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Black Lives Matter protest held in Wildwood a week after controversial arrest

WILDWOOD — Protesters chanted and marched along the Wildwood Boardwalk on a steamy Sunday afternoon to demand racial justice.

The latest in a series of demonstrations in Cape May County and around the country was planned before an arrest in Wildwood a week earlier in which video surfaced of an officer punching a prone black man.

Melisha Anderson, of the Whitesboro section of Middle Township, was one of the organizers of the event and said the march and rally were about racial justice in the long term, not just a response to a single incident. She called the protest a justified response to continued racism and discrimination.

Dozens of people, white and Black, gathered at 26th Street on the border of North Wildwood and walked the length of the Wildwood section of the Boardwalk to hear speakers in the shade of the iconic Wildwoods sign near the Wildwoods Convention Center.

“I grew up in Wildwood, so I am so happy to be here, unapologetically Black, in front of this Wildwood sign,” said Crystal Hutchinson, another organizer of the event. She said there have been incidents of racism in Wildwood.

Hutchinson said the date for the event was chosen because it marks 101 years since whites rioted in Washington, D.C., attacking Black people and Black-owned businesses. Police did not intervene.

Hutchinson called the white rioters terrorists.

“This went on for four days. Police did nothing to stop it,” she said. “This was one of 38 such riots during the red summer of 1919. We want our history to be told.”

But the Wildwood arrest was mentioned several times in the course of the demonstration. The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into that arrest.

“It was here in Wildwood last weekend that a man was pummeled by those police officers, being held down,” she said, after there had already been protests in the city and around the country over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The event took place on one of the hottest days of the year so far. The protest organizers had a cooler full of water offered to anyone who wanted some, and a wagon full of snacks. Several children participated in the march.

Several speakers addressed the enthusiastic crowd using a hand-held bullhorn.

“You all are beautiful,” said Anderson. “That was a beautiful march. Black people. White people. LGBTQ people. We are all here, protesting, and in the protest we find possibility. A possibility to change things.”

Protesting is not limited to walking on the street or boardwalk, she said. People can make their voices heard with their spending and with their votes, she said.

“Protest on Nov. 3,” she said, referring to Election Day.

The presidential race hovered over the event, with protesters chanting “No Trump, No KKK, no fascist USA,” along with “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace.”

Near the start of the event stood a man wearing a T-shirt calling for the reelection of President Trump and carrying a Trump flag. He said he was there is response to the protesters.

“I’d have no problem with ‘Black Lives Matter, too,’” he said. But he argued that the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” worn on T-shirts, emblazoned on a flag and chanted by protesters, elevates some lives above others and is aimed against the police.

The man declined to give his name. He said he spent his career in law enforcement.

Others surrounding the protesters were not so circumspect. Several people on the Boardwalk booed and yelled as the march began, and one man rode his bike alongside for about a block, repeatedly shouting an obscenity at the protesters.

Once the marchers reached the Wildwoods sign, there were several heated shouting matches, with police quickly placing themselves and their bicycles between the two sides.

One on the Boardwalk started with a man yelling “Blue Lives Matter.” On the street side of the demonstration, a passerby and a protester started yelling back and forth.

In each case, organizers of the march pulled people away. At one point, James Hutchinson took the bullhorn to say he did not want to keep anyone from speaking, but said it was better to ignore those who were challenging them.

“I’m not trying to stop your voice. I’m not trying to keep you from saying anything. But there’s a lot of cameras out here,” he said. “It will change the narrative of what we’re trying to do, because in the paper, it will show us screaming and yelling and looking like idiots.”

He said participants came to the march to be peaceful, to be heard and to make it known that they have a voice.

Along the route, most were just out to enjoy a summer day on the Boardwalk. Many people took video of the passing protest on their phones. Some seemed to disapprove, and many others raised their fists in the air in support.

Crystal Hutchinson encouraged people to join in, with spontaneous marchers swelling the ranks as the group neared the Wildwoods sign.

Police from several jurisdictions in the Wildwoods and beyond were present, including officers of the Cape May County Sheriff’s Department. Officers made no visible response to criticism from the protesters or to support from those opposing them, and officers stayed at a distance except when a shouting match erupted.

Officers did greet both passersby and protesters, with one officer offering a fist bump to several people in the march.

Wildwood Police Chief Robert Regalbuto watched the event unfold but declined to comment on the scene and could not be contacted later in the day.

GALLERY: Black Lives Matter protest in Wildwood

Community pools weigh the decision to open or not

HAMMONTON — The Hammonton Swim Club board was determined to open its pool this summer if allowed by the governor, whatever it took during the COVID-19 pandemic, said president Gabor Kiss.

“We went full force. We’ve been sending letters to members regularly saying we were getting ready to open,” he said Friday, as families began arriving at noon.

The board began getting the pool ready in April, he said, and was ready to go when Gov. Phil Murphy allowed public pools to reopen June 22, as long as they met requirements in a seven-page description of “New Jersey COVID-19 Outdoor Pool Standards.”

The changes needed to meet new state policies to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus have been significant, but not too onerous, Kiss said. They include installing a touchless check-in system using key fobs, wider spacing of seating, signage reminding people to use social distancing, and regular sanitizing of anything touched by people.

The club also must keep track of every person who is in the club on a given day, in case a member tests positive and contact tracing has to be done.

“We have seating in areas we never had it before,” Kiss said of what used to be game areas. They removed a fence and opened an area to allow people to spread out more.

The pool is rated to hold 72 people at a time, but the club rarely has more than 40 in it, he said.

Hammonton Swim Club has gotten some new members this year, some from a few towns away, as a result of some condo association pools not opening, Kiss said.

It’s a frustrating summer for residents of condominium developments where community boards have decided not to open pools due to COVID-19, but residents must pay the same recreation fees.

One is the more-than-1,200-unit Four Seasons at Smithville, where the management company working with the board said the biggest factor against opening the pool was a lack of insurance to cover COVID-19 claims.

“We didn’t as a management company make a unilateral decision,” said Ted Gammon, vice president of lifestyle for FirstService Residential. “We work with the Board of Directors.”

Gammon said board members are volunteers, and the associations are nonprofit.

“If a resident sued ... there could be a huge financial risk for the association,” Gammon said.

Even if the association had a good case, it would be expensive to defend, he said, with some people suing just to try to get a settlement.

“If you get five to six people realizing it might be a way to get 50 grand, it’s just not worth it,” Gammon said.

Kiss at Hammonton Swim Club said the board did increase its coverage for COVID, but the cost was not too high.

In addition to some of the other requirements, Gammon said many boards felt it was too much to arrange for two to three months of use.

Four Seasons didn’t open its pool, but is continuing to allow access for residents to play bocce ball, tennis and pickleball, a spokesperson said.

Harry Franks, a longtime member of the board at the Mainland Recreation Association in Linwood and the operations chair of the nonprofit board, said the MRA was also determined to open. Its board had protocols written months ahead of when the state required them.

The MRA’s clientele is a lot of young families, and it provides an important and beloved summer activity, Franks said.

One of the biggest changes this summer is the board’s decision not to allow birthday parties to be held there, he said, to avoid having the density of kids typical of such parties.

Members must bring their own tennis rackets and other sports equipment, he said. The 58-year-old club is no longer allowed to loan equipment, as it always had before.

There are painted dots now helping people waiting in line for the diving boards keep 6 feet apart, and every hour lifeguards sanitize pool ladders and other touchpoints around the property.

Franks said he understands the hesitancy of a board responsible for a 55+ community, which runs a variety of services.

“We are in a different situation than a condo association for a 55-and-over community,” Franks said. “That’s a very vulnerable population. You are taking a very vulnerable community and creating a place for socialization to go on.”

The MRA does have some older members, and for the first time this year is opening an hour early, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., to give people over 55 an hour of swim time for themselves. Many leave immediately after the hour is up, he said.

Pleasantville native and museum founder passes away

Born and raised in Pleasantville, Richard Pitts would go on to become a beloved educator, museum director and community inspiration 1,300 miles away in Manhattan, Kansas, before he died May 11.

Pitts was the youngest of five children.

His sister Ellana Pitts, 73, of Pleasantville, is the only member of the family who still lives in the area.

“It didn’t matter on what level, he could connect with people,” Pitts said. “I was always amazed at the people he communicated with. I’d watch my brother and think, ‘Look at little Pleasantville way out in Kansas, doing what he’s doing for that city.’”

Pitts moved west to attend Kansas State University after a medical discharge from the U.S. Army. At KSU, he studied history and met his future wife, Cindy, who was from the Manhattan area.

“He loved and breathed history,” his sister said.

After graduating, Pitts started giving tours of local homes involved in the Underground Railroad.

“He’d have 30 to 40 people in a group,” she said. “They’d tell the stories, five to six houses in a day. That was his personal thing.”

In 1995, Pitts founded and became director of the Wonder Workshop Children’s Museum in downtown Manhattan. It was the culmination of several years developing educational programs in the arts, sciences and of course, history.

“He was determined to do something for the children,” his sister said. “(On visits), a lot of kids came and told me how much the Workshop meant to them. He wanted the children to be educated on life and history.”

The museum expanded over the years to include a cabin and property outside the city, called the Outback Camp, that hosted nature-based programs and enrichment camps.

Pitts was able to maintain relationships with Pleasantville natives who moved to other parts of the country.

One such person was Douglas Spence, 71, of St. Louis, who first met Pitts when Pitts was only 3 years old and living across the road on Fourth Street in Pleasantville. Spence knew Pitts as Chicken, because he said that Pitts liked chicken.

“Chicken was an old spirit even when he was a young boy,” Spence said. “He always had a love for people, which is why people gravitated to him.”

Spence is an artist and and instructor at Harris-Stow State University in St. Louis. He reconnected with Pitts a decade ago.

“You just picked up where you left off with him,” Spence said. “I’m a painter and potter, so we had that in common. He was an educator, and he introduced art to a lot of the kids in (Manhattan).”

Spence attributes some of their shared success to growing up around good stock in Pleasantville. Pitts played football for Spence’s uncle, former Mayor Ralph Peterson, in the youth athletic program Peterson created when he was a beat cop.

The Pete’s Boys program was his own Police Athletic League meant to give Pleasantville youth some direction. Peterson went on to become the city’s first Black police chief and first Black mayor.

“The people that Pleasantville produced went out into the world and did some amazing things,” Spence said.

Pitts wrote two books about the Underground Railroad.

He played African drums and accumulated more than 50 of the instruments in his lifetime. He relished teaching children about the drums and performing for them.

Pitts, who would have been 65 on July 13, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2011.

He fought the disease that ultimately claimed his life these last nine years.

Before it could, he was awarded the Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Award by Manhattan’s Martin Luther King Jr. Committee in 2017.

“He was a cultured person,” Spence said. “Knowledgeable about the African American person in this country, and that’s what he shared with these children. He gave of himself to other people.”

Completion of new Absecon firehouse on horizon, other development projects to follow

ABSECON — Residents will see the end results of the beginning of a redevelopment effort at the White Horse Pike, New Jersey Avenue and Route 9 in about three months.

A new $5.9 million firehouse should be ready for operation in October. The facility will replace the current 63-year-old firehouse and is being built across from City Hall, near Mill Road and New Jersey Avenue and the American Legion building.

The new firehouse is a major step in a long-needed redevelopment project city officials hope will increase the city’s ratable base. The construction opens several properties up for redevelopment.

Firefighters built the old firehouse themselves in 1957. Not so this time, but current firefighters such as Chief Roy Talley, former Chief and current Fire Official Edward Vincent and others were involved with the design of the new facility, said Edward Dennis Jr., the city engineer, the firehouse’s lead designer and a principal with Remington & Vernick Engineers.

“Although they did not physically build this building themselves, they were intimately involved in the design of it. They are here almost every day,” Dennis said. “It’s priceless to have these guys involved from soup to nuts from beginning to end. You don’t get that on every job. ... You don’t have this level of engagement all the time.”

The new firehouse will have bigger doors and higher ceilings for proper clearances for the newer firetrucks, as well as a more modern heating and cooling system, Dennis said.

It will be able to house all of the city’s fire equipment, and nothing will be sitting outside, unlike the current situation, Talley said.

“Our firetrucks can barely fit into the (old) firehouse,” Talley said. “Safety-wise, this will be 100% more efficient than the old place. We will be able to decontaminate firefighters when they come back in without having to walk into what we call a living area.”

A fitness room will be built into the new firehouse and is expected to help with recruitment, which is important because it is a volunteer fire department, Dennis said.

The firehouse can also be powered 100% by a backup generator.

Mayor Kim Horton said the new firehouse will address the 21st century needs of the community.

“I want to make sure our volunteer firemen are in something that is safe and that they have everything that they need, and council felt the same way. We’re thrilled,” Horton said.

The building was built to look toward the future, Dennis said. For instance, there is space set aside in the building for future bunk areas, he said.

When it comes to annual inspections, it is difficult to get the old building to pass, Vincent said. The new building has been designed and constructed to conform to the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code, he said. The new building has sprinklers, which the old building does not, he said.

“Once you recruit people, you want to retain them. When they come into a new building, they will say, ‘I want to stay,’” Vincent said.

The firehouse is just the first step in multiple developments in that section of the city.

Absecon Urban Renewal LLC, c/o Wright Partners, is doing site work on a part of Memorial Field where a Firestone Complete Auto Care store will be built, Dennis said.

The city wanted to put to use the 6.6 acres of the field, which is behind the old firehouse and parallel with the pike and New Jersey Avenue and has been dormant for about 20 years.

Absecon Urban Renewal has proposed building a Royal Farms convenience store on the 2 acres where the current firehouse is.

A bank owns Memorial Field, but the city is selling the land of the old firehouse to the developer for $1.7 million and is using that money toward the cost of the new firehouse.

The construction of the new firehouse is phase one of development. The demolition of the old firehouse will be a part of phase two, which is scheduled to take place before the calendar year ends, Dennis said.

“The redeveloper is trying to work as quickly as he can to get tenants onto this site to bring the project to fruition,” Dennis said. “They are in negotiations to market other areas of the site. They have plans to build out the entire site.”

From left, Absecon Fire Offical Edward Vincent, Chief Roy Talley and City Engineer Edward Dennis Jr. tour the town’s new firehouse this month.