"The New Brooklyn"
Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
Jersey City's waterfront is all impressive, modern high rise buildings, beaming urban prosperity, extending a few blocks inland from the Hudson River and Morris Canal basin. Newport, at the north end, is a massive development encompassing office buildings, residential buildings, an eponymous mall, and many big box stores such as Target and Home Depot. The tallest among these, located at the southern end, is the Goldman Sachs headquarters. The walking path along the waterfront is beautiful in a comfortably affluent way, and any given square inch of public space in New York City probably has more bacteria than the entire, several mile long stretch.This being New Jersey, the family-friendly surface rests on top of a century and a half of industrial waste, in. This is not the boom-and-bust type of developmental waste you might find many in many areas of the country, either. Port facilities existed here for God knows how long. The really intense use (one might say abuse) of this land dates back at least to the early 19th century with the Morris Canal's terminus being built up here. Many different railroad lines, coming from all over the larger, intensely industrialized region, cross the Palisades on various tunnels and bridges, some now abandoned while others carrying passengers and freight to this day, all terminated here, at sprawling railyards and piers along the JC waterfront. I like to imagine this area in its youthful vigor in the late 19th century: the harbor black with raw sewage and industrial waste, the piers bustling with stevedores working 12 hour days 6 days a week, a dangerous landscape of steel, brick, and wood, with steam and smoke and ugly sounds everywhere, Andrew Carnegie type figures with moustaches inspecting things and firing people. Just think about what a bar in downtown JC must have been like back then.This land use history of explains why today the whole waterfront area of the city, extending many blocks inland in some places, is without exception brand new. Look on the map: it was all train tracks. Then, in the mid 20th century, when all of those railroads went out of business, and bigger ships and containerized shipping required new port infrastructure, it must have been easier and politically more favorable to start from scratch elsewhere. Hence the modern day ports at Bayonne, Port Newark, Port Elizabeth. Jersey City’waterfront in the lowest economic times of the 70's most have been quite a sight to see - and a great place to contemplate what Capitalism looks like from a vantage point other than a Boardroom or City Hall. Then the real estate developers moved in.The radio station WFMU, a NJ cultural institution, is located in this waterfront area, on Montgomery St. They have a venue, Monty Hall, on the first floor of their building.
The Grove St PATH station is a geographic anchor point in Downtown JC. It is on the boundary between the new shiny buildings and the historic parts of Downtown, which today are a charming mix of quaint and decrepit. Hamilton Park, north of Grove Street, is a really beautiful square surrounded by brownstones. The orderly grid of numbered streets around Hamilton Park are full of elegant old well-kept buildings. Coffee shops and high-end grocery stores are lightly sprinkled in. This would be a really wonderful place to live, I think. I don’t know anyone who lives here, which is strange. How high-class is it, I wonder? Is there any old money remnant? More likely it’s the classier, more liberal end of suburban stock - professionals who work in NY but somehow managed to avoid the suburbs. Running east-west between two of the numbered streets is what looks like a massive, extremely thick stone wall, overgrown with small trees on top. It is an old train line, totally abandoned, never repurposed. However, this nice area is small.Newark Ave is a major commercial strip, running Northwest from the Grove Street station. It cuts diagonally across the street grid. My guess is that it predates the grid – once the main road connecting two of Northern NJ’s most prominent towns. It is lined with restaurants and bars which are trendy in a very mild way. There are also dollar stores and cheap clothing stores mixed in, which are refreshing to see in comprison with the money-induced sterility of other parts of Downtown. People of different classes seem to all hang out in this area, though perhaps for different reasons. Still it feels cosmopolitan and "real" in a way that a lot of the wealtly urban areas of JC don't. The Italian restaurant Roman Nose is nice – simple contemporary food with a calm atmosphere that reminds me of Maplewood. There is a really good Vietnamese restaurant along this strip too. There is a Barcade. A Two Boots. These last two are regional franchises of Brooklyn origin, which each rode waves of social capital to expansionist success.South of Newark Ave, Grove Street is home to another similar commerial strip, with some upscale shops and restaurants sprinkled in. It leads into a neighborhood which seems to share many physical and human characteristics with the Hamilton Park neighborhood. A couple of highlights are Van Vorst park, a small square surrounded by elegant brownstones, and the Paulus Hook neighborhood, which seems to have some interesting old commercial buildings in it. Paulus Hook is the old name for Jersey City - perhaps it is even a Dutch name. The Downtown street grid continues south until the Morris Canal basin, where the old Brooklyn-esque brick buildings give way to swanky new ''urban-suburban'' post-Industrial development for a couple blocks surrounding the waterway engineered for the canal.South of the Morris Canal basin, you've got the Liberty Science Center, well-loved by kids from all over the region, and Liberty State Park, which kids from all over the region find boring. The land that is now Liberty State Park has the same industrial history as the rest of downtown, but after the industry left and was cleaned up somewhat, it was preserved as open space. Open is exactly what it is - not a lot of trees seem to have found a comfortable home on this ground.Downtown's principal streets continue a long way to the west to connect JC’s “upstairs” with its “downstairs.” They ascends the Palisades, past a weird mid-city dead zone where the Turnpike Extension lords over some empty waste space on a series of dizzyingly high concrete pillars. The view of the city from the Turnpike Extension is as beautiful as the view of the Turnpike Extension from the city is ugly. Heading west on Montgomery St., pleasant old apartments give way quickly to weird uglier ones, which I think are some sort of semi-disguised public housing, or maybe just self-conscously low income development. Past the Turnpike Extension, there are a few classic bleak 60's era public housing high rises, one which is being re-built into a senior home. Following Newark Ave. to the West, you pass an extensive old cemetery on the slope of the Palisades, south of the road, which is eerie and beautiful. Apparently some hipsters have gotten their hands on this cemetery because I’ve heard something about goats being used to the grass cut.
On top of the Palisades, Newark Ave takes you towards Journal Square. In a way, this area is a cosmopolitan centerpoint of the city, the junction between the various ethnic neighborhoods which surround it on all sides. Journal Square has also been observed to be a gravitational center of Jerseyness, of the depressing urban variety. What NJ resident can’t identify with the lost, homeless feeling of this place? A few blocks of modest residential neighborhood here, a couple of government office buildings there...some abandoned brick industrial buildings, some worn-out low-end commercial strips, a few blocks of office buildings, old theatres now owend by Jehova’s Witnesses...detached houses in the shadow of high rise apartment buildings...whatever makes a city pleasant – gives it a nice vibe, a sense of order – Journal Square lacks it.What to make of the Journal Square Transportation Center building itself? It’s a sort of monument to architectural facelessness – of good intentions somehow failing to manifest. The concrete courtyard through which one passes en route to/from the PATH or the bus inevitably has some parts of under construction. It looks neither new nor old – I’m not sure when it was built. It is almost poetically bleak and empty. One wonders if NJ’s core is simply soullessness.There is a beautiful old theatre, the Loews Jersey, which apparently shows artsy movies occasionally. But I think it may have been shut down in a squabble with the city government over taxes.
Past Journal Square, Newark Ave slopes down the west side of the Palisades. Here it becomes the main street of JC’s Little India neighborhood. This is an amazing place to walk around, though not to drive – it is an incredibly dense couple of blocks, and the road becomes extremely congested. Rasoi, an excellent restaurant, a real highlight of the city, is behind an unassuming facade at the center of the neighorhood. Beyond Little India, you get to the Mana Contemporary Art center – a giant former cigar factory that is now artist studios.
Sidebar: Comparing and Contrasting Journal Square with Downtown
If you ever ride the PATH from Midtown Manhattan to Journal Square at the end of the workday, you are exposed to a demographic cross section of Jersey City.After passing through the ancient catacombs that wind underneath the Hudson, the train stops at Newport. You can expect to see mostly nicely, conservatively dressed white and asian people getting off here. A significant number of wealthy Chinese and Indian people, from young roommates to whole extended families, call Newport home. Living here seems pretty cushy – shining new high-rise luxury condos, which are as close as you can get to New York without being in New York – and I might call it a “proto-suburban” lifestyle. I would be willing to bet that a lot of these people have their eyes on suburban homes in towns with good schools along the NJ Transit lines. However, it excites me a little to think that some may be happy here and resist the pull towards the suburbs.Grove Street is next. A lot of young hipsters get off here – mostly white and some black. However there are also a lot of young professionals too. Sometimes I suspect that the differences between these two groups are superficial. This is a fairly expensive area. However I don’t know. My cousin lives around here, but she and her friends are pretty solidly on the young professional side. Comparing and contrasting this area with Hoboken is a subject of much debate for me, but I don’t have a lot of solid info about life around here. My cousin, for instance, mostly hangs out in the city.As the doors close and the train leaves Grove Street, you may feel, if you grew up in a white area, a little instinctive jolt of fear or discomfort. Suddenly it’s a majority of dark-skinned faces. A lot of black people. There are Indian people too, but various details make it all to easy to judge the majority of them as relatively deficient in social capital ad financial resources. Some young Chinese students are thrown into the mix. Surprisingly, though I search my memory, I can’t think of a lot of Latino people on this train.I belabor these racial and ethnic categories here to try to make a point. Race/ethnicity overlaps significantly with class in New Jersey. The racial make-up of neighborhoods may be a crass and borderline disrespectful stand-in for class but I hope it’s worth it for the insight. JC’s Indian community is the exception that proves the rule: they span a broad social and economic spectrum, but the rich Indian and poor Indian New Jerseyites live in different neighborhoods.The Journal Square area is characterized by a near total absence of rich people. It is a diverse, city-center type of area, but it appears that the different kinds of people walking around, the businesses, the housing, etc. have one thing in common: lack of prosperity. If you come from any degree of money, you have very little reason to visit Journal Square. Undoubtedly these economic conditions are related to Journal Square’s depressing vibe, which I spoke about earlier. A key interpretive question for understanding the area is, I believe, causality. As in, chicken-vs-egg. How did the area get to be so depressing? Did it develop in such a shitty way because the rich people left due to broad social and economic motivations, and took with them the financial incentive and political will to make the area nice? Or did the rich people leave because the area developed badly, so that it became poor exactly because it’s depressing? Supposedly, it used to be nice. But then again old people always say things like that.Currently, as of December 2015, a high-rise building of some kind is partially completed in Journal Square. Will beefy real estate development economically super-charge the area, is it did in previous decades on JC’s waterfront? Or will the sad Jerseyness overwhelm this new building's inhabitants too?
Surrounding Journal Square
Journal Square is the city center for the bulk of JC’s back half . This area is build on top of the north-south running ridge of the Palisades, which starts as a low gradual hill in the south, near the Bayonne border, and rises into an abrupt mid-city cliff by the time you get north of Journal Square. The northernmost neighborhood, the Heights, is literally the city’s upstairs: a staircase of nearly 100 steps and a public elevator provide pedestrian access to the neighborhood from the east. The boundary between JC's front and back halves is the NJ Turnpike Extension, a large elevated highway which creates a creepy urban dead zone beneath it. Kennedy Boulevard is a through road which follows the crest of the Palisades through JC’s back half for its whole length. It seems to be an old road, predating its current honoree, because it curves and doesn’t totally follow the grid in some places.West of Journal Square and south of Little India is JC’s Middle Eastern neighborhood, along Sip Avenue. It shows some clear signs of poverty – not a lot of commercial activity, just a few embattled looking convenience stores – but on a warm night there are a lot of people walking around. There is also a strong black presence in this neighborhood, and I am really curious what relations between the two communities are like. This neighborhood trails off into Grant Park by the swamps of the Hackensack River, which marks JC’s western border. The blocks off of Sip Avenue are also home to an ornate, gaudy Italian restaurant and banquet hall, rather incongruous with its surroundings.South of Journal Square is McGinley Square, which is a predominantly black neighborhood. There is a very divey bar here which has world-class jazz in it. There are a lot of two or three story brick buildings lining the streets, with bodegas and similar stores in them. A few intriguing storefronts are scattered around. JC’s predominantly black section continues south down the Palisades from McGinley Square, through Communipaw Ave., and into the Greenville neighborhood. Here the housing stock seems to be more predominantly wood-frame detached homes. The street grid is kind of confusing around here, hiding some some interesting sights to see – a beautiful creepy abandoned church, blocks of neglected old, classy-looking, artictecturally interesting apartment buildings, and perhaps most significantly a former hospital complex of huge concrete towers, which are a landmark visible from far away. These have been redeveloped, some into sketchy looking apartment buildings, others into fancy gated-community type apartment buildings with parking garages. The idea of living inside a former hospital creeps me out, but they are beautiful buildings in a way. I wonder who lives here, and why. Much of this area is rather poorly served by public transit. The light rail has one token spur into this area. There are city buses which connect to Journal Square. But neither of those options are exactly what I'd call convenient. On the other hand, NJ is all about the commute.
North of Journal Square you get into the Heights. The Heights is on average more of a family-oriented Lower Middle Class neighborhood, I think, rather than some of the more working class areas around Journal Square. A lot of Indian immigrant families live here. So do a lot of Latino immigrant families. JC’s northernmost neighborhood, the Heights is the southern end of a massive stretch of predominantly Latino immigrant community that runs north all the way into Bergen County. This community is so dense, so thoroughly Latino, and so extensive that it probably is a nationally significant cultural and population center. In the Heights, though, the Latino and Indian elements are just part of the mix though. There are regular old middle class white commuters, some working class white families, and some middle class Black families. There are also a lot of Chinese students renting rooms here as they attend Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. A mix of old brick 3 story apartment buildings, rowhouses and detached houses, the Heights seems to have a fair number of homeowners. A couple of blocks are stunningly, incongruously nice, with old restored Victorian homes surrounded by large well-kepd yards with beautiful old trees. I really wonder who lives here - it seems to be middle class white people - and how expensive these houses are. Other blocks are more modest, but exude the pride of homeownership. Still other blocks are shitty rental houses in various states of disrepair and decay. These are humble houses, but overall they haven't degenerated into squalor - there are a good number of newly constructed, equally modest houses and small apartment buildings in the neighborhood. Sprinkled in are a couple of large, newer buildings thrown in which have a luxury condo air about them. These inevitably have garages because the public transit her sucks!Central Avenue is the commercial center of the Heights. It is an eclectic Main Street of cheap department stores, fruit and vegetable stores, furniture stores, restaurants of various ethnicities, and fast food. One highlight is Kikiriki, a Peruvian Pollo a la Braza place. Honestly, Pollo a la Braza that I've had elsewhere in the region (outside of NJ) is better, but this place is still a neighborhood institution. Also there is an old-school Italian deli, and a similar Italian bakery. These both offer delicious authentic items. There is a closed-down boarded up Bagel store. This contrast causes one to reflect on the relative tenacity of NJ's Italians and Jews in urban neighborhoods.This area was clearly a "white ethnic" immigrant neighborhood in the early to mid 20th century. Big old Catholic and Protestant churches are common throughout the side streets, contrasting with more recent storefront Iglecias Pentacostales. There is an old synagogue on the 100 block of Sherman Ave, which incredibly is still functioning. I was invited to go, and if I had less conflicted feelings about Judaism, I may have accepted. Its Moorish Revival architecture is pretty impressive. "White flight" certainly happened here in a literal sense, but without the implication of neighborhood implosion which that phrase sometimes carries. The continuity of the immigrant experience, even as the ethnicity of the immigrants changes, is evident here. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm imagining that a Salvadoran or Colombian immigrant family is probably having a fairly similar experience in this neighborhood to a Jewish or Italian family 100 years ago.I think there is something rare and beautiful about the Heights. The gaping economic inequality of recent decades isn't in evidence here - here is a neighborhood which never went to the dogs but never boomed into prosperity either. Also the racial/ethic diversity is through the roof, with white people present but as a clear minority.The Heights is home to an abandoned artificial reservoir, dating from JC's original waterworks in the late 19th century. From the outside, this reservor appears to be a stone fortress between Central and Summit Aves. in the southern part of the neighborhood. Hopping over the gate, one enters a lush early succession forest, at the level of the top of the stone walls, surrounding a downward slope leading to a slightly foul-smelling body of water, edged with swamp grass. There is a trail, maintained by some local organization, around the water. There are signs advertising fishing events here occasionally, all equipment available for loan. I wish I had had any friends who had lived in the Heights with me, because it would have been fun to go fishing sometime, but I feel like it would be weird alone. This is a true bit of urban wilderness.A few beautiful parks stand out in the dense grid of the neighborhood. Riverview Park, on Palisades ave, overlooks Hoboken and the Manhattan skyline. It has one of the most scenic basketball courts in the world, I think. There is a Farmers Market here, which brings out the middle class white people of the area on summer Sundays, to an otherwise Latino kid dominated park. Ogden Ave., the easternmost street in the neighborhood, runs nicely through the park, and the homes on adjacent blocks often have Skyline views. No surprise, this is one of the most upscale, whitest parts of the Heights. It has a nice vibe. On the far western side of the neighborhood there is an even more beautiful park, by the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Manhattan Ave. This park, whose name I don't remember, is on the western slope of the Palisades, and has a sweeping view encompassing, from foreground to background: PSE&G's Hudson County coal power plant; the Meadowlands featuring Snake Hill, the NJ Turnpike's bridge over the Hackensack River, the Secaucus train station, and the Pulaski Skyway; the Newark Skyline; Port Newark; and the long flat-topped ridge of the Watchung Mountins about 15 miles away, with their blinking antennas, forming the background. Sunsets here are incredible, and people like to come watch them. The hill in this park is a great sledding destination in winter, and can be crowded with kids and ecstatic dads - it is a long, steep hill with a flat area at the bottom, and a sturdy chain-link fence around the edge of the park, protecting any stray sleds. This park often has a lot of Indian families in it, especially on summer evenings. I miss this park.