This past Sunday, I drove around Jersey City with the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy to survey homes, businesses, and assorted properties redeveloped in an aesthetically- and historically-minded fashion over the past year. Jersey City’s bounty of interesting, beautiful buildings astounded me. These treasures exist well beyond the sanctioned historic districts and the increasing affluent downtown.
Well south of Journal Square, in a notorious, crime-ridden pocket of the city, I walked along a three-block street of lovely, red-brick row homes with ornate cornices and tall front stoops. While some houses cried for a loving hand to restore them to their past glory, other homes were well-maintained with small front gardens and freshly painted iron gates. If Jersey City continues to be a residential choice, all the homes will receive much-deserved attention and care.
Jersey City’s neighborhoods hold former fraternal lodges, mothballed warehouses, hulking industrial structures, and the past homes of prominent, yet oft-forgotten physicians, businessmen, attorneys, and politicians. These spaces carry the spirit and essence of history. Unfortunately, walking through Jersey City, one would barely know it.
Jersey City does a terrible job preserving its heritage and built environment. It does little to nothing to promote the history of the city and to foster a shared identity and culture for its residents. For instance, residents in sections of today’s Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood spoke Dutch well into the nineteenth century. An evangelical congregation presently worships in a former Dutch Reformed church. No plaque memorizes this past culture and population. These facts and this history only survive in the conversations of a handful of enthusiasts and antiquarians.
The Jersey City Museum closed its doors in 2010. No viable plans exist for the institution to reopen. The Loew’s Jersey Theatre was saved from demolition by community activists in 1986, and volunteers and the Friends of the Loew’s have managed the Theatre on a shoestring budget for the past thirty years. Out of sheer pettiness, the city government attempted to yank grant funds from the Loew’s, preventing it from making crucial repairs.
Presently, Jersey City is experiencing a period of investment and redevelopment. This provides the city with a great opportunity to improve itself in the immediate future and to craft a vision for itself. The government seems unwilling or incapable of seizing the moment. All construction is concerned with quick profits at the expense of true, long-term investment. The future merits no concern. Forget about history.
Considering the current passions of American society, this should not be surprising. If anything, it should be depressingly predictable. On the day of President Trump’s inauguration, news stories reported that his incoming administration planned on cutting all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. President Trump and his political allies know that such action carries almost no political risk: Americans place little value on the arts, culture, and intellectual discourse.
How can this disheartening, dark state of affairs improve? How might a cultural change be effected? How might we as a city, as a nation, as a people begin to recognize, understand, and celebrate our history and creativity? All ideas are welcome.
My suggestion: Jersey City residents need to rethink their relationship with the city and re-imagine their own identity. They should think of themselves as citizens with duties and obligations. Citizens press government employees and elected officials to recognize and address their needs and demands. Citizens value their community and its history. Citizens are not passive. If Jersey City residents transform themselves into citizens, maybe we’ll get the government which we deserve and need. Maybe, we can help Jersey City reach its potential.
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111 First Street
Don’t fret, 111 1st Street’s story will be told in the very near future. Fordham University Press will be publishing my book on 111 1st Street this coming October 2017. Stay tuned!