‘Hidden Gem’ Made Popular by TikTok Is Shut to Keep Out-of-Towners Away

HIGH BRIDGE, N.J. — Lake Solitude, it was not.

For years, the 35-acre picturesque lake, waterfall and century-old dam had been an unspoiled treasure for local residents, but through the power of social media, the secret got out.

People began pouring in, bringing portable speakers, children and food, and leaving behind trash. Borough officials installed extra garbage cans and portable toilets, and brought in police officers to direct traffic — many vehicles with New York license plates. On a recent Sunday, some visitors had to be turned away.

Residents had seen enough. They swarmed a virtual town-hall-style meeting this month, demanding that Lake Solitude be shut. Last week, the Borough of High Bridge complied, closing the area to all visitors.

Some of the complaints stemmed from fears that visitors might bring the coronavirus from New York City, about 50 miles east of the borough. But some of them focused bluntly on ethnicity.

High Bridge is nearly 95 percent white, but the lake attracts a much more diverse group.

On the last weekend that Lake Solitude was open, mothers and fathers were paddling with toddlers underneath the waterfall’s spray, grandmothers were basking with their feet in the bucolic river and 20-somethings were taking drone photos with the imposing dam.

“We have droves of out-of-state Spanish people and they leave their crap lying on the ground,” said Lester Tomson, 58, who regularly fished the stream.

Mr. Tomson, a registered Democrat, is one of a number of people who, on social media and in conversation, have suggested that Immigration and Customs Enforcement should have been called to the park.

“It’s not a racist thing,” he said in an interview. “It’s a thing where you observe things, and your observations are based in facts and not in racism.”

Lake Solitude is one of several normally quiet oases for locals that have been recently overrun by day trippers from New York City — where public beaches and pools were mostly closed until this month — who are looking for closer places to visit because of the pandemic.

“I find those kinds of comments more disgusting than any of the garbage I saw left behind at the lake,” Mayor Lee said.

At Lake Solitude the day before it was shut, the ground was pristine, and few people enjoying the park felt there was a problem.

“People are just looking for an excuse not to have colored people around, to get us out of their town,” said Alej Rodriguez, 26, a truck driver who drove in from Upper Manhattan with his family, to visit the lake and the sights on the rolling grounds, like the remains of the Union Iron Works forge, which smelted cannonballs for the Revolutionary War.

“You’ve always got a target on your back as a colored person,” he said. “You’ve always got to watch your back, even at a beautiful lake where we come to have fun.”

Not far from Mr. Rodriguez, a man, who identified himself as a High Bridge resident but would give only his first name, Mike, was taking photos of people swimming with a long range lens.

“I’m documenting the problem,” said the man, who was white, explaining he was angry that the bathers were not wearing masks as they swam, and worried that the people playing in the water were contaminating it.

Edward Bielcik, 74, had heard talk of the overcrowding and wanted to see for himself, he said. He was one of several residents strolling the park with cameras to document the claims. “They said the Latin Kings tagged the area,” Mr. Bielcik said.

For several weeks, Mayor Lee, a financial adviser who does not take a salary for her borough position, had pushed to keep the park open, under her belief the newcomers could help make High Bridge a tourist destination. “If we get this right, it’s a great situation for the town,” she said.

Plans are underway to figure out how to reopen and accommodate any crowds, the mayor said, but there is no timeline yet to do so.

Some of the borough’s residents say they can’t help but feel that uglier impulses are behind the desire to close the lake.

At Scout’s Coffee Bar & Mercantile on Main Street, the owner’s eyes filled with tears when she recounted the words used about the visitors that she had overheard at her barista’s counter. Just a month before, a Black Lives Matter rally had taken place down the street.

“We just went through all the protests, and we are all learning about how we can be better allies to people of color, and this is our opportunity. It’s disheartening,” said the owner, Nicole Poko, 38, who is white. “It just feels like there is a lot of work to be done.”

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