By Ron Leir
When a young Theodore Plasky moved with his mother to the Kingsland Court apartments in Harrison in 1959, they found it a welcome refuge.
“We were staying at my cousin’s house in Fairview and the house blew up – I think it was something to do with the heating system that caused an explosion,” Plasky recalled. A little boy who lived next door was killed by the force of the blast, he said.
“We needed a place to stay and my mother took us here,” Plasky said. Since then, he added, “Everything’s been great.” Plasky, who says everyone in the complex knows him as “Ted,” made a living by playing accordion with different musical groups in the area.
Plasky was one of five longstanding public housing tenants awarded framed certificates of appreciation by the Harrison Housing Authority last Wednesday, Sept. 17, as the authority celebrated its 75th anniversary barbecue at Harrison Gardens, the town’s first public housing development.
It was among the earliest government-built housing complexes in the nation, on the heels of Congress’s passage of the U.S. Housing Law (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act) in 1937 which provided federal funds for the creation of affordable housing.
A company called JAJ Construction Inc. built Harrison Gardens, 214 apartments spread among 10 buildings, at a cost of $1,070,000, which comes out to about $5,000 per unit, according to Harrison Housing Authority Executive Director Roy Rogers. Hugh A. Kelly was the design engineer on the project and the thentown engineer Joseph Cundari signed off on the plans.
When “the Gardens,” as the complex is commonly called, opened, the average monthly rent was $22; today, monthly rentals at the Gardens range from $650 to $700, Rogers said.
Kingsland Court, with 54 apartments, dates from 1952.
What makes the Gardens distinctive among the hundreds of public housing clusters built around the country, Rogers said, is that, “These are the original units – the walls were never modified – they were well-constructed brick with the original plaster. All the buildings have the same basic footprint.” The interiors – kitchens, bathrooms and HVAC systems – have been upgraded over the years, he said.
HHA maintenance worker Michael Ferriero, who has helped with the upkeep of those apartments, was presented with a certificate of appreciation at the celebration “as being the current longest working employee at the Harrison Housing Authority” with 33 years under his belt.
Other tenants who received certificates of appreciation were: Charles Kinsella, who has lived at the Gardens for 63 years; Margaret Kearns (mother of Harrison Police Chief Derek Kearns), a Gardens resident for over six decades; Jean McCormack and Geralding Doffont, both Gardens residents for over half a century.
As the many guests at the barbecue helped themselves to free hotdogs, hamburgers and soda, and as kids enjoyed pony rides, a petting zoo and a lemon toss, various local officials talked about old times at the Gardens.
HHA Commissioner/Councilman Larry Bennett recalled how as a boy, “I lived [nearby] on Franklin Ave. and, during the winter, I liked coming to Harrison Gardens because it was warm inside.”
Bennett said it was important to remember that, “Cops, lawyers, all good people, came out of here.”
Mayor James Fife, a former longtime Harrison educator, told the crowd that he felt an attachment to the Gardens because “I grew up in a housing project in Newark – in Hyatt Court – from the ages of 2 to 15 and it was a great place to grow up.” Unfortunately, he added, “many of those buildings have been knocked down since then.”
And Councilman James Doran, currently personnel director for the Harrison Board of Education, said he spent part of his youth in the Gardens’ Building 1, as did Councilman Victor Villalta, “and [Board of Education member] Artie Pettigrew lived in Building 7.”
“So many familiar names are connected to the Gardens,” Doran said. “It feels good to be home.”