Note: This article is the first in a new series by the Jersey City Reporter called "Ethnic Neighborhoods."
Since their beginnings, the communities in Jersey City have been in constant flux.
Groups of people have come and been displaced by powerful or subtle forces. Even in the city's pre-Revolution days, when Dutch settlers regularly fought with the indigenous Native American tribes, Jersey City life was characterized by movement.
Like many other communities across the country, Jersey City was shaped by various external factors. In pre-industrial times, when New York first began to grow as a megalopolis, Jersey City has existed in its shadow. Legal battles that decided ownership of waterfront property and port rights were won and lost, and both towns tried vigorously to grasp their share of the global commerce that the Hudson River and New York Harbor provided.
Historically, people under the stress of famine and war were lured to Jersey City's shores by the hope of a better life. Ethnic groups settled in neighborhoods like Harsimus Cove and West Bergen, and each tried, over time, to assert its place as a power-player in the city. From humble beginnings as low-wage factory workers, some of the city's oldest families can boast sons and daughters who have risen to very enviable statures as commercial leaders and government officials. Jersey City's past is a story driven by the American dream.
That trend, having grown stronger and stronger as the years went by, continues.
Now that Jersey City is experiencing a decidedly new and important era of its history, a period often referred to as a "renaissance" that began in the 1980s and continues to the present, it is important to take a look at the city's past to glean insight into what lies ahead. Like the tidal waters that surround it, Jersey City ebbs and flows.
The first region to be called Jersey City, Paulus Hook was named for a mid-17th century Dutch West India Company agent named Michael Paulusen. Originally a small island separated from the mainland by a marsh on the north and a creek on the west, it was connected to the mainland when a Dutch farmer by the name of Cornelius Van Vorst filled in the marsh and built a causeway over the creek. Paulus Hook is now bound by the Hudson River on the east, Marin Boulevard to the west, Christopher Columbus Drive to the north and the Morris Canal on the south.
The area was used for years as a departure point for ferries to and from New York, and only in the early 1800s did businessmen begin to see Paulus Hook's potential. Alexander Hamilton, who served as treasury secretary under George Washington, formed the Associates of Jersey Company in 1804 to lease the land and develop it as a suburb of Manhattan.
Adjacent to the thriving rail, industrial and commercial businesses on the waterfront, it grew in the 19th century into a dense mixed-use neighborhood that featured ornate private rowhouses for the city's wealthy, and tenement buildings for the city's not-so-fortunate residents. There were also businesses catering to every imaginable need.
The area is rife with historical milestones: DeWitt Clinton invented the steam engine at a building on Grand and Greene streets. Legendary New Jersey Gov. A. Harry Moore was raised in Paulus Hook. The southwest corner of Washington and Grand - on which now stands the Cornelia F. Bradford School - was the original site of the Mayor's Mansion and the first Jersey City Post Office.
As its industrial role grew with the success of companies like American Sugar and Colgate-Palmolive, the neighborhood was transformed into a primarily working-class enclave of Eastern European immigrants from countries like Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Germany.
Residents worked nearby at either the railroads or Colgate-Palmolive or further away at Kearny's Western Electric and New York's meatpacking plants.
Home for Eastern Europeans
"Paulus Hook was always a great melting pot," says Barbara Bromirski, a fourth-generation member of a Polish family that runs a funeral home on Warren Street. "It was primarily Eastern European, and before that it was German and Irish."
Because the area was so compact, a tightly-knit community emerged. Churches dotted the landscape of brick row-houses. There was a tavern on almost every corner. Felix "Phil" Orzechowski owned a tavern at 64 Morris St. he liked to call "The House of All Nations."
"Everybody knew everybody who lived in the Paulus Hook area because all the children went to school together," Bromirski said. "We went to all different churches, but you socialized together. In the evenings, when the men came home from work, after you ate supper, everyone would sit out on their stoops. Brooklyn and Jersey City are the only two places in the country that use that word. The mothers would sit out there, the kids would play together, and everyone would keep an eye on everyone's children."
Added Bromirski, "Years ago, we had in the Paulus Hook area three butcher stores, four candy stores, two ice cream parlors, a dry cleaners and two bakeries (one was cake and bread and the other was strictly bread rolls and bagels). Every night, half the neighborhood would parade down to the bakery and buy hot, fresh rolls. We had a number of small, family-operated restaurants. Like the [still-existing] Flamingo, where you walk in and everyone knows you. It's sort of our own version of 'Cheers,' where everyone knows your name. We had a drug store. Mr. Cohen had a hardware store. The Strausses had a delicatessen. Mrs. Pinkus had a dry goods store."
Grounded by a set of four corner parks at the intersection of Grand and Washington streets, the neighborhood contained characteristics of both a big city and a small town. People were known mostly by nicknames.
"Everyone downtown had a nickname," Bromirski said. "We, as funeral directors, only found out these people's real names when they died."
"You could've lived in Paulus Hook your whole life and never have set foot outside," she added.
The close-knit character of the area persisted until the 1960s, when the same American dream that brought the Eastern Europeans to Paulus Hook also enticed them away from the bustling city, often toward the suburbs.
"All the families moved away," Bromirski said. "People moved away because this was definitely a working-class neighborhood. They started to get wealthier and they moved out of town. They were all blue-collar workers and as they had children, and their children started growing up, they moved out into the suburbs to give their children something better than they had. They thought moving to the suburbs was going to be better. Even to this day, they come back and visit and say they wish they still lived in Jersey City. The first thing they'll say is 'We had it so good here. Nobody was rich, nobody really had much of anything, but we didn't know it. But we enjoyed it! Everyone got along.' "
As years of neglect caused buildings to empty and wither away, the dense neighborhood became sparse, almost desolate. The King Gussie Flats, 80 units of housing over three buildings at Washington and Sussex streets, were taken down in the late 1960s. Multi-family buildings became parking lots. Companies started to move operations elsewhere. Even Colgate-Palmolive began to slowly phase out its operations. The neighborhood became an eyesore, and it seemed as if no one cared for it much.
Growth spurred by activism
What turned the neighborhood around in the 1970s, however, was the vigilance of three city residents, said Bill Bromirski, Barbara Bromirski's brother and a former longtime Planning Board commissioner.
"Joe Duffy, Ted Conrad and Owen Grundy raised the consciousness of historic districts in Jersey City," Bill Bromirski said. "It was their ball-busting that made us see the significance of our brick row-houses. Their efforts kept the neighborhood stable until all the development began to happen."
That activism soon began to pay off extremely well. Savvy businesspeople in New York began to see a potential goldmine in Paulus Hook's old-world buildings and narrow streets. Professionals who worked in Lower Manhattan coveted the shorter commute and began to buy homes in the area. Entrepreneurs looking to get rich on rental income soon followed suit.
The first condo conversion in Jersey City happened on Montgomery Street near Washington Street. In the early 1970s, developer Arthur Goldberg turned the old New Jersey Guarantee and Trust Company into a luxury apartment building. Even former County Executive Robert Janiszewski (who recently resigned from office during a corruption scandal) lived there for a time.
Developers began to buy up property to build huge towers - both residential and commercial - on the waterfront. Although ferry service to New York from Paulus Hook had been discontinued in the 1960s, New York Waterway saw the nascent community as a potential market and opened up shop. The early- to mid-1980s saw people moving back into the neighborhood, instantly giving it a much-needed boost.
"The major residential buildings brought a lot of life to an otherwise dead area," said Ron Smith, owner of the Light Horse Tavern on Washington and Morris streets. "People again started to value the neighborhood. It was a closer commute to Lower Manhattan than the upper west or east sides of Manhattan. People were looking for value. And the prices were much better here than they were in New York."
The people on Paulus Hook's streets went from old-world factory workers with blue collars to fast-walking, fast-talking professionals.
Development further north along the waterfront accelerated Paulus Hook's regeneration, but banking crises in the late 1980s caused the construction to come to a screeching halt.
When he moved to Paulus Hook in 1989, Smith said that the "bubble had just burst." Real estate prices in the neighborhood kept declining until about 1992, the year Smith calls the trough of that particular economic cycle. As the economy was both stabilized and fueled by the national craze in the technology industry, the flow of investment money returned to Paulus Hook.
Things went undeniably well for the rest of the 1990s until the recession that started before 9/11 was put into full motion by the terrorist attacks. Smith, however, thinks the current economic depression is just another cycle in the economic history of Jersey City.
"In the next 12 to 18 months, you'll see things picking up," Smith said.
Smith says Jersey City's position as "Wall Street West" - the designation given to the Exchange Place area of Paulus Hook because of all the financial services companies with operations there - is what will ultimately change the face of the city. Its infrastructure, proximity to roadways and airports and desirable work force will make Jersey City one of the most dynamic communities in the state. And when that happens, Smith said, Paulus Hook will be the biggest winner of all.
"The significance of the development along the waterfront and what's happening west of Warren Street is only going to make Paulus Hook more desirable as a historical district, [especially because] of its trees, bricks and stone walkways," Smith said. "You have so much history here. In five or 10 years, this is going to be one of the most desirable areas in the state. It's going to be like Society Hill in Philadelphia or Charlestown in Boston."
And that means more people with more money. If rents and property values continue to shoot upward, Paulus Hook will become the city's silk-stocking district. The wealthy professionals who work on Wall Street in New York - or at Wall Street West - moving into the neighborhood will shape it into an exclusive, high-income enclave.