even absorb, and Lankey of Edison just laughed like hell.

 

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