I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. On my 67th birthday I want to pay tribute to my first home town. I came into the world in the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, part of the Jersey City Medical Center. It was named after Mayor Frank Hague’s mother. The medical center provided virtually free medical care to every resident of Jersey City. The medical center campus was an art deco dream, dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose WPA helped build it. In those days Jersey City was quite the place, corrupt, but a place that delivered services, including medical care, to its residents.
When I was a kid my Great Grandfather McClear ran a general store on Westside Avenue. It was the last fully clerked general store in Jersey City. It was closed in the 50s after Great Grandpa, then in his 90s, was arrested for selling hard cider without a license. I remember it as a community center where, in the winter, Great Grandpa kept a potbellied stove hot and put orange peel on the fire to create a strangely sweet smell of coal and orange mingled. He told stories to all of us kids.
Grandpa McClear delivered ice and coal on these streets. Pop was a milkman. The McClears tried to corner commerce in the neighborhood. Grandpa lived 101 years in Jersey City.
My Grandfather Brew’s apartment had a fire escape off the kitchen window. From that perch we could look at the Statue of Liberty and watch the ships leave the Hudson and cruise into Upper New York Bay. Grandpa Brew had been a merchant seaman before he emigrated from Ireland and taught me the funnel liveries of all the ship lines. I could identify all the great and many of the smaller liners from that kitchen fire escape. (Our flat was across the landing from Grandpa’s but didn’t have the view.)
The store became a warehouse. The city declined. The Medical Center went bankrupt, and was resurrected as a non-profit. The port facility, with its warehouses and rail lines, moved across the Newark Bay to a new container port at Elizabeth, New Jersey. While “The Tube,” a trans-Hudson train, still ran between Jersey City and New York City (and still does) the ferry boats stopped running between Jersey City and New York. We moved to the suburbs.
But Jersey City was not done in. Because it is right across the Hudson from New York its waterfront provided some of the best views of Manhattan this side of Brooklyn. The tube still existed and the rail lines from the ‘burbs. The old neighborhood became gentrified. People wanted to move to Jersey City to be close to New York but live in more affordable housing. All along Jersey Avenue and Grove Street buildings were renovated. New condos went up. The Jersey City Medical Center buildings became an urban condo and retail center. A Marriott Hotel went up on the river. Exchange Place grew skyscrapers. Goldman Sachs moved its back office operations to a glass tower overlooking the old neighborhood.
The rails in the rail yards were torn up and Liberty State Park, behind the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, provided green space and restored estuary wetlands. A science center was planted near the park, and the old Jersey Central rail station, where so many immigrants who got off at Ellis Island got on trains and headed west, became a museum and interpretative center. Just south of the park, at Caven Point, an old army munitions depot (adjacent Black Tom Point blew up during World War 1) the Liberty National Golf course hosts the Barclays Open golf tournament, alternating with Ridgewood Country Club. Ridgewood is the suburb where my family moved.
And to bring it full circle, the ferryboats are back. Catamarans carry commuters from Jersey City to Midtown and lower Manhattan. And those ferry boats were built in Jamestown Bay, in sight of my present home in Sitka, Alaska.
Here is an explanation of some of the pics.
- Westside Avenue, I remember riding on the street cars.
- Great Grandpa’s store, both outside and inside.
- Great Grandpa has the white coat on.
- Great Grandpa’s Truck.
- The men in my family (before I was a man) getting ready to go to a party at Cahill’s Tavern. Pop, in the front, has the gapped tooth smile. Both Grandfathers are in the back, left is Grandpa Brew and center Grandpa McClear, Uncle Bill is back right. Next to Pop is Uncle John on his left and Uncle Lester on his right. Mr. Spadiccini is on the left. His son married my cousin Normae.
- The ferryboat Jersey City taken in Sitka before it was delivered, along with its sister ship the Frank Sinatra, to take commuters to New York.
- The World Trade Center Memorial. It was designed to frame the empty space where the twin towers stood. Now it frames, at the right angle, the new One World Trade Center Tower; by ruling of a committee, the tallest building in North America.
- Shots of Liberty State Park, the Jersey Central Terminal, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the new Jersey City skyline, Exchange Place and Goldman Sachs.
- Exchange Place Pier, with the Polish memorial (stabbed in the back by the Russians) and New York beyond.