Neighborhood Spotlight: Jersey City’s Western Slope
Leonard J. Gordon Park, aka “mosquito park”, designed by John T. Withers
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the 2013 Spring issue of JCI Magazine.
“The Western Slope is one of Jersey City’s best kept historical secrets – a district distinctly defined by a sense of neighborhood,” says John Gomez, founder of Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, local historian, and author of upcoming book Legendary Locals of Jersey City. Primarily residential, the Western Slope is not congested by the trucks and trailers that travel Route 1/9 on their way to the George Washington Bridge, the Holland and the Lincoln Tunnels. Instead, it is home to about 10,000 people, historic architecture and restaurants, notorious bars, and sprawling parks.
Entering the Heights via Manhattan Avenue from Tonnelle Avenue, drivers and pedestrians notice a steep increase in elevation, which peaks on Palisade Avenue and drops sharply into low-lying Hoboken. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, many waterlogged residents of Hoboken and Downtown Jersey City looked longingly up at their friends in the Heights who were living on higher, and dryer, ground.
The Western Slope lies on the crest of the Palisades, 20 miles of cliffs stretching along the New Jersey bank of the lower Hudson River. It is bordered to the west by Tonnelle Avenue, the east by Kennedy Boulevard, the south by Beach Street (one block south of Manhattan Avenue), and to the north by Transfer Station (the point where Jersey City, North Bergen, and Union City meet at the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard, Secaucus and Paterson Plank Roads.)
Once primarily homeowners, the population has shifted to mostly renters, as many homes have been lost due to foreclosure and purchased by investment companies, according to real estate agent and 25-year resident, Ricardo Bobe. This is in sharp contrast to the way the Western Slope was described in a news article from The Evening Journal in February 1907, “The people of the Western Slope are all property owners. Every man’s house is his own castle over there, no matter how humble it may be.”
Originally, like all of Jersey City, the Western Slope was home to the Lenape, a collection of Indian tribes, but the Germans, who settled in the mid-19th century, began to shape the neighborhood into what we see today. Gomez invites us to notice Germanic architectural features like “set-back homes, deep front yards, tenement towers, high-stooped attic-topped houses, girthed old growth trees, winding back roads, steep side streets, dead ends, a sprawling park…”
Remarkably, according to Gomez, the Germans who first inhabited the neighborhood were later shunned during World War I. According to a newspaper article in The Jersey Journal from June 1918, a spokesman named William A. Wirstiskie represented a group who wanted to change the name of Germania Avenue to Liberty Avenue. “Why should an American street be named after such a brutal country as Germany?” Wirstiskie asked.
Major landmarks in the neighborhood include the still-operating Lincoln Street Firehouse (Engine Company 11), a carriage house designed by architect George Von Arx, Saint Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, designed by architect Louis Giele and featuring stained glass windows by John Morgan & Sons, the White Mana, a burger restaurant housed in a structure first displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair, and Orphan Home of the Children’s Friend, a former orphanage located at 90 Nelson Avenue.
The orphanage was a result of the Kinderfreund, which according to historian J. Francis Watson was “the first large scale social ministry project in New Jersey.” Founded by seven Lutheran pastors, the Kinderfreund purchased the site for the Nelson Avenue orphanage in 1904 for $7,000. The clergymen often sent children to out-of-state homes because no suitable orphanage existed locally. After browsing many locations throughout the state, they settled on the site in the Western Slope. The home was dedicated in December of the same year.
The most prominent green-space in the Western Slope is Dr. Leonard J. Gordon Park, a 5.7 acre park bound by the Boulevard and Liberty and Manhattan Avenues. Most would probably identify this park by its massive sculpture of a buffalo and a bear.
Beyond that, however, the park has a somewhat mixed reputation. Locals know it as “mosquito park.” They also, however, know it as a source of great joy for their children right after a snowstorm. This is the park’s busiest time of the year. Kids come in waves, dragging sleds and snow-tubes to rush down the park’s ample hills. Visitors are varied as well. On one hand, the park tends to attract vagrancy and teenagers who need a place to engage in activities they wouldn’t be able to at home. On the other hand, the park’s elevation makes it an ideal setting to watch the sunset.
When asked about the park, Bobe says, “Years ago I used to love sledding down that hill. I walk my dog there. Sometimes you can sit down on a sunny morning in the summer, and it’s very serene.” He goes on to note that, “During the day you see homeless guys drinking, and at night it’s the teenagers and older people drinking in the park. Just a mess the next morning. It’s not too inviting at night. It needs more lighting.”
In June 2012, the park suffered nearly $200,000 in damages when vandals set fire to the playground. Recently, the city recovered the insurance money and will be replacing the play area. The green gazebo, the park’s centerpiece, also needs significant work. “The gazebo is such a mess,” says Bobe.
What many residents don’t know is that the park has a rich history buried under debris and rust. The park was conceived during the “City Beautiful” movement, an American architectural school of thought, popular from the late 1890s to the early 1900s, which strived to introduce appealing architecture to urban areas. Designed by John T. Withers, who also designed Mary Benson Park on Newark Avenue and the Bayside Park in Greenville, the park honors its naturally rocky landscape and varied elevation.
The unmistakable sculpture, titled “Buffalo and Bears” was created by sculptor Solon Borglum and installed in 1907, during the park’s founding. A product of his father’s ranch in Nebraska, Borglum was best known for his representations of the frontier life.
“When I started working in Jersey City thirty-five years ago, I remember seeing the buffalo and the bear while coming up the block. People just recognize that, and it’s the first thing that greets you when you come up to the Boulevard,” says Bobe.
The park also has a World War I memorial statue called “Dough Boy,” which was installed in 1930 by the Hudson City Soldiers and Sailors Welfare League. In addition, visitors can find an American eagle perched on a granite shaft and installed by the Raymond Sipnick Post of the Jewish War Veterans.
The park’s namesake, Dr. Leonard J. Gordon, was a doctor and philanthropist who spearheaded the creation of the Free Public Library of Jersey City. Former Jersey City Mayor, Mark M. Fagan said of Dr. Gordon, “No better man or more useful citizen ever lived in this city.” Gordon was also responsible for installing the “Soldiers and Sailors Memorial” by sculptor Philip Martiny in front of City Hall.
Inspired by the park’s charm and its state of disrepair, a few committed Jersey City residents – including Bobe – are trying to raise it to the status of other cared-for parks like Pershing Field and Washington Park, both in the Heights.
“I first wanted to get involved when I noticed there was one guy doing all the planting. It’s been a neglected park, and it’s been run down,” says Bobe. “It’s kind of the stepchild in The Heights. No one pays attention to it. I’m trying to get people more involved on the slope.”
Dr. Clifford Waldman, a clinical psychologist and Jersey City resident since 1988, has been credited with drawing more attention to the park. Waldman is the executive director and founder of the Jersey City Parks Coalition. According to Bobe, Waldman donated plants to the Leonard Gordon Park in hopes of beautifying it.
Working alongside Waldman is Mirayma J. Lopez, president of the Friends of Leonard Gordon Park. Lopez is a 26-year-old mother who has lived in the Western Slope for thirteen years. Lopez is drawn to the park because she loves “how big it is and all the potential that it has.”
When Lopez’s four-year-old son first learned to walk, she began bringing him to the different parks in the neighborhood and noticed how much maintenance Leonard Gordon Park needed. She began searching for community groups dedicated to taking care of the park and eventually contacted the Jersey City Parks Coalition – they informed her that no group existed.
“I decided to start one,” she says. “We had our first event in May of 2012. That is when we planted our first garden at the Sherman Place and JFK Boulevard entrance to the park.”
The Friends of Leonard Gordon Park group is working closely with Sustainable Jersey City to plant several rain gardens. In addition, the group is working with the Jersey City Department of Parks and Forestry, Jersey City Department of Recreation, and the Jersey City Department of Cultural Affairs to organize more community activities.
“We want to have the park be a place where the community can come together to celebrate the diversity here,” says Lopez.
Jersey City Incinerator Authority will be bringing better garbage and recycling containers to the park. Another major goal is renovating the statues and monuments.
Lopez also recommends another Western Slope park called Terrace Avenue Park.
“I live directly across from it so it’s easy to get to. The equipment is fairly new since it was replaced after the old equipment was burned down a few years ago,” says Lopez. “In the summer my son loves the sprinkler, and when it snows there is a great sledding hill for the little ones.”
Anyone wishing to get involved with the park can find The Friends of Leonard Gordon Park page on Facebook, where Lopez posts reminders about upcoming meetings, volunteer opportunities, and special events.
Another notable landmark in the Slope is one of the most popular food destinations in the neighborhood. Its celebrity transcends its neighborhood, bringing diners in from around the state. White Mana, located at the corner of Manhattan and Tonnelle Avenues, is a tiny burger joint with a silver, white and red futuristic exterior that was essentially a prototype for what most people imagine as the classic New Jersey diner.
The Jersey City restaurant is the original White Mana, and should not be confused with the White Manna in Hackensack. Both were at one time owned by Louis Bridges, a man who purchased the original White Mana building, manufactured in the 1930s by Paramount Diners of Oakland, NJ, from the 1939 World’s Fair. The Hackensack location came later, in 1946, and is now under different ownership. According to legend, the difference in spelling was simply a result of an error in signage. Both restaurants were featured on an episode of Food Network’s “Food Feuds” in 2010.
Mario Costa has owned White Mana since 1979 when he bought the restaurant from Webster Bridges, brother of Louis, after finding out that Bridges wanted to modernize the restaurant. Costa worked at the Mana for 25 years prior to purchasing it. He bought the restaurant with his savings. In 1997, he grew tired of running the White Mana and sold the restaurant to two Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees for $500,000. Regular customers sounded off, and Costa soon began to regret the decision. After losing a lawsuit filed in an effort to void the sale, Costa basically paid the franchisees to go away. In 1997, the Jersey City Historic Preservation Committee declared White Mana a local landmark.
Louis Redondo, a Jersey City resident and avid food lover, describes White Mana as “the iconic off-the-highway, truck driver destination, a true greasy-spoon burger joint, akin to Mel’s Diner in ‘Alice’ sans Flo.”
White Mana is best known for its sliders, which are served on bread rolls with sautéed onions and pickles. Also on the menu are hot dogs, chicken fingers, waffle fries, cheesesteaks, onion rings, and milkshakes.
“The burgers are small, like a slightly bigger slider; juicy and savory and with onions, it’s addictive,” says Redondo. “It’s comparable to White Castle burgers, except on steroids. It’s old-school Jersey City: ethnic, eclectic, tough, crass, cheap, blue-collar…not sanitized or vanilla-fied like the downtown scene.”
Costa also owns Ringside Lounge, the infamous bar across the street. For boxing fans, Ringside is the place to go to watch matches and discover the next great boxing champ. Mike Tyson occasionally frequents the bar and can also be seen posing with Costa in photos on the walls. Costa also takes care of Tyson’s 600-800 pigeons, which are kept in a coop behind the building called “Tyson’s Corner.” A six-part documentary, titled Taking on Tyson, which aired on Animal Planet in March 2010, chronicles Tyson’s love for the pigeons, a passion he developed before fighting. In addition, Ringside Lounge has a very small gym adjacent to it, and Costa himself has trained boxers like Joe Gatti and his brother Arturo, a world-champion boxer.
“Don’t look for craft beers at Ringside. Stick with the Miller, Coors, or Bud beers,” says Redondo. “It’s not a fancy schmancy spot.”
Despite its popularity amongst boxing fans, Ringside has unfortunately not been able to live down its violent past. In 2010, Adrian Gerena, was fatally shot in the back bar area.
The neighbors, Bobe included, don’t feel comfortable with the ways the Western Slope has changed in the past two decades. Bobe works with the Nelson Avenue Block Association, a group of committed neighborhood residents, to improve the surrounding area and maintain safety.
“In my neighborhood on the weekends, I used to be able to sleep with my window open, and now it’s like the teenagers are just unruly and making noise on the street. In the morning you see the beer bottles and all this junk,” says Bobe.
Overall, however, in spite of the neighborhood’s challenges, Bobe maintains his focus on the positive aspects of the Western Slope.
“Two days a month we’re having volunteers clean the park to make it better and more inviting for people. Hopefully we can have even farmers markets. In the gazebo we could be having concerts to put life back into it,” says Bobe. “It seems so dead that park. I know it looks bad now, but I’m hoping things will come back as they were. People still love Jersey City.”
Photos by Mickey Mathis