Reclaiming Jersey City

My earliest memories are of Jersey City.  I loved Jackson Avenue in particular because I loved riding on the Jackson Ave Trolley Car.  I learned many lessons on that streetcar.  It was there I first remembered seeing black people and asking my mother about who they were, in a very loud voice, I am sure embarrassing her.  But the street car was the one place that I could see people who looked very different from me.  I was fascinated.  I did not see black people in my neighborhood, they lived on the other side of Bergen Avenue, and the street car was about the only place we mixed.  Just before I turned 4 the streetcar was torn up and replaced by a bus and we moved to Ridgewood in the suburbs.

That spring my mother took me to the Kenilworth School.  While waiting to register me for kindergrten the woman next to us said that the school would be flooded next year because a new subdivision was opening and they were selling houses to “all those people from Jersey City.”  Many Ridgewood people tried to stop the development.  They wanted the land for a private airport.  My mother straightened her back and said “You are talking to a family from Jersey City.”  She turned to me and told me always to be proud of where I was from.

But growing up it was hard to be proud of Jersey City.  Jersey City was on the way down, becoming the punchline for a hundred of jokes.  I saw this first hand because most weekends I spent with my grandparents in the city.  I learned to navigate city buses by the age of 9.  And while I loved sitting on my grandparents’ fire escape looking out at the Statue of Liberty and the ships leaving port, I could see the place was going downhill.

The old port was falling into disrepair.  The wharves were rotting as the ocean traffic moved to the new container ports in Newark and Elizabeth.  The rail yards that served the ports became overgrown, the factories along those wharves and rail lines, windows smashed, had moved to bigger acreage on the outskirts of town.  The warehouses stood empty.  So did many houses.  Jersey City lost population.  Even the Jersey City Medical center, opened by FDR himself, the place I was born and the pride of Boss “I am the law” Frank Hague began to look rundown.  Even the formally well-oiled Hague political machine began to crumble along with city services.  By the time I reached college TV networks were doing news specials on the decay of Jersey City and in the weekly satire show “That Was the Week that Was” David Frost savaged my hometown.  It was not a place to be proud of.

When John Pizzarelli sang “Have no pity, Jersey City once again will shine” it was taken as a joke more than a prediction.  But a prescient prediction it was.  In the 1980s the waterfront was a mess, abandoned railyards, factories and warehouses, but the transportation infrastructure was there to take lots of people into New York quickly.  The PATH Tube under the Hudson had stations around Jersey City and could take workers to Wall Street and Midtown in minutes.  The old brownstone houses with the big stoops back a few blocks from the Hudson River along Jersey Avenue began to gentrify.

In the ‘90s the Lefrak development company built a shopping mall at the site of the old Erie Railway yards at Pavonia and surrounded it with condos and hotels and called it Newport.  A new city was developing in the no man’s land between the old brownstones and City hall and the river.   I am not sure they knew completely the value of the land they were building on.  They put a parking garage along the Hudson River.  The shops on the first floor of the garage faced inland to the street rather than facing the Hudson Riverwalk with its view out over the Hudson and the skyline.  The garage would make excellent view apartments with cafes on the ground floor.  But that may be one of the few mistakes in developing this property.  As Newport succeeded new development spread south.

In the late ‘70s at the site of the old Penn railway station at Exchange Place HUD invested in a senior citizen’s high rise “Battery View” where my Aunt Janice Lives.  Then it was a cheap place to put the old folks.  When my Aunt Janice moved there in the early late ‘90s she could still see New York’s Battery Park and World Trade Center from her 15th floor efficiency.  It is about a mile south of Newport.  Now her building is surrounded by 30 story office towers (including Goldman Sachs), condos and hotels.  She can’t see the water anymore but can still see the Empire State Building between two high rises.

Just south of Exchange Place the Jersey Central yards behind the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have been restored as wetlands and made into Liberty State Park.  South of that at the site of the former Black Tom Point and Caven Point Army munitions terminal is the Liberty National Golf course surrounded by condos.   A Hudson River Walk takes you from behind the Statue of Liberty to Newport.  A light rail system also runs along the waterfront.

And inland from Newport, and Exchange place the gentrification of the city is moving apace.  Journal Square, the old center of the city, is still somewhat of a mess, but the old Art Deco movie houses are being restored and new construction is transforming the rest of the area as well.  The Jersey City Medical Center has moved into a new, modern building, and the old Art Deco pride of Boss Hague has been converted to condos.

Jersey City is great place to stay.  The hotels are less expensive than Manhattan (although our hotel room hiked up to $395 a night when the Pope arrived, far too high) and many of the sights take less time to get to because of the tube and the new ferry boats across the Hudson (some built in Sitka.)  But the nicest surprise in Jersey City is the way different people of different cultures and races mix.  Interracial couples stroll along the river walk.  At tables in the outside cafes people of all hues sit together sharing a coffee break.  Against all expectations, Jersey City once again does shine.

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