Earlier this month, I visited an old friend in Baltimore ostensibly to lend him a hand with his cozy 1850s rowhouse. In between projects, he introduced me to a few (of the many) high points of Charm City.
Knowing our shared passion for architectural, industrial, and local history, my friend prominently included a tour of the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower on our packed itinerary.
Last week, I visited my hometown, Olean, New York, to attend my younger sister’s wedding. As I walked through the streets and returned to my old haunts, I found myself looking at them in a new light. Robert Lax was born in Olean and he died in Olean.
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 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.