Jersey City’s Historical Embankment, subject of a long campaign to turn it into a park.
By Nathaniel Adams
Robert Hammond, the man behind Manhattan’s High Line Park, is partnering up with Jersey City’s Embankment Preservation Coalition to help them in their mission, hoping to use the success of the High Line to promote their project.
“They’re in a similar place to where we were in 2003,” said Hammond, “they need a real estate and political champion.”
The Embankment is an elevated freight train line that fell out of use many years ago and has been at the center of a 12-year-old fight to decide its fate. Unlike the High Line, a structure built in 1930, wide enough for two train tracks, and constructed as a steel frame raised on metal columns, the Embankment, built in 1902, carried seven tracks and is made of huge piles of earth surrounded by stone walls up to 30 feet high.
“We sort of think of the Embankment as a land art piece we want to preserve,” said Maureen Crowley, director of the Embankment Preservation Coalition.
The coalition and the Jersey City government have been trying for years to turn the structure, which is owned by private developer Steven Hyman, into a public park. Hyman has wanted to use the property to build luxury houses. The two sides have been involved in court battles for years.
The city and the coalition have worked to have the Embankment declared a historic landmark, have tried to acquire it through eminent domain, have blocked attempts by Hyman to demolish the structure, and have filed suit claiming that his purchase of the property was invalid. Hyman has appealed decisions, run campaigns against Jersey City Mayor Jerremiah Healy, and claimed economic hardship as a reason for wanting to replace the embankment with apartment buildings.
Currently, all sides are waiting for the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to decide in the latest of a long series of cases and appeals whether or not the original sale of the property to Hyman by the Consolidated Rail Corporation was legal and valid.
On October 25th, Mr. Hammond visited the Embankment for the first time, walking the length of it at street level and snapping photos of the vivid autumn trees lining the top and the tendrils of ivy spilling over the sides and clinging to the solid, heavy stone walls. That night he spoke at the coalition’s monthly meeting, expressing his enthusiasm for the project and inspiring the organization to keep fighting.
Since Hammond’s visit, he has publicized the project on the High Line blog, which refers to the Embankment as a “sister project.” On November 10th, he met with the Embankment Preservation Coalition in private to discuss strategies.
“It’s all in the very inchoate stage,” said Crowley. “I think he’s going to help with publicity and fundraising ideas at this point.”
The High Line endorsement comes at a time when parks and conservancy projects throughout Jersey City, Hudson County and the entire state are experiencing a surge of popularity and success. In the November 3rd elections, an item allocating 400 million dollars for, among other environmental projects, parks and open spaces, was up for public vote on ballots across New Jersey. It passed 52% to 48%, despite incumbent Governor Democrat John Corzine, the only candidate who supported the bill, losing his office to Republican Chris Christie.
On November 10th, the Jersey City Council approved a resolution to purchase a former landfill next to the Hackensack River, to be turned into a park. The land, sitting beneath the steel skeleton of the Pulaski Skyway, will be connected to a larger planned public development along the Hackensack River which will run through all of Hudson County, from Bayonne to North Bergen.
On October 15th, environmental advocacy group Hackensack Riverkeeper honored Mayor Healy with its annual Friend of Hackensack Riverkeeper award for efforts in historic preservation, creating open spaces, and promoting green policies. The group cited the above projects and the city’s work to revitalize Reservoir 3.
The reservoir is a 14-acre site in the heart of the Heights, an urban residential area of the city. Built in the 1870s to provide clean water to a city susceptible to diseases such as typhoid, the reservoir was closed in 1990. When people started venturing back onto the site in 2001, they found a vibrant mini-ecosystem behind the reservoir’s 20-foot high stone walls.
The Jersey City Reservoir Preservation Alliance, started in 2002, has been working with the city to preserve, protect, and promote the site, offering kayaking programs, ample fishing in a lake populated with Sunnys and Largemouth Bass, and painting classes with natural subjects as diverse as lakeside cat-tails, old brick gatehouses, ducks, islands, falcons, and great blue herons.
This summer the city council passed a resolution allowing the alliance to hire an architecture firm specializing in historic preservation to first study and assess the site to create what alliance president Steven Latham calls “a place for nature to thrive.”
Robert Braiterman has been running the Jersey City book sale at Grace van Vorst Church every Sunday since 1997. Jersey City only has one other bookstore.
Two decades ago, when Jersey City was nicknamed “Kill City,” crime was high and rents were low. Struggling artists, willing to settle in declining neighborhoods for ample space at affordable prices, moved into vacant factories and turned empty floors into working studios.
The gentrification cycle of Downtown Jersey City had begun. Galleries soon opened. Then real estate developers followed with plans for gleaming condominium towers and ambitious rehabilitation projects.
Now, almost 19 years since local artists first began the Jersey City Artists Studio tour, some artists and curators said they are feeling squeezed out by rising rents and the growing demand of expensive real estate development. They complain that city officials are not offering much support, taking control of (and credit for) many of the art scene’s most impressive achievements.
Orlando Reyes, 40, director of Gallery 58, cited the recent tour – a weekend-long city-wide event involving almost 100 locations- as an example. He said it is no longer run by artists or for local artists.
“It’s a real estate scam,” Reyes said, pointing out that over time the city has taken control of the tour and shifted the focus away from the art community to promote overall economic development and real estate development. He noted the tour is now sponsored by financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Capital One.
Reyes, who has run his gallery for seven years, said that there have been fewer visits to working studios in recent years, in part because real estate companies now organize art shows inside their latest condo developments – shows in which the visitor is directed to walk through a model apartment for sale first before entering the gallery.
He sees independent venues like his being sidelined, deliberately ignored, and, at times, even harassed.
Comedian Melissa Surach, 28, said local police insisted on ending one of her performances at Gallery 58 at 4 p.m. on a Saturday because the gallery didn’t have an entertainment license. The event, organized with Grace Van Vorst Church, was a fundraiser to help feed the city’s homeless.
John Fathom, 33, artist and building manager at Rock Soup Studios, says that the city’s policy has been to “let the artists do all the work and then take all the credit.”
Not all artists are critical of the city. Director of Art House Productions Christine Goodman defends the City Cultural Affairs Department.
“Our experience is that the city absolutely supports the arts,” said Goodman. The problem, she insists, is the lack of resources: space, material, and funds.
The city continues to promote its commitment to the arts with posters in PATH train stations advertising city-led development initiatives with a purportedly cultural focus. The biggest such project centers around The Powerhouse, a historical landmark building which is being restored after a $3.2 million contribution from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The building is meant to be the center of an arts district several years in the making, but the area’s history is already a sore spot with many local artists.
The moment many people recall as the turning point in the city’s relationship to its art community came in 2004 when the decision was made to demolish a massive artist loft downtown that had housed galleries, studios and learning space.
It was called the 111 Building, and it looms large in the memories of most long-term resident artists in Jersey City. It was one of the only cultural centers in the area while the city went through its rough period in the ’90s. Many trace their beginnings in the art scene to it.
In 1995, the city established WALDO, the Work and Live Overlay District. Part of the charter was that 10 percent of work/live units be reserved for artists at a discount. In 2002 the city expanded the initiative, designating the area surrounding the 111 Building the “Powerhouse Arts District.”
But the owners of Building 111 wanted to demolish the building and build high-rise apartments on the site. They took the city to court, challenging the neighborhood’s historic designation. The owners won the case, the artists were given a year to move out, and the building was leveled without a historic designation to protect it. Without historic status, several other properties in the area became condos, notably the Waldo Lofts, which lists several galleries on its website (including Gallery 58,) as local attractions. None of the galleries listed are, however, within the designated Arts District.
In 2007 internationally renowned architect Rem Koolhaas unveiled his design for a multi-use high-rise building on the former site of the 111 Building. There was some controversy over building such a large structure in what was supposed to be an area focused on street-level development. However, the site is still vacant, and according to the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation’s development listings, its status is listed as “Planned,” and there is no definitive date for ground-breaking at this time.
In 2007, WALDO was removed from the zoning ordinance. Some people in the art community see this as a result of keeping rent prohibitively expensive for smaller artists.
Sandra Sung, assistant planner at the Division of City Planning, said the regulations are fair and that artists just need to prove their financial solvency like a non-artist would before being approved.
Reyes said he is more cynical about the relationship between the city and the arts. He sees a repeating pattern of artists moving and paving the way for real-estate developers.
“It’s all commerce to them,” says Reyes. “We take our creativity with us.”
By Nathaniel Adams
Seven silver-haired men and women bow their heads in silent prayer after Wednesday night mass at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City. The church was built for a congregation of hundreds, but attendance has been steadily dropping over time.
St. Anthony’s, founded in 1884, is the oldest Polish church in New Jersey. Back then, Jersey City was home to a large number of Polish immigrants and the church was built so that they could hear mass in their native language. Parish records report a congregation of almost 10,000 people at the turn of the century.
Today, there are an estimated 7,000 people of Polish descent living in Jersey City, out of a total population of approximately 240,000. According to church workers, the parish isn’t meeting the attendance standards of the Archdiocese of Newark, which governs the Catholic churches in Jersey City.
And it isn’t the only one. Holy Rosary Church, literally next door to St. Anthony’s, was founded in 1885 for Jersey City’s Italian immigrants. For over a century, both churches thrived side-by-side, but remained independent parishes. Facing the steady decline in attendance, however, the archdiocese has considered, among other options, merging the two historical parishes in the hopes that a consolidated congregation would make better use of the archdiocese’s resources. The Reverend Rino Lavoroni, 66, pastor of Holy Rosary, said he isn’t sure that a single church will solve the problem.
“Even if you put all the people in one,” he said in a thick Italian accent, “You don’t fill it.”
Waldemar Demorit, 58, building manager of St. Anthony’s and lifelong parishioner, said he is distrustful of the archdiocese and is against a merger. The problem isn’t that the churches aren’t making enough money, he said, but that the archdiocese knows it can make more by cutting the expenses of having two churches.
“Money and development – they win always in the United States,” he said.
According to spokesperson John Goodness, the Newark archdiocese is experiencing a symptom of a larger problem. He points to a recent poll in Parade Magazine claiming that although many Americans identify as “spiritual,” they are not going to church.
Commonly cited causes for the falling attendance rates are the cultural changes of the 1960’s, the increasingly busy lifestyles of even the most faithful families, and a tarnished image of the church after recent child abuse scandals. According to a study released by Gallup in April, Catholic Church attendance nationwide has declined steadily since the 1950’s.
“Jersey City is a city in change,” said Mr. Goodness. “It’s not only no longer as Catholic as it used to be, it’s also not as Christian.”
To face the challenge of a dwindling church going population, the archdiocese has tried to streamline its operation in Jersey City. Three models are being tried: the merged parish, linked parishes and partnerships.
In 1997, the Churches of St. Bridget, St. Mary, St. Peter, St. Michael, and St. Boniface were merged into Resurrection Parish, overseen by Pastor Victor Kennedy, a round, bearded man who putters around town on a small Vespa scooter. In 2006, St. Boniface closed in order to further consolidate the parish.
George Joseph, 56, attends St. Michael once a week to pray to St. Luke the Evangelist. Mr. Joseph also attends St. Mary’s sometimes, and finds it unfortunate that the churches aren’t as well-attended as they once were.
“There’s not enough priests, there’s not enough people. Jersey City is a small city,” he said. “Contributions are less. Everything is money and there’s not enough money to maintain the churches.”
Since the merging of the Resurrection Parish, the churches of Our Lady of Mercy and Our Lady of Sorrows have become linked parishes, as have Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. John the Baptist. Each of these pairs shares a pastor, but each church remains independent – with separate financial councils and congregations, but sharing common committees and planning programs cooperatively.
At the moment, Holy Rosary and St. Anthony’s form a partnership. Both churches are independent but share certain things, such as religious celebrations which would once have been observed separately. A merger isn’t on the immediate horizon, but the subject is a sensitive one for St. Anthony’s Pastor Joseph Urban, a usually gentle and soft-spoken man. When a merger is mentioned, Father Urban turns a shade of cardinal red and raises his voice in frustration:
“Stay away from the merger,” he yells. “Leave it alone!”
Throughout Jersey City, churches have been trying new approaches to survive. The downtown area’s other traditionally Polish church, Our Lady of Czestochowa, has rebranded itself and is playing down its ethnic history by using the abbreviation “O.L.C.” and eliminating the Polish-language Mass. Holy Rosary has added a traditional Latin-language mass to its Sunday schedule – one of only six churches in the entire Newark archdiocese, and the only church in Hudson County, to do so.
Changes are also taking place in some Jersey City parochial schools. In July of 2005 St. Patrick and Assumption All Saints became a merged parish and formed a single school, and this is the first year that Hudson Catholic Regional High School, once an all-male school, will admit female students.
Father Lavaroni said that such small changes have helped, but not much. He seems resigned, deeming the trend irreversible, and pointing out that the Bishop in Newark calls the shots.
“I’m obedient,” he said. “Whatever they tell me to do I do it.”
View Jersey City Churches in a larger map
A map of Jersey City’s Catholic Church. Linked Parishes are connected with purple lines, the merged Parish of the Resurrection is connected with blue lines, and the partnership of Holy Rosary and St. Anthony is marked with a red box.
Nathaniel Adams was born and raised in New York City. His parents are both professors and he grew up surrounded by books. He has spent years writing on his own, but City Beats is his first foray into serious news writing. Adams attended the Gallatin School at New York University, where he created a major combining English, history and cultural studies. His final thesis was on the theory and history of “Dandyism.”
Adams is covering Jersey City, N.J., for City Beats. Adams’ interest in journalism was sparked by writers such as Mark Twain, George Orwell and H.L. Mencken when he was very young. He is a digital media concentrator at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and in his free time he composes digital music on various platforms.