A1 A1
Christopher Columbus statue to come down in Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — The Christopher Columbus monument, in the resort since 1958, will be taken down from its location on Arctic Avenue at the base of the Atlantic City Expressway.

The statue, which is on city property but funded by the Casino Redevelopment Investment Authority for upkeep and relocations, will be moved to avert potential vandalism.

But the statue’s moving date and future home remain uncertain. There has been talk of relocating it to Hammonton, or storing it for safe-keeping.

The move is the latest in a series of regional and nationwide conflicts over Columbus statues resulting from the social justice protest movement.

In South Philadelphia, one statue was covered by city workers after clashes between armed groups and protesters. Mayor Jim Kennedy recently announced the city intends to remove the statue in July.

Columbus statues in Newark, Trenton, West Orange, Camden and Hammonton all have either been covered or dismounted.

In Garfield, Bergen County, the statue was vandalized.

Vandalism is the concern among those who want to keep the statue preserved, including the Columbus Day Committee of Atlantic City, which requested it be moved this month.

“Why are we at the point where we have to turn against one another? The city has always been a melting pot. I don’t want to get political over this. Just why are we erasing history?” said Giulietta Consalvo, vice chair of the Columbus Day Committee in Atlantic City. Her father, Gennaro Consalvo, is chairman emeritus of the committee.

The recent plan for removal of the statue in the city comes after Moisse “Mo” Delgado, Atlantic City at-large councilman, introduced an ordinance to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Atlantic City during the June 17 meeting. It was discussed but was tabled.

George Tibbitt, Atlantic City Council president, said he is concerned that future planned protests on racial injustice may lead to vandalizing of the monument.

“I’ve heard of multiple protests on July 4,” Tibbitt said.

The committee, ideally, would like the statue to remain in its current place but also wants to ensure it is not vandalized.

The statue was unveiled Columbus Day 1958 and cost $7,000 at the time (about $64,000 in 2020 dollars). It has been on the move throughout its time in the resort, starting first in Columbus Plaza in the historically Italian Ducktown neighborhood. It had a two-year stay at the All Wars Memorial Park on Albany Avenue before moving to the former Columbus Park. It was then moved from the park to make way for the Bass Pro Shops complex. Since then, it has resided in a plaza off Arctic Avenue at the end of the Atlantic City Expressway.

“It’s a matter of preservation in my opinion because of the grandeur and uniqueness,” said Christopher Simonetti, executive vice chair of the Columbus Day Committee of Atlantic City.

The moves come as debates about Christopher Columbus intensify. Columbus is known as an Italian explorer who flew under the Spanish flag and opened up the Americas to European trade but has been increasingly criticized for bringing Native Americans into slavery. In the United States, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been celebrated on the same date as Columbus Day, Oct. 12 this year, to commemorate the history and culture of Native Americans.

In Newark and Princeton, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is officially observed.

Frank Formica, Atlantic County Freeholder chairman and a longtime staple of Atlantic City, asked the City Council to celebrate both commemorations.

“There are few cities with deeper roots in Italian heritage then Atlantic City. We all recognize the atrocities that many famous men in history have perpetrated on the indigenous native Americans. I humbly request that the Atlantic City City Council consider a plan that honors the indigenous Americans, without squashing the celebration of the Italian heritage by eliminating the official recognition of Columbus Day,” Formica said.

Formica added that the statue will be stored indoors, at either Boardwalk Hall or the Special Improvement District’s Equipment Building.

On the western end of Atlantic County, the Sons of Italy of Hammonton relocated its Columbus statue on June 19. Done as a “proactive” measure, according to the group’s statement, it moved the monument from its location at South Egg Harbor Road to the organization’s building on North Third Street.

“Throughout time, cultures have preserved their legacy with monuments, plaques, memorials and statues. Today, where the determination of what is a socially acceptable method of recognizing historical significance is swayed by public opinion, it’s imperative that these cultures continue to preserve their unique heritage. As a result of the current social environment, the Italian-American service organizations of Hammonton mobilized to conserve our tribute honoring Christopher Columbus. The monument will be protected by relocating it to a place where it’ll be appreciated without fear of vandalism,” said Nicholas LaGuardia, president of the Sons of Italy of Hammonton.

Odious and slimy, but critical to our shores and habitat

If you live or vacation at the Jersey Shore, you’re familiar with seaweed and seagrass. The former being the annoying, sometimes, smelly green and brown stuff that squishes between your toes at the beach. The latter being the green vegetation brought up while fishing, rather than a fish, in the back bays.

But there’s more to the story.

Seagrass and seaweed are too far apart to be even called cousins. While one might think they are closely related, they are fundamentally quite different, and this leads to confusion on identification.

While they both need light to grow, that’s where the similarity ends.

At the most elemental level, seagrass has roots, seaweed does not.

Just ask Elizabeth Lacey, an associate professor of marine science at Stockton University, who has made it her life’s work monitoring and studying seagrass and seaweed.

During a 30-minute online “live lab,” Lacey, who has a doctorate and likes to be called Doctor Z, examines the seagrass and seaweed found in the Barnegat Bay, outside of Beach Haven, where she monitors an area the size of half a football field. She picks through the many types of seagrass, seaweed and sea life along the shore, identifying and explaining what they are and their importance to the environment, as she answers questions from the audience.

The streaming video field trips, offered by Stockton University’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NAMS), offer a digital version of the traditional outdoor exploration that is part of the natural sciences discipline.

The benefits of seagrass are many and not well known, she explains: The beds are an important habitat for fish; a nursery for baby fish; they stabilize the shoreline and bring in a lot of money for fisheries; for tourism, they are a shoreline protector, along with producing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide.

The Smithsonian Institute calls seagrass one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. An area of seagrass the size of two football fields, they say, is estimated to be worth more than $19,000 per year, making them the third most valuable ecosystems on the planet (only surpassed by estuaries and wetlands).

One of the threats to seagrass are people who tear up the beds with the props of their motorboats. Lacey is enthusiastic about a campaign by the Barnegat Bay Partnership called “Don’t Harass the Seagrass” that encourages boaters to avoid seagrass areas.

“The scars that happen when boats come through take a while to heal,” she says. “If you ran your truck over your lawn and spun it all up into mud, regrowth doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some action on your part.”

Part of her research, along with monitoring and looking toward the restoration of the bay, is looking at areas where seagrass has disappeared and trying to understand why it’s not growing anymore and what can be done to help it return in a natural way. And the reaction from her students is one of the biggest rewards.

“Student response to seagrass is probably one of the best parts of my job,” she says. “They’ve never really seen it or contemplated it before, but have always lived at the shore, and it’s exciting that I get to show them that.”

The live labs were the brainchild of Aaron Stoler, assistant professor of environmental science at Stockton.

When the COVID-19 restrictions closed the campus, Stoler looked for ways of engaging his students who were stuck inside.

“I wanted a way to take my students out of the computer screen and back into nature,” he says.

As long as he was alone in a natural setting with his iPhone, streaming live video on Facebook, it was a safe way to bring his students into a live, natural laboratory.

His first streaming video labs featured him visiting sites on the campus lake to monitor an experiment his students had set up before the campus was closed. From there, it grew to include an interested community audience along with his students.

Stoler wanted to keep the subject matter ecology-related so the labs included kayak trips on local waterways, how forests burn responsibly, and trips through the wetlands to find out why they’re important to the environment.

And the response has been very positive, he says, attracting hundreds of viewers for the live streams and the recorded videos. All the labs are recorded so they’re available to be watched later on Stockton’s NAMS website (https://stockton.edu/sciences-math/virtual-events.html).

Now he’s getting requests from other faculty members who are interested in hosting a live lab and from outside organizations, like the Pinelands Institute, and taking requests from his viewing audience.

“My goal with this is to give the community whatever they want,” he says. “Whatever I can do to connect people with nature in a way that, from K through 12, college, even your grandparents can understand.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project.

In Hammonton, concern but no panic over high COVID numbers

HAMMONTON — On Thursday inside Tales of the Olive, one of the many specialty stores that line the downtown drag of Bellevue Avenue, manager Kelbi Brown said she just learned about an increase in COVID-19 cases in town while talking with family.

“We’re concerned, of course,” Brown said, “but overall, I think everyone has been taking really good steps during this pandemic.”

Nearby, Frank Vitrano donned a mask as he prepared lunch orders inside his bagel shop. He had also heard about the recent spike in positive cases in town, so was taking some extra precautions, like going to the supermarket early in the morning to avoid contact with too many people.

Otherwise, he was following all the previously recommended safety procedures to avoid infection.

“Being alert and doing everything we’re supposed to,” Vitrano said.

The small town on the western end of the county added 16 new positives Friday, while no other town in the county added more than three.

As of Friday, Hammonton had a cumulative total of 563 positive cases, the highest by far in Atlantic County, according to the county health department. Atlantic City was next at 364.

The numbers started shooting up this month, as the state began testing seasonal farm workers in Atlantic County, said Mayor Steve DiDonato.

“It appears right now they are (mostly) asymptomatic. But at the same time, you worry,” DiDonato said. “I’m not getting a lot of calls (from concerned residents), but it’s on their radar. They are absolutely concerned for their own safety and for the workers.”

Annel Pardo, of Hammonton, said she is concerned and tries to do all her errands during the day and when it’s sunny — when the farm workers are not at local stores.

“I have kids, and we need to be safe,” Pardo said. “We worry about that.”

As of Thursday, 3,554 seasonal farm workers statewide have been tested with a positivity rate of 5.3%, according to state Department of Health spokeswoman Nancy Kearney. The state’s overall positivity rate was about 1.5% in recent testing.

The testing is being done by Federally Qualified Health Centers, she said, and results for some others are pending, Kearney said. She could not provide a breakout of test results by county or farm.

Farm workers have been tested in Atlantic, Burlington, Cumberland, Ocean, Gloucester, Salem, Sussex, Monmouth, Warren, Somerset and Hunterdon counties, she said.

Fourteen seasonal farm workers from Hammonton who needed to quarantine did so at the Field Medical Station set up by the state at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Kearney said in an email response to questions.

They have since been discharged.

“Whenever you are testing more ... you are going to see some uptick,” said Denny Doyle, a longtime blueberry farmer who is on the New Jersey Blueberry Council. “I think we’re moving along pretty well with the situation. Everybody I know of is doing CDC requirements like social distancing, masks and shields.”

As peak blueberry season is underway, Doyle said the crop will not be affected, noting good quality and size, and the farmers will not be prevented from harvesting it by the virus.

“Absolutely, COVID is making it harder,” Doyle said. “It was a difficult situation without the virus,” he said of ongoing problems getting enough labor experienced in the intricate art of hand picking blueberries.

In addition to farm workers, Hammonton has two long-term care facilities that also have contributed to the numbers — one facility accounted for 246 cases among residents and staff, and 39 deaths — but new cases have stabilized there, officials said.

DiDonato said county health officials and town officials are watching the numbers very carefully.

“We have tried to ask all residents to be patient, safe and wear masks, in shopping centers especially. (The farm workers) are just trying to make a living, too. They are residents part-time of Hammonton, but are important to the community, too.”