Urban Core


Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

The great metropolis that has grown up at the mouth of the Hudson river is centered, in terms of its historical development, around the complex estuary's excellent natural harbor. At the time rail infrastructure was laid down in the 19th century, the urban, industrial core was an outgrowth of the original port areas on both banks of the lowest miles of the Hudson and East rivers. This area included:

  • On the East River's east shore: from Red Hook in Brooklyn to Long Island City, Queens.
  • On the East River's west shore and Hudson River's east shore: from Lower Manhattan to Midtown Manhattan
  • On the Hudson River's west shore: Jersey City, Hoboken and Weehawken

One might argue that it is most meaningful to look at this inter-state region as a single metropolitan area with a shared history of interconnected-growth. Rail lines, and later highways, spread outwards in all directions but SE, making access to the city and urban development feasible in a progressively widening radius. However, New Jersey's unique qualities also require its urban core to be viewed as a singular entity, operating by substantially different rules than the New York metro area generally. Some important considerations are summarized below:

The Hudson River is at least 3 times as wide as the East River making it technically more difficult and financially more prohibitive to build infrastructure crossing it. The state also line has all kinds of political ramifications. The Port Authority, rather than a particular city or state government, handles public infrastructure crossing the Hudson. NYC's historical attempts to build river crossings are generally shot down for political reasons, at least once by the Queens boro president.

Another large city, Newark, with its own distinct history and culture, is less than 10 miles west of New York's city center, in New Jersey. Newark was a 17th century Puritan outpost that developed as an important American manufacturing center. New York, on the other hand, was the capital of the Dutch trading colony in North America, embedded in global finance and cosmopolitan culture from the start. They have grown according to very different patterns.

During the early Industrial Revolution, Northern New Jersey's water-powered manufacturing and mining centers gave the state a strong economy, and internal infrastructure, of its very own. Paterson, located at the Great Falls of the Passaic River, a sacred spot in New Jersey, benefitted from fortuitous natural features at a reasonable distance from the shipping center. Many other smaller industrial centers thrived for similar reasons.

New Jersey's dramatic physical geography has determined the shape and development of urban and suburban areas to a large degree. Heading west from the Hudson, after only a few miles the enormous, swampy Meadowlands impose a north-south running belt of enduring wilderness. Then, past the Passaic River and the rolling hills surrounding Newark, the steep east-facing hard bassalt slope of the Watching Mountains form a literal wall in the path of rail routes and early roads. The proliferation of the automobile has largely neutered this obstacle, but its effects on the locations of 19th century rail routes are still felt in the region's patterns of development today. All of these will be explained in more detail below.


Many natural features Northeastern NJ have a long, roughly N-S axis: the Hudson, Hackensack and Lower Passaic Rivers; the ridges of the Palisades and the Watchung Mountains, and other smaller-scale topographic prominences. See the "Piedmont" article in the "Land" section of this website for geological details. The region's landforms have historically impeded human development in a westward direction. As a result, the urbanized portion of Hudson County, which spans nearly 15 miles from the southern tip of Bayonne to North Bergen, is only a few miles wide at the most. Clinging to the high ground of the Palisades, urban neighborhoods end abruptly as the ridge drops into the extensive swampland surrounding the Hackensack River.

The Meadowlands, as the Hackensack River's swamps are often called, are a world in and of themselves - industry both alive and dead on their outskirts, and a post-industrial salt marsh wilderness in the middle. They are a conspicuous intrusion of NJ weirdness preventing any normal pattern of development from being followed.

In general, when looking at the region's development, you may notice an elongation to the North and South, and squishing to the west.


Newark, about 10 miles east of Manhattan, has a similar 17th century colonial pedigree to New York, but a very different early history. It's founders were New England Puritans rather than Dutch traders, seeking a close-kint community in the wilderness, not a strategic bastion of a trading empire. Newark thrived as a city in the days when 10 miles was still a long way to travel. Historically a financial and commercial center in its own right and a locus of dense residenial development, it is now in a bit of a long-term identity crisis with respect to NYC.

Paterson, located on the Great Falls of the Passaic River, has a history as of the most significant industrial towns in 19th century America. I'm sure its proximity to New York didn't hurt, but its markets were national and global. Along with Newark, it is today an extremely dense, urban center of gravity at a considerable distance from Manhattan.

The entire region was intensely industrialized for the bulk of the 19th and 20th centuries, so there are plenty of mini-Patersons around.

Rail Routes

The routes of rail lines largely determined the patterns of industrial and suburban development in New Jersey, until the Parkway, Turnpike and Interstate highways were built. Rail lines generally fan out in all directions from their historic terminals on the Hudson in Manhattan, Hoboken and Jersey City, but to the west they are a bit thinner. Building routes to the west was a major engineering challenge for 19th century railroad companies because of the steep obstacle of the Watchung Mountains, along a generally N-S line through the region. Gaps in the ridge became very important: Great Notch near Montclair and Hobart Gap at Summit. Today, the Morris and Essex NJ Transit line heads due west from Newark, until it reaches the ridge at Orange - formerly a very industrialized area. There it abruptly turns south for several miles before finding the gap and reaching Summit. NJ Transit's Montclair-Boonton line runs north for a considerable distance, through Bloomfield, Glen Ridge and Montclair, before finally crossing the ridge near Montclair State University.

West of the Watchung Mountains, areas that were on train lines were able to develop during the 19th century, while areas between the train lines tended to remain more agrarian. One present-day result is that among suburbs, the ones on the train lines have old housing stock and walkable downtown business districts (Chatham, Madison, Caldwell), while the ones between the train lines have newer development, following the building of the highways, and more car-oriented commercial areas such as strip malls (Livingston, West Orange, Florham Park). Again, these differences are not especially related to distance from the city.


I'll have to think about this one