Sunday, May 10, 2015

Suburban Developments: Pushing Out the Spirit of a Man Named Woody

Walker's Pond       (photo: Erik Lipkin)

By Erik Lipkin

His given name was Elwood Walker, but for those who were lucky enough to live in the same town as him he will always be remembered as “Woody.”  In the town of North Caldwell, NJ “Woody” Walker was a legend.  He built a ranch house on a 17-acre plot of land and lived there from 1949 until his death in 2013.

The reason Walker will be remembered so fondly in North Caldwell is because of everything he did for the town.  Walker was crucial in helping build two schools and would come in to the local grade school to talk to kids about the town’s history, complete with pictures and slideshows.  The highlight of that presentation was the revelation that the town once had an amusement park where Grandview School now stands.

However, for many young kids in town, now most of them in their mid-to-late 20s, Walker will be remembered for something else: Walker’s Pond.  Those 17 acres that Walker lived on included about 7 acres of wetlands, where Walker’s Pond rested peacefully.  In winter when it got cold enough, Walker would open his pond to the town for ice skating, free of charge, and there was always a thermos of hot chocolate to be found nearby. 

In his later years and in failing health, Walker was no longer able to keep up with the copious amounts of work on his property and the pond became overrun with weeds.

After his death, the town of North Caldwell discussed buying the entire 17 acres of land and turning it into nature area while dredging and breathing new life into the pond.  This would have been a beautiful area in the center of North Caldwell and the perfect legacy for North Caldwell’s “First Citizen,” as Mayor Joseph Alessi often referred to him as. 

If Walker wasn’t actually North Caldwell’s first citizen, he was certainly one of the most beloved, which is why he would have deserved such a fitting tribute. 

Unfortunately, only a few years after his death, the dream of turning Walker’s Pond into a  nature area is dead.  Luckily, the pond will be saved and given new life; the rest of Walker’s property however, was not so lucky.  The wetlands of Walker’s 17 acres will remain untouched but the rest of the property will be used to build houses.  In the already cramped town of North Caldwell, new housing is not needed.  But someone will make money off of it, so houses are sure to be built. 

Clearing natural areas to build houses has become a disturbing trend in North Caldwell.  The town of North Caldwell once had an area called Hilltop.  Hilltop sat behind some local baseball fields and was once the home of the Overbrook Asylum for the mentally ill and also of the Essex County Jail Annex.  Besides those two complexes of buildings, the area remained largely in its natural state and even had a small farm. 

After the Overbrook Asylum closed, only a few crumbling portions of buildings remained.  It became a place for local children to explore and hike around, many of whom were doing so for the first time.  Despite efforts to keep Hilltop as natural as possible, a place that offered hiking trails and birdwatching in the middle of suburbia, it was not to be.

The Hilltop land was owned by Essex County and portions of it were in North Caldwell, Verona, and Cedar Grove, but after the jail was closed in 2003 the land went up for sale and was bought by builder K. Hovnanian.  Eventually a deal was made that would keep a small portion of Hilltop natural while the rest of the land would be developed for condominiums and houses.   

Go to Hilltop now and it looks like a scarred piece of land with very little, if any, natural beauty.  Houses stand where deer once lived, which has caused a major problem in town; it seems like there are constant traffic accidents in North Caldwell involving deer.  Some people talk about this problem with wonder, while intelligent people realize it is a direct result of clearing Hilltop, which was once their domain. 

The accidents involving deer should only increase once Walker’s property is developed.  As it stands now the 17 acres are a mix of wetlands, woods, and an open grass area.  Drive past the property at any given time and deer, geese, and wild turkeys can be seen, all animals that will have to find a new place to live after the planned houses are built. 

The Spirit of Woody

The spirit of “Woody” Walker may also have to find a new home.  While giving his pond new life is undeniably a wonderful thing, building houses on his property is like a slap in the face.  Certainly, a man who gave so much to such a small town deserves much more in return.  Walker could have easily made money every winter by charging people a small fee to skate on his pond, instead he allowed them to skate for free. 

Every winter, young children would learn to skate on Walker’s Pond while their mothers and fathers watched them from the banks of the pond.  Walker could have easily put up a no trespassing sign, but he was better than that; it would be nice if North Caldwell decided to be better too. 

Walker’s property shouldn’t be developed.  It should be a natural area preserved as a tribute to a great man.  What was once called Walker’s Pond could have easily become Walker’s Pond Park, an area where children could have their first experiences with nature, and perhaps fall in love with it; instead, a lot of the land will become housing that tramples his memory and doesn’t do the town any good.

Erik Lipkin is a junior at Ramapo College pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications with a concentration on journalism.  He came to Ramapo College from Essex County College where he received an associate’s degree in liberal arts.  After graduation he hopes to work as a sports writer and broadcaster in the sport of boxing.  In his free time he can often be found hiking or fishing, and is on a mission to read every novel written by Jack Kerouac.

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