Cherry Blossoms Beckon Visitors To Newark, N.J.

One of New Jersey's most infamous cities has even more blossoms than Washington, D.C. Monica Miller says Newark attracts a lot of Asian visitors who come to picnic and take wedding photos.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally this hour, a postcard from a city not known for its springtime beauty. Newark, New Jersey, it turns out, rivals Washington, D.C. for its crop of cherry trees. From member station WBGO in Newark, Monica Miller takes us to see the blossoms.

MONICA MILLER, BYLINE: The trip on the light rail from downtown Newark to the end of the city line takes passengers past some boarded-up homes, warehouses and public housing complexes. But about nine stops in, hundreds of trees with pink flowers come into view as the train glides along Branch Brook Park.

Bella Chen and her friends are from China and are now studying in Manhattan. They say they decided to visit New Jersey's largest city after receiving a tweet from a friend. And despite its sometimes tarnished reputation, they didn't think twice about coming to Newark.

BELLA CHEN: Say, oh, it's really beautiful. We should definitely go check it out. And so that's why we are here.

MILLER: Thirteen-year-old Yasn Massey is one of thousands of visitors coming to see the flowers in different stages of development. The central Jersey resident says cherry blossoms in Newark didn't always go hand and hand in her mind.

YASN MASSEY: So I was a little apprehensive when I was first thinking about coming here. And then when I came here, I was like, wow, this is really amazing.

MILLER: Branch Brook Park was designed by the firm founded by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park. The trees were a gift from the sister of a department store magnate in the 1920s, but many of them died over time and the county lost money to preserve the park in its original condition. But over the 10 years he's been in office, Essex County executive Joe DiVincenzo raised roughly $60 million with the help of park advocates and corporate sponsors.

JOE DIVINCENZO: Right now we have more cherry blossom trees than Washington, D.C. and that was my goal. But when it comes to variety of cherry blossom trees, this is what they tell me, we're the number one in the world.

MILLER: Some Newark residents, like Freddy Rivera, say when he was growing up, the park was a banged-up, grim place. And while he hasn't visited the trees in decades, he likes to look at them from his apartment balcony across the street and watch the visitors from around the world.

FREDDY RIVERA: You can see all the crowds of people walking through here and you're going to see how they all going to get down with their little cameras and their camcorders and they can take pictures and the hugs and kisses and all that.

MILLER: Visitors trail through the park wearing sun visors and cameras around their necks. Newark resident Dominique Presha is sitting on a bench just a few feet away from the trees with her three-year-old son.

DOMINIQUE PRESHA: I just look at them from afar. They're cute.

MILLER: They're cute?

PRESHA: And pretty.

MILLER: But she doesn't get it.

PRESHA: The whole aspect of people just coming to look at trees is weird. I don't see the big deal 'cause you see trees every day.

MILLER: But Japanese native Tomoaki Ishigaki says what some Americans don't understand is that picnicking under the cherry blossoms reminds him of home and will bring him good luck.

TOMOAKI ISHIGAKI: We really get anxious when the cherry blossoms start to bloom so I think that's really something that we always long for throughout the year. It's really the beginning of spring.

MILLER: Visitors can already use their cell phones at Branch Brook Park for self-guided tours in English and Spanish. Next year, they're adding Japanese and Mandarin to the list of options. For NPR News, I'm Monica Miller in Newark.

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