A Brief History
In June 2019, Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Hospital, the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and DEVCO—a “non-profit” authority with the power to issue bonds and raise private capital—announced that with the consent of the New Brunswick Board of Education, they were going to purchase and raze the Lincoln Annex School at 165 Somerset Street. The school, which served more than 750 children in grades four through eight, had only opened in September 2016. In what seemed to have been a long-term investment in the site, the Board of Education used state funds to purchase and renovate a former Catholic school purchased from the Diocese of Metuchen in 2013, at a cost of $22 million.
The announcement that Lincoln Annex School was to make way for a new $750 million, for-profit cancer institute was a slap in the face to parents and students who took pride in their local school. Lincoln Annex ranked highly when it came to metrics measuring student growth and development and had been certified as “Future Ready” by the very city government that now sought to tear it down. Lincoln Annex was a boon to a student body that was 94 percent Latinx and 86 percent “economically disadvantaged” in its demographic composition. As a coalition statement issued in February 2020 noted: “The city’s ‘revitalization’ and development have already pushed longtime residents farther away from the city center. This will be yet another example of urban renewal displacing working-class communities, people of color, and the economically marginalized.”
When news of the plans spread, officials from the Board of Education tried to avoid acknowledging that Lincoln Annex would be closed at the end of the 2020 school year and dodged questions about where relocated students would be housed, temporarily and in the long term. Parents were concerned about how far children would now have to travel. The old Lincoln Annex site was within walking distance from where families lived, while the warehouse site was remote and required buses or cars.
On February 18, 2020, hundreds of coalition members marched to Winants Hall on Rutgers’ College Avenue campus to speak before the Board of Governors meeting and express their dismay about the plans. Disingenuously, university officials tried to distance themselves from the hospital and Board of Education’s procedures for permitting the sale of the school. But as Lilia Fernandez aptly pointed out, “Rutgers already signed onto this project when it sold the ‘Rutgers Health’ brand for $100 million to RWJ Barnabas Health in 2018.”
On February 25, a week later, the New Brunswick Board of Education met. They faced angry parents and other coalition members who demanded answers from government officials on why the hospital’s and DEVCO’s arguments for the need to build the Cancer Institute at the Lincoln Annex site had gone unchallenged or even questioned. Board of Education members refused to make themselves publicly accountable, and instead cut the meeting short and voted behind closed doors.
Still, momentum was building.
Then, the pandemic.
The energy that had marked coalition members’ participation at in-person meetings and rallies was stifled when everything went online. Zoom meetings changed the very ground rules for who could speak about the issue, and under what terms. Large public gatherings were no longer safe or permitted.
The impact of Covid-19 notwithstanding, there also existed a large power imbalance between the coalition – consisting of immigrants, activists, and Rutgers’ faculty and students – and executives at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey embedded in New Brunswick’s power structure.
Politicians involved with the development agency DEVCO and the New Brunswick Board of Education did not feel that working-class people in the city were constituents and people worth listening to. Defending Lincoln Annex from capitalists’ plans was always going to be a David versus Goliath battle
Even though Lincoln Annex was ultimately razed, the worst-case scenario for students was averted. The Board of Education had originally intended to build the new school at a former factory site on Jersey Avenue. Only after Juan González filed a Freedom of Information request and discovered that the site had been designated a brownfield by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection did the city back away from plans to build there.
In May 2020, LatinoJustice, on behalf of Coalition members, filed a lawsuit arguing that the sale of Lincoln Annex was in violation of a deed restriction that the Catholic Church had placed on the property’s use (see Juan Cartagena’s interview for more details).
Much remains to be seen about the suitability of the site for the new school, which remains under construction as of Fall 2022. As addressed here, its location next to train tracks and a highly trafficked strip mall on a busy stretch of Jersey Avenue does not make it an ideal site for a school.
Jersey Avenue Brownfield Site
New Brunswick originally proposed building the new school on Jersey Avenue, at a former factory site next to where the road crosses Mile Run. When Juan González discovered that the site had been designated a brownfield by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, the city abandoned plans to build there.
It’s an abandoned manufacturing site that has been under New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection supervision for years now because it’s highly contaminated. Once community residents and parents understood that this is where the city and DEVCO were proposing to relocate their children, many got very incensed, they were outraged. And I remember one of the parents—Julio Vivar, I believe—went over to the area, filmed it with his phone, [and told people], “Look, this is where they want to send our kids.” And people pointed out just how dangerous it was, because this is a mostly abandoned, industrial area. There are trucks and cars, and traffic that comes down that road very fast. It’s just an unsafe area for children. I could never imagine a city government wanting to send middle-class white children to a place like this.