Neighborhood Spotlight: Greenville Community in Progress

The 19th-century Jackson brothers would likely be dismayed to walk along today’s Martin Luther King Drive in Greenville. Thomas and John Jackson were freed slaves turned successful oystermen and land-owning farmers. Their home (on what is now Winfield Avenue) served as a “safe house” for the Underground Railroad. Greenville would become an independent township in 1863 and part of Jersey City in 1873. By the early 20th century, the farmlands of the Jacksons’ era had given way to a bustling, multi-ethnic commercial district.

By the mid-1960’s, however, the neighborhood’s fortunes were in flux. Whites were fleeing to the suburbs, and malls had become people’s retail destination rather than urban shopping zones. Over the next decade, more and more local businesses were shuttered while crime increased. Fast-forward to today, and not much has changed on MLK.

But to paint all of Greenville as a lesson in urban decay is far from accurate. That overlooks the many quiet, long-established residential blocks. Greenville is a vast neighborhood, stretching to Bayonne to the south and extending east to the Hudson River. East of the Turnpike extension is the opulence of the Port Liberté community with its own New York Waterway ferry terminal and the Liberty National Golf Club, home of the 2013 Barclays tournament on the PGA Tour.

In August, the Jersey City Medical Center announced plans to re-open Greenville Hospital, closed since 2008. In 2011, Habitat for Humanity of Hudson County completed two new single-family homes in Greenville. And back on MLK, there are also signs of life. Between Stegman and Wegman is the Growing Hands Urban Farm, a link to Greenville’s “green” past and hope for its future. The Friends of the Lifers Youth Corp officially opened the garden last June, transforming a vacant lot into a real neighborhood asset. Since then, they have grown fresh produce (tomatoes, basil, green beans, lettuces, and much more) and offered up packaged foods for sale. A greenhouse in the works will allow for year-long operation.

“My hope for the Urban Farm is to grow healthy, affordable vegetables in our community so families can eat healthy and learn about how food is grown,” says Friends of the Lifers’ Executive Director Annette Joyner. “Also, we are providing jobs to a group of young men and women.”

BRINGING THE PAST TO LIFE

Buildings are boarded up; elegant architecture crumbles. But history still has a strong foothold in Greenville, thanks to the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Society Museum (second floor of the Greenville Public Library, 1841 Kennedy Boulevard. Open on Saturdays, admission is free). It is one of only two such museums in the state.

The museum, which opened in 1984, grew out of the educational and history committees of the local NAACP. The late Theodore Brunson was the museum’s original director; his son, Neal Brunson, has been director since 1998. There are three separate museum sections: Africa and African art; African-American folk art (including a quilt collection); and the main section focusing on history, from early settlements and the slavery era to the Progressive Era, churches, music, civil rights and beyond. Of the new professional opportunities and equality efforts during the Progressive Era, “Jersey City was very reflective of that,” Brunson says, “a tremendous history in regards to the African-American community’s development.”

Brunson is particularly proud of the museum’s many original artifacts and hands-on features. He’s added a house façade (based on an 1870 home built by an African-American) around the replica urban kitchen his father installed. He feels that interacting with actual items really engages young visitors. “You hand a kid a slave shackle—our kids think that they’re super-people. And that they would just run away,” Brunson says. “But you feel a slave shackle, and it’s heavy, it’s iron, and it can easily lock onto an arm or ankle. You’re not going anywhere. It contextualizes history.”

Of course, not all memories are housed in a museum. Dee Dee Roberts is a lifelong resident of Greenville. Thinking back to her formative years here in the late 1950s and early ’60s, a visual quickly comes to mind. “I was walking on Ocean Avenue, I turned at Myrtle, and boom—you start down the hill and there was the Statue of Liberty,” Roberts recalls. “That was something we loved.”

Young Dee Dee walked everywhere, to church, Girl Scouts, movie theaters, and to attend Snyder High School and Jersey City State (now New Jersey City University on JFK Boulevard). She and her friends would meet at the shops along Jackson Avenue (now MLK Drive) or go to Muller’s Ice Cream Parlor for lunch. “It was a sense of community that was just wonderful,” Roberts says.

A SWEET SURVIVOR AND CLASSIC ITALIAN

Nearly all of those Jackson Avenue shops and eateries are long forgotten. But a consistent sweet spot since 1919 has been Fischer Confections. Frank Fischer’s grandfather started the business, and Frank took over after graduating high school in 1962. It was originally an ice-cream shop and luncheonette on one side, with candy for sale on the other. The shop’s exquisite original woodwork is still intact, punctuated with country scenes hand-painted on glass.

In 1969, Fischer decided to focus only on candy and chocolates, and it’s been that way ever since. Every day, he makes chocolates by hand, replenishing any dwindling stock in his showcase. Right now, Pecan Pixies—milk chocolate and caramel-filled—are Fischer’s top seller. And we’re entering the shop’s peak season. “The busiest holiday is Valentine’s, then Easter, then Christmas,” Fischer says. A local student comes in after school to help with customers.

Frank Fischer has been behind the counter for 50 years, and he doesn’t anticipate stopping anytime soon. “I like coming to work,” he says. “I have no idea why I like coming to work, but I do.”

Meanwhile, to the west, don’t drive too fast along Terhune Avenue or you just might miss Laico’s. The beloved Italian restaurant is tucked away in the middle of a residential block in a converted house. (A green awning helps it stand out a little.) Louis Laico opened the place as a bar and pizzeria in 1972. His son, also Louis, was away at college in Kentucky on a golf scholarship. When Louis returned from school, he started helping out at the restaurant, and never left.

The younger Louis Laico helped transform the pizzeria into a much-acclaimed restaurant with a wide range of pasta, seafood, steaks and other offerings. “It’s beyond a neighborhood restaurant now,” says Nancy Salerno, Louis’s sister-in-law, who assists with their social-media presence. “A lot of people are calling it a destination restaurant.” Indeed, in 2010, Bloomberg Businessweek named Laico’s the best pre-game meal for Giants and Jets fans, recommending the veal francese and shrimp fra diavolo.

Despite their longstanding success, Laico’s very much remains a family operation. Louis’s brother-in-law Jimmy runs the bar, and Louis’s son Greg is a bartender. Salerno even worked there at age 16 as the “phone girl,” jotting down and packing up take-out orders. She feels that the family connection is key. “When we go to my sister’s house for holidays, that’s the food we’re eating,” Salerno says, “really good, authentic Italian food.”

ART, TOGETHERNESS & SNACKS

Project Greenville

While Laico’s is serving up calamari, Elizabeth Deegan is concentrating on community. She is jumpstarting the local art scene with Project Greenville (128 Winfield Ave.) Deegan wants to help her creative neighbors plan more nearby events, so residents don’t have to leave Greenville to enjoy art and culture. “Right down the street there’s a great painter; around the corner from him there’s a kid who takes great photographs,” Deegan says. “I want to try to coordinate all these people.”

Most of the art events happen in Deegan’s backyard gallery a cool old garage with brick walls, wooden rafters overhead and Christmas lights (“for color and whimsy,” Deegan notes). Project Greenville has hosted a number of events including “The Greenville Project“, the second-annual Winter Wonderland Weekend held last Dec, “Pawtraits” and “Roommates“.

LOOKING FORWARD

Gardens, history, art and chocolates just scratch the neighborhood’s surface. Greenville still has plenty to offer; dedicated long-time residents and enthusiastic local youth refuse to give up. “I feel a sense of energy, I feel a sense of commitment by people in the community,” says Dee Dee Roberts. “There is a sense of hope.”

NEIGHBORHOOD HIGHLIGHTS

Greenville is serviced by the 8th Street Light Rail at Richard Street and Danforth Avenue, and by New Jersey Transit bus lines 6, 10, 80 and 87. Here are some other places to check out.

Art On The Boulevard: Stay tuned for the March JC Fridays, when Jesika Smith once again invites you to enjoy art, live music, poetry and the outdoors. 265 Danforth Avenue.

Bayview-New York Bay Cemetery: Among those buried in this cemetery, which dates back to approximately 1848, are two New Jersey governors, two Jersey City mayors, and a 19th-century Jewish section. Enter at Garfield and Chapel Avenues.

Cherry’s Lounge: Cocktail lounge features Wednsday night karaoke, DJ nights on Saturday, drink special – and the kitchen is open! 102 Martin Luther King Drive.

Crazy Greek: Long-established fun, friendly diner. A great breakfast spot. 123 Martin Luther King Drive.

Jersey City Dance Academy: In business for 35 years, the school offers classes for adults, children and teens. 107 Westside Avenue.

Keepsake Photo Creations: Open since last June, Tonya Handy-Robinson’s business provides portrait services and hosts themed parties. 180 Danforth Avenue.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the 2012 Winter issue of NEW Magazine (now JCI).

Illustration by Matthew Ward, Project Greenville photo courtesy Elizabeth Deegan

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Jack Silbert

is a writer, editor, internet-radio DJ and occasional emcee. He is the author of several books and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, New Jersey Monthly, Weird NJ, and other publications. Jack’s humorous ramblings can be found at Salt In Wound.