A $5 million revitalization effort brings Zumba and movie nights to a once barren park

When a park is filled with people, “it becomes impossible for bad guys to do what they used to do there,” Dan Biederman ’75 says.
When a park is filled with people, “it becomes impossible for bad guys to do what they used to do there,” Dan Biederman ’75 says.
M.C. Mays Pulliam

When Dan Biederman ’75 first walked through Military Park in downtown Newark, N.J., his eyes did not linger on the withered grass, graffitied concrete, and flickering Victorian lampposts. Instead, he saw an opportunity. One year and $5 million later, Biederman and his firm, which focuses on urban revitalization, have wrought a transformation.

Since the refurbished park opened last summer, Zumba enthusiasts and local chess masters have frequented the once barren space, which has a playground, a weekly farmers market, and a place to screen movies. There have been poetry festivals, author talks, glass-blowing demonstrations, and a staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which drew hundreds to the park. When a park is filled with people, “it becomes impossible for bad guys to do what they used to do there,” Biederman says. 

He first tried his hand at renovating parks in the 1990s when, as a 26-year-old graduate of the Harvard Business School, he was asked to spearhead the remaking of the then crime-ridden Bryant Park in Manhattan. He went on to found Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which has worked with the private sector to fund and manage the redevelopment of public urban spaces from Pittsburgh to Dallas. 

Biederman begins a project by analyzing the park and the surrounding neighborhood. For Military Park, a six-acre space created in the 1700s, he interviewed students, store owners, parents, business executives, and politicians. The test of a successful park, Biederman says, is “how many women are using the space,” because they will visit only if they feel safe. The renovation was funded by the city of Newark, foundations, and private companies. 

Since its opening, Biederman, who lives in Chappaqua, N.Y., has been enjoying walking through Military Park. He is particularly drawn to the daily chess matches played by neighborhood elders, but since his last successful match was as a Princeton sophomore, he has yet to join in.