When Jersey City native Andrew Rhode was growing up in his downtown neighborhood, he and his neighbors, he recalled recently, “Didn’t know house numbers. We knew people. If someone said, ‘Where’s 53 Mercer St.?’ We’d have to ask, ‘Who lives there?’ before we could give them directions how to get there. We knew everybody.”
Rhode, who at age 80 still lives in the Mercer Street home in which he grew up, said that as a teen he remembers that a simple walk to the grocery store could take half an hour longer than it should have because, “You’d stop on the street and talk to everybody. Everybody would be sitting out on their stoop.”
But according to Rhode much has changed in Jersey City, even downtown, a community known for its neighborly feel. Last year he said his “Welcome to the neighborhood” good will gesture to a new resident was gruffly met with a stiff, “My name is –.”
This neighbor, Rhode said, hasn’t spoken to him since.
“It doesn’t take me half an hour to get up the block anymore,” Rhode laughed.
Still, Rhode is a familiar face on his block and can be spotted nearly everyday rounding the corner to visit St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to collect and sort the parish mail.
Rhode has spent much of his life giving his time to St. Matthew’s, a tradition began years earlier by his father, Andrew C. Rhode, a former Jersey City public employee who worked in City Hall during the legendary mayoral administration of Frank Hague. (The elder Rhode was the city’s tax collector.)
“When the railroads and industry moved out, there was nothing here.” – Andrew Rhode
In recognition of the Rhodes and their service to St. Matthew’s, the church’s theater in Barrow Mansion was on March 25 dedicated and renamed the Andrew C. Rhode Theater.
“My family grew up there,” Rhode said of St. Matthew’s. His older sisters got married in the church 66 and 55 years ago. “It’s like my second home.”
The collective work of the father and son includes everything from volunteering their time as church sextons, to working with Jersey City’s Puerto Rican community on affordable housing.
When Villa Boriquien at Third and Manilla was developed, St. Matthew’s Church was instrumental in its creation and the younger Rhode became a board member of the housing complex.
“The price of living in Jersey City has driven a lot of people out, especially downtown on what they call the Gold Coast,” noted Rhode. “So, there really needed to be something like Villa Boriquen to keep some of our residents in the neighborhood.
Ironically, Rhode believes the city’s waterfront developments are “beautiful,” and were indeed necessary to rebuilding crumbling on industrial sites that have outlived their usefulness.
“When the railroads and industry moved out, there was nothing here,” he said. “Jersey City had a very bad reputation because there was nothing here. There were a lot of old abandoned buildings that had nothing in them. So, what they’ve done with the waterfront, with all the development, is really terrific.”
A former Ford Motors employee who never married, Rhode said that when his sister and nephew recently visited from Virginia they kept asking, “Are we still in Jersey City” because they couldn’t believe all the changes that have taken place in the family’s native home.
Of course, Jersey City’s newly acquired shiny patina does come with what some may consider to be a downside: trendiness.
Rhode has had his own brush with this downside recently as a neighbor of the house in which Jersey Shore cast members Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jenni “JWow” Farley recently filmed their spin off series.
But Rhode – who said he has never seen a full episode of “Jersey Shore” – took it all in stride.
“It wasn’t too bad, except for the parking,” he noted. “There were a lot of people parked on the streets and that made it hard for people who live here to park.” His home nursing aides also had difficulty getting to him, he said.
“Other than that it wasn’t bad. But I have to be careful how I answer my phone now because it might be someone calling me to ask me about the show…And I’ve had to excuse myself to get into my own home because of the crowds.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.