Most Jersey City residents are aware that the city has a rich and long history, but as they go through their daily routines, it can be easy for them to forget about the colorful characters and gritty neighborhoods that once called Chilltown home. That’s where local historian and storyteller Bob Leach comes in. A lifelong Jersey City resident and director of the Jersey City Historical Project, Leach lives and breathes this city’s history.
But the history Leach knows can’t be found in books or museums; rather it is gathered from tales told in barrooms and old photographs collected by families. In the preface of his most recent book, Young Frank Hague and the Lucky Horseshoe, Leach explains his methodology.
“When there was a difference between the history and the folklore,” he writes, “I went with the lore — because there are some truths that are best expressed in the handed-down stories of people.” He half jokingly laments that he didn’t have the computer to assist his research when he started out, but adds that his “word-of-mouth stories have a value also.”
Born in 1937, Leach grew up with a natural curiosity for what he calls the “vestiges of another world” that haunted the Jersey City of his youth and an intuition for the people who inhabited it.
“During the Great Depression there was no repair in Jersey City,” Leach says. “The house we lived in hadn’t been repaired in ten years. There were great areas of this town that hadn’t been improved or changed since the 1920s.” These are the facts, but to hear Leach tell of the rain barrel in his backyard, used around the turn of the century to capture rain for the purpose of washing clothes, is to go back with him in time.
Curiosities about these vestiges enchanted the young Bob Leach. With an almost apologetic air he explains that as a child he didn’t play ball, preferring instead to sneak off and wander around the meadow, observing and imagining what life was like for previous generations of Jersey City residents. “It was a time capsule,” he says of his old neighborhood. “And I was just the kind of kid that noticed these things.”
Even the bars, a consistent setting in Leach’s stories, hadn’t changed much since 1925. But it is in these barrooms where Leach got his start as a local storyteller. “When you went to the bars — and we went to the bars early in my time,” he explains, “there were spittoons on the floor, old timers telling stories.” Leach recognized in these stories an untold history, a glimpse into the past that textbooks could never offer.
One of Leach’s first forays into local history was an event he organized and hosted at the library called “Up from the Horseshoe” for which he brought in professors from Saint Peter’s College and asked if they could give a talk on The Horseshoe, an amorphous grouping of neighborhoods in the northern section of downtown that wrapped around the Van Vorst Park neighborhood, characterized by its working class, Irish population.
“The academics did what academics do,” he says. “They went to the library and copied some stuff out of books.” This was highly unsatisfactory to Leach and to the audience, many of whom were Horseshoe residents. “They told us nothing,” he says. “And that’s when I started saying, ‘I can do better.'”
From there, 35 years ago, Leach began interviewing people on The Horseshoe and his other favorite topic, infamous Jersey City mayor Frank Hague, as well as running his own programming at the library. “There’s always been a very big space between me and the academics,” he says. “They do one thing, I do another.”
Although Bob Leach has been telling stories at the library — and in barrooms around the city — for most of his life, it wasn’t until about ten years ago that he began putting his stories down in writing. With the advent of the internet, he says, there are more people than ever doing what he calls Hague Studies, and he adds, with some hesitation, that some of these people have written books and used some of his material.
So “to plant the flag in the ground,” as well as for reasons of legacy, he began writing his stories down. But he makes a concerted effort to keep alive the sense of orality that his spoken stories possess, and reading the short tales in Young Frank Hague and Saloon Stories, the reader gets the sense of listening to a beloved relative describing the old days.
Leach aims to impart “a familiarity with the heart and soul of Jersey City” to his readers.
“The old timers recognize it and say, ‘Yes, this is the way it was. This is the way it is,'” he says. And the newcomers — a term he seems uncomfortable using — “will get a sense for what this town not only was, but is.” He conjures the old saying about Ireland that the newcomer goes to Ireland and comes away more Irish than the Irish. This, he says, is how it is with Jersey City, how it has always been.
“This town seems to convert people, or cast a spell over them,” Leach says. “I hope my books would be part of the spell.”
His current post as director of the Historical Project and his office in the main branch of the Free Public Library is a perfect fit for Leach as he has “been hanging around the library” his whole life. A typical day is spent researching and composing stories with the help of Barbara Petrick, an academic historian who, Leach says, “actually likes what I do.” He tries to avoid what he calls “big social events,” preferring, instead, intimate interaction with people on a one-to-one basis, talking and sharing stories.
“When I interview people … the first time I just visit with them, they tell the most marvelous stories,” he says. “People give details that you don’t get in the history books.”
Additionally, Leach is very protective of what influences he lets inside of his head for fear that they could interfere or even corrupt his stories. “I do not read other authors who write on the same subject,” he says. “Because if I did I would say to myself, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.'” He adds, with a humble confidence: “I think I have come up with an original point of view.”
Leach has spent this spring finishing up a few new books to be published in the near future by the library. “As a writer, you never stop writing or telling stories,” he explains. “It takes cigars. It takes coffee, and beer — at various times.”
Among the new books is a ghost story that, he points out, is nonetheless true, called Parade of the Shantytown Dead: A Jersey City Folktale, as well as two other new works about Frank Hague. These new books, as well as his two previous releases, will soon be available in local bookstores or through a donation to the library.
Though he’s quick to say, “I’m not a real historian,” there is no doubt that Bob Leach is part of that spell that Jersey City casts on its residents. “Real historian” or not, Leach is a genuine storyteller whose narratives are an invaluable treasure that, in a very unique way, preserve an essential brand of local history, the benefits of which will resonate down to future generations.
You can catch Leach at two free upcoming events. Tonight, Thursday May 14, he will be reading from Young Frank Hague and the Lucky Horseshoe at the Heights Branch Library (14 Zabriskie St.) at 6:30 pm. On Monday, May 18, Leach will present his video story, Invasion of the Reds: Mayor Hague’s War Against Radicals and Free Speech, at the Five Corners Branch Library (678 Newark Ave.) at 6 pm.