For an urban historian like myself, the plans to sell the Lincoln Annex Public School to make way for a cancer center is the same old tragic story. For more than half a century, in cities across the United States, municipal elites and business leaders have advocated grandiose projects that presumably will benefit “the public” when, in fact, their plans enrich developers and wealthy sponsors who build everything from sports stadiums, hospitals, cultural centers and other “public projects” usually benefiting only a fraction of local residents (and sometimes none at all). The plan to demolish Lincoln Annex is just the latest local example of such a project.

Before the pandemic, Mayor James Cahill and DEVCO produced slick, publicity videos touting flashy sketches depicting the new Rutgers/RWJ cancer pavilion. They boasted how great this will be casting anyone who opposes the project as somehow “pro-cancer” or insensitive to cancer patients. Yet if this project is truly so wonderful for the New Brunswick community, why have they done so much dealing in secret? Why have they not been open to public questions and comment? Why did they mislead city residents for over six months about these plans?

Having studied examples of urban renewal, slum clearance and public projects in American cities, throughout my career, I am familiar with all the arguments that the Mayor and DEVCO present here, and that the New Brunswick Board of Education is parroting. They are becoming ever more creative in their arguments for why this will be better for the children and the city as a whole. The current Lincoln Annex is filled to capacity (and now, supposedly dangerous), they say. This will not cost taxpayers a dime, they say. The new school will be so much better, they say, and some of us must sacrifice “for the greater good.” But to quote an African American community leader in 1960 Chicago who opposed the construction of a university that would displace black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and white ethnic residents, “Who is sacrificing what for whom?”

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Why is it always the most vulnerable, the poor, the most powerless, who must sacrifice for those with much more privilege, power and resources? Why should innocent children who have nothing to do with cancer or a hospital’s expansion ambitions have to sacrifice their security, health and well-being while adults push them around like so many chess pieces?

The Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex unearthed a vast cache of environmental reports on the initially proposed brownfield site for the new school, 131 Jersey Ave, and the results were astonishing — more than a decade of unsuccessful remediation efforts, dangerous levels of toxic and carcinogenic groundwater and soil contamination. The Board of Education, DEVCO and the Mayor kept reassuring the public that this can be cleaned up. But after the Coalition brought this information to light, and since there has been so much bad publicity surrounding this, the Board and DEVCO have now proposed and accepted a new site, 50 Jersey Ave. — just slightly less toxic — without any public discussion or input.

On the April 28 Board of Ed teleconference meeting, Board Vice President Dale Caldwell accused those who oppose the closing of Lincoln Annex without a new school first of being “outsiders” who do have the interests of the community in mind. In his op-ed published on TAPinto New Brunswick’s website back on March 8, he also claimed that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would support these plans, which ultimately displaces thousands of poor children of color, ships them to a warehouse and will eventually relocate them to a contaminated site.

I would remind Dr. Caldwell first, that Dr. King was constantly accused of precisely what he is charging us of being — “outside agitators.” Everywhere King went he was slandered as stirring up division and dissent in local black communities and disturbing the status quo. ' So how can Caldwell sincerely claim that King would support this project and then label us with exactly the same slur that opponents repeatedly launched at King?

Second, if we want to talk about the real outsiders who are sowing division and not taking the community’s interests to heart, why not look at the men at the center of this whole project — the school board’s business manager, the head of DEVCO, the attorneys who will profit from the real estate deals and the superintendent. How many of them actually live in New Brunswick? Why are they being entrusted with making decisions on the future and well-being of our city’s children? Whose interests are they truly representing?

The bottom line is this is a rotten deal all around. New Brunswick’s children are being sacrificed so that powerful big men can make their plans and continue displacing the poor, pushing people out of the city, and lining their pockets. All who care about justice and equity should join us in the Coalition to stop this plan.

Lilia Fernandez

The Coalition to Save Lincoln Annex

Editor's note: The Coalition to Save Lincoln Annex was formed to oppose the transfer of Lincoln Annex to DEVCO. As part of the plan, the school will be razed and state's first free-standing cancer hospital will be built in its place. Lincoln Annex students will attend the Pathways Campus at 40 Van Dyke Ave. while the replacement school is built at 50 Jersey Ave. That site and the other site that was considered for development, 131 Jersey Ave., are contaminated, according to reports on the Board of Education website. The entire project will run an estimated $750 million and will be paid for by massive hospital chain RWJBarnabas Health, according to officials from RWJ, DEVCO and the city.