Book Festival Offers Diverse Tales of Our City

Cynthia Harris and Bob Leach chat with festival-goers (Photo courtesy the Jersey City Free Public Library)

This past weekend’s rainy weather did little to dampen the spirits of the city’s bibliophiles as evidenced by the consistent stream of traffic flowing through Saturday’s second annual book festival held at Van Vorst Park.

“Surprisingly, it turned out well,” Jersey City Free Public Library assistant director and festival chair Sonia Araujo said on Saturday, noting that people turned out despite the weather. “It seems to be flowing. People stay awhile … they’ve spoken to the authors. And the authors have sold their books and did their signing. Bottom line is we’ve done well. We met our goal.”

Though some of the authors and attendees made longing references to last year’s beautiful weather, they too shared Araujo’s optimistic outlook. “The rain sort of dampened things down, so to speak,” Steven Hart, author of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, punned. “But we’ve had a pretty steady flow. I’ve sold a few books.”

This year’s festival was titled “A Tale of Our City,” and surveying the broad range of topics covered by the writers in attendance certainly tells a story about the varied interests and the diverse population of Jersey City. Meandering from table to table, one was likely to come across super-hero children, teen prodigies, African belly dancers, recovering workaholics and, of course, corrupt politicians.

The variety didn’t stop with the subject matter however. This year’s festival hosted authors in such varied genres as memoir, narrative nonfiction, self-help, fiction, children’s stories and even a couple of graphic novels.

In addition to selling and signing books at their individual booths, most of the writers in attendance had the opportunity to read from their works. These presentations had the quality of making even more personal the authors’ words. In some cases this meant interjections in between written sentence to explain or simply orate tangentially, in other cases the weight of the words in some of the more intense works brought the author to tears. Such was the case with Patricia Je, author of The Long Road Here, a moving account of Pherrys, a victim of child abuse.

Each author was extremely willing to engage their readers and potential readers, cordially thanking them for their interest and answering any questions that might arise. The Independent took advantage of this opportunity for full access to Jersey City’s best and brightest authors. What follows is a brief survey of the writers in attendance on Saturday and their works, organized by subject matter.

Our Storied Past

The most popular subject matter at the book festival was, without a doubt, Jersey City history. And perhaps the most popular author to write on the subject in Van Vorst Park on Saturday was Helene Stapinski. Her book, Five Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History, first published back in 2002, is in its ninth printing, is used as a textbook for college courses on New Jersey history and garnered her a modicum of celebrity on its release.

“It’s about corruption in Hudson County,” Stapinksi explains, “and all of the small time criminals in my family.” She says the book asks the question: “Is it because of the corrupt nature of the town that people steal stuff, or is it that people who do illegal things put those people in office?” She works through this question by weaving her own family’s history into the fabric of the history of the area at large.

On Saturday, however, she read from her new book Baby Plays Around, which tells of her days playing in a rock band on the Lower East Side in the 80s. She showcased a passage about her first true love — which we found out was not a person but her brother’s drum set.

Stapinski says a third book is in the works. “I got two kids too,” she says. “And I freelance; I do stuff at the Times. It’s hard to keep all these things in the air at one time, but it will be out.”

Stephen Hart says The Last Three Miles tells the story of “the first superhighway project in America, which was the Route 1 extension. The last portion of it was what is now known as the Pulaski Skyway.” A bloody labor war erupted around the construction, involving none other than Jersey City’s most notorious mayor, Frank Hague.

“It also deals with the rise of the automobile,” Hart continues. “This really was the first superhighway in America. And for that reason it was designed along engineering principles from the railway.”

This, he reasons, explains why the Skyway has traditionally been considered such a treacherous drive, a fact he got to know well while living in Jersey City during the 80s and working in Hoboken later.

The fascination, particularly in the Hudson County area, with the subject matter of his book has prompted Hart to consider writing a “full length biography of Hague, a real serious, straight out and thoroughly researched” account of the famous political boss’ life.

Other writers making Jersey City’s history their focus were Charles Caldes, author of a number of books about railroading and two in particular that deal with local matters in both pictures and text. Jersey City’s Journal Square tells of, as Caldes puts it, “the greatest 12-14 acres in the world, in its day.” Caldes is also the author of Jersey City’s Hudson River Waterfront, Book One: The Pennsylvania Railroad. Both books are full of amazing photographs that tell the city’s history in brilliant visual detail.

And of course local storyteller Bob Leach made an appearance at the festival with his book Frank Hague and the Lucky Horseshoe as well as two new books entitled The Parade of the Shantytown Dead and How Frank Hague Became a Hero. Leach was joined at his table by Cynthia Harris, manager of the library’s New Jersey Room and the co-author (with photographer Leon Yost) of the forthcoming Changing Jersey City: A History in Photographs, to be published later this month by Schiffer Publishing.

City Comics

Perhaps two of the most interesting offerings at this years book festival were from authors in a non-traditional media, the graphic novel. Amy Bogin, who moved to Jersey City several years ago from Central Jersey, has been documenting the past year of her life as a web comic at in which she appears as a spiky hedgehog and her friends and family appear as other animals.

She recently compiled the first 140 comics into a book entitled The Glass Urchin, Book 1: Milkshakes and Highways. “This book has a story that anyone can read, but it also has a little bit of a local flavor,” Bogin says. “I love Jersey City. It inspired me.”

The book will be available on Bogin’s website as well as the original web comics and she continues to update the site twice a week with new installments.

The Glass Urchin will appeal to a mature comic book reader, young adults who can identify with her characters’ job struggles, relationships and outlook on life. Another author at the book festival, however, had more of a traditional comic book reader in mind for his audience: children.

Anthony Fletcher, who signs his work Artoni, was at the book festival to promote his entertaining and educational comic, C2 and Posse: Inner City Heroes. “It’s the first of its kind to portray inner city teenagers of different ethnicities as heroes,” he says excitedly. “They’re heroes because they’re embracing, developing and using human attributes, which become their superpower … And there are no guns.”

Artoni has lived in Jersey City for about 12 years, working out of his apartment doing graphic design for several Manhattan fashion companies, but with the debut of C2 (pronounced C Squared), he is “going national,” with national distribution and trying to build up his company Artoni World Productions.

The C2 mission statement is “Waking up mankind, one mind at a time,” and this mirrors Artoni’s goal to use his comics as a means not only of education for children, but also for education.

Here to Lend a Helping Hand

Several authors at the book festival were promoting self-help or inspirational books. Dustin Dumas Weeks worked in the investment banking, currency trading and technology fields in Europe, New York and Silicon Valley. In a short period of time she lost her job, found another and then was laid off from that job as well. The experience offered her a moment to take stock of her life.

“I reflected on ‘What can I do differently?’,” she says of that time. “I was working 80 hours a week.”

She began by making a list of the things that “will never happen to me again.” That list became her book, Lessons from a Recovering Worker Bee. It features 26 lessons “on how to maintain your work/life balance while also accelerating your career.”

Weeks self-published the book and had influence on every aspect of its creation from the manuscript to the layout to the cover design. She was fortunate enough to receive endorsements from real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran and BET founder Bob Johnson.

Sheila Allen knows something about work/life balance as well. As the wife of a local pastor, Allen made it a priority to manage her time in such away that neither her family nor the church was shortchanged. Her book, Career, Ministry and Family: Can They Complement Each Other? explores this tension and offers suggestions for people struggling to find that balance between a profession, a family and even a ministry.

Several more authors at the festival were promoting works of fiction, like Jessica F. Baggett, a New Jersey City University sophmore, aspiring filmmaker, musician and writer who garnered attention from the local media when she recently published her first book The Keys to Life, which is about a teenage musical prodigy.

Sandra Catena, author of The African Belly Dance, crafted a tale about an Italian American from Newark who shocks her family be becoming a belly dancer. The book meticulously describes the art of belly dancing before taking a turn toward mystery novel set against an exotic West African backdrop.

New to the writing scene was Jane Pedler, who was at the festival as a first attempt to share her writing with the world. She had several homemade short story packets on sale, each story inspired by tintype photos of anonymous people that she buys on the internet.

Early in the day Mayor Jerramiah Healy could be seen perusing the authors’ tables and meeting attendees, himself braving the rain to appreciate Jersey City’s burgeoning literary scene. (The event was a joint effort between Healy’s office, the library, the City Council and the Division of Cultural Affairs in conjunction with the Van Vorst Park Association.)

Plans for next year’s book festival are already in the works and, according to Sonia Araujo, seven authors have already signed on.

“Jersey City needs this kind of thing to promote the arts and literacy,” Araujo says. Continuing with a proud smile she added: “This is a wonderful event.”

a writer and educator living in Jersey City with his wife Stephanie, a painter. He teaches composition at New Jersey City University and works as a Writing Center Specialist at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. He is the managing editor of Patrol.