On May 1, 2017, the main branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library reopened literally after years of renovations. As I’ve feverishly worked on my book manuscript for the last eight months, I found myself unable to consult a needed book for an obscure fact or flip through a bulging vertical file to search for a newspaper clipping. Simply put, I had questions needing answers. And I needed the New Jersey Room Collection to provide them.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I stepped away from my writer’s garret and ventured downtown to address these questions and other new topics of interest percolating in my mind. Upon entering the library, I climbed the marble stairs to the third floor and the library’s most unique and valuable collection.
Frank Hague. The name looms large in the political culture and public imagination of Jersey City and Hudson County, New Jersey. A few weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I attended a forum exploring the man (and his ally-cum-rival John V. Kenny) at the Five Corners branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library.
The forum included: a short documentary on Hague and Kenny, an audio recording of a speech by Frank Hague, a pair of short lectures, and a panel discussion. The program was smart and engaging. Most impressively, a roving department of the public library, displaced by seemingly endless renovations of the main branch, organized the event.
As Jersey City mayor, Frank Hague dominated Hudson County politics from 1917 until 1947, delivering reliable and large blocs of votes for municipal, county, state, and national elections and leading a highly effective–albeit corrupt–political machine famous for delivering services, aiding the poor, and providing free medical care.
By the end of Hague’s political career, his political acumen had grown tired, and Hague himself failed to adapt to the changing demographics of Jersey City. Still, longtime residents and newcomers alike recount the Hague era with pride and nostalgia. Hague built the Jersey City Medical Center and Roosevelt Stadium. During Hague’s reign, Jersey City was the power in state politics and a major player in national Democratic circles. The same cannot be said about contemporary Jersey City.
While watching the film and later listening to the panel discussion, a few particular thoughts wedged themselves in my mind.
In the past fifteen or so years, Brooklyn has emerged as the grassroots cultural and creative capital of not only the New York region but arguably the entire country. Brooklyn entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, writers, and all-around boosters have crafted an attention-grabbing and marketable image of the new Brooklyn: gritty, outrageous, quirky, and weird. Simply put, Brooklyn has become cool.
The desirability of the borough has transformed the socio-economic, demographic, and cultural weave of certain neighborhoods. The word “gentrification” is whispered with a mixture of fear, anger, and resignation. Old ways of life are fading away, and some have disappeared altogether. That’s one part of the story.
Kay Hymowitz analyzes the changing Brooklyn in her new book The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring Back a City (Rowman & Littlefield,2017). In part, Hymowitz attempts to dispel the worst anxieties associated with the new Brooklyn and to dispel the powerful spell of nostalgia blinding residents to the ugly elements of “the good old days.” She sees the true story of contemporary Brooklyn as far more complicated, diverse, and uneven than the simple narrative of gentrification and displacement promoted by the majority of commentators and the creative class.
While reading Hymowitz’s book, I recognized that the remaking and remapping of Brooklyn resembled that of Jersey City in many ways: new immigration, rapid development, an emerging affluent class, and stubborn pockets of poverty. However, the story of Brooklyn differs from Jersey City in several key areas.
In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis commented upon the “need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks, and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city.” By preserving such spaces and visiting them, we as individuals and as a people might feel a connection with the past and view ourselves as belonging to the larger story of humanity. Such spaces remind us that we exist beyond our individual selves.
Two weekends ago, I attended a memorial ceremony for an elderly relative outside of Philadelphia. After the service, I spent an afternoon with my parents and my sisters in the City of Brotherly Love. As we walked through the courtyard of the Second Empire Philadelphia City Hall, I told them about the former gentleman’s agreement that no building could surpass the statue of William Penn perched atop its clock tower. Real estate developers honored this tradition until the 1980s. Later, my father asked about another Second Empire masterpiece, the Union League of Philadelphia, wondering what the building housed and represented.
Recently, a local historian and lifelong Jersey City resident shared with me his joyous surprise upon discovering a cache of newspaper articles concerning a prominent late-nineteenth-century resident of his neighborhood and this resident’s failed attempt to sell his private park to the Jersey City government. This nineteenth-century gentleman was Bernard Vetterlain.
Bernard Vetterlain earned his fortune in tobacco sales and lived near today’s Summit Avenue and Astor Place in Jersey City until 1870. In addition to a grand home and estate, Vetterlain owned a private park in the neighborhood. That’s right, a private park. Reportedly, this park was a beautiful, soothing sanctuary with gravel paths, flower gardens, well-placed benches, and a Japanese waterfall. This was Jersey City’s Gramercy Park.
Shortly after municipal consolidation formed Jersey City in 1870, Vetterlain offered to sell the newly organized city government his park for a purportedly fair price. After much haggling and discussion, the city ultimately declined. After Vetterlain’s death, developers purchased his Jersey City property from his heirs and unceremoniously chopped up the land into multiple lots for home building. Vetterlain’s park was lost. A single watercolor by an obscure Hudson County artist, August Will, stands as the only pictorial evidence of the park. (For the record, I have not seen this painting.)