Urban Historian Discussing Local Arts Community and The Last Days of 111 First Street

Urban historian David Goodwin didn’t think much of 111 First Street as he watched it being demolished from his seat six years ago on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. Being a new Jersey City resident, he didn’t know what it was, but thought it looked interesting.

Years later he learned that the former tobacco factory once housed a thriving artist community and was the birthplace of creativity from 1987 through the spring of 2005 when its many artist tenants were evicted after a dispute with the building’s owner, Lloyd Goldman.

He began studying the history of the building and how its story impacts current gentrification theory for his Masters thesis (Goodwin holds degrees from St. Bonaventure University, Drexel University, and Fordham University) by going through old files and newspaper articles in local libraries and talking to various artists who were part of the 111 community. Last week, Goodwin shared his research on the early days of the building at the main branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library as part of the Jersey City Artists Studio Tour. Tomorrow, he’ll discuss its late days at Tachair Bookshoppe.

While the building already had a rich history as a former P. Lorillard Tobacco Company facility and later as a storage unit that would eventually be forgotten, Goodwin says the most interesting aspect of the building was that at its peak, it housed over 200 artists and craftsmen.

“Painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, woodworkers, writers, clothing designers — if it had something to do with creativity, there was someone there doing it,” says Goodwin. “At the time, it had the highest largest concentration of working artists along the eastern seaboard in a single building, and possibly the highest in the country.”

Until the early 2000s, Goodwin says the relationship between the owner and the artists was fairly harmonious and that the community was thriving. “In the early 2000s, however, real estate in the Greater New York area skyrocketed so the owners thought it was more valuable to remove the artists, demolish and build a new structure.”

Goodwin says a long fight ensured involving court cases, harassment and even alleged arson. In late 2004, a court ordered the artists to move out by March 2005; the building was demolished by 2007.

Today, there is currently nothing located at 111 First Street. Goldman, however, is planning to have a 35-story property at 111 and 110 with 452 residential units. He recently tussled with the city over the number of affordable housing units he would need to include in his structure, arguing that it was impossible to make finances work with the 25 required in the initial tax abatement for the project. In August, City Council signed off on a revised abatement that would only require 10 affordable housing units after more than 100 union workers said it would bring much-needed construction jobs to the area.

Regardless of what happens to the property, Goodwin says the important thing is looking at how 111 First Street impacted the development of Jersey City’s arts community

“It’s important to consider what could’ve been if that community was allowed to continue to be there and grow, what could’ve happened for the city, the Powerhouse Arts District, for Downtown. I think there would be a completely different cultural makeup from what we have today,” he says. “The amount of art and culture we have in the city today would be a much, much greater proportion — it would be a different place.”

Goodwin says cities in general need to secure space for the arts and not view it as a “fun, candy-like substance or past-time but as an economic engine.”

“Many municipalities see the value of having good theater or good art in the community — it creates value monetarily and non-monetarily,” says Goodwin, who says he has long been an art lover and frequents art institutions with his wife Jessica Murphy, an art historian at the Metropolitan Museum.

“Artists are also small businesses in a sense because they’re creating goods people want–paintings, sculptures, plays–things people want to buy and experience. It really imbues the city with value and gives people a reason to care about the place and become invested in the community.”

“The Last Days of 111 First Street” will be held tomorrow, Oct. 20, at 8 pm at Tachair Bookshoppe, 260 Newark Ave. For more information, visit Tachair’s website.

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.