The Ghost of a Political Machine: Frank Hague & Jersey City

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.

Frank_Hague
Frank Hague, c. 1920 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

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.

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(New) Brooklyn & Jersey City: A Comparison and a Challenge

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).BC-TheNewBrooklyn_0 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.

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