Neighborhood Spotlight: The Heights

Central Avenue Shopping District – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Steeped in History, Former ‘Hudson City’ Thrives in the 21st Century

Many Jersey City residents know the Heights dates back to the 1600s, but a lesser-known fact is that this district was actually an independent municipality. Situated at the north end of the city, atop the New Jersey Palisades and overlooking Hoboken, the neighborhood comprising most of the Heights was originally known as “Hudson City” from 1855 to the time it merged with Jersey City in 1873.

Brief History of Hudson City

Founded in 1983, the Riverview Neighborhood Association recognizes the importance of history. So when the Riverview-Fisk Park monument to Henry Hudson (the famed explorer for whom the city, county, and river were named) went into disrepair, association president Becky Hoffman and her fellow members stepped in to address the issue.

Hudson, who was employed by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s, was the first European to travel the river that eventually bore his name. Commandeering his ship the Half Moon, he opened the region to European markets. On October 13, 1917, a monument featuring a bust modeled by New York sculptor Anton Schaaf was unveiled in Riverview- Fisk Park in his honor.

Many have erroneously thought of the bust as William Shakespeare. It was a common mistake since the City whitewashed years of graffiti from the identifying signage and then covered the bust with bronze paint. Hoffman noted that today the temporary signage has been added to replicate the monument’s original dedication, but that “it will take $8,000 in grant money and local funding to restore the statue to its former glory.”

Other Hudson City references have slowly faded over the years, with the exception of the Hudson City Savings Bank that still carries the name to this day. Garrett D. Van Reipen, Hudson City’s first alderman and it’s second mayor, became the first president of this small bank that by the end of the 19th Century accumulated assets of over $1 million. Still the largest savings bank in New Jersey, headquarters were relocated to Paramus and in 2012, Hudson City Bancorp was acquired by M&T Bank.

Yoga in the Heights at Riverview Fisk Park

Yoga in the Heights at Riverview Fisk Park – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Lay of the Land

The Heights sport some of the finest views of the Manhattan skyline. Paterson Plank Road, cutting through Washington Park, defines the neighborhood’s borders on the east and north. Routes 1&9 (Tonnelle Avenue) is its western border and on the south lies Route 139.

The neighborhood is comprised mainly of one and two-family houses, with some of the finest examples of stately Victorian and Edwardian era homes on Summit Avenue and Sherman Place. While not registered as a historic landmark, the Van Vorst farmhouse located at 531 Palisade Avenue, built in 1742, is said to be the oldest single-family home in Jersey City.

Since the 1980s, artists have been drawn to the Heights, with the neighborhood sometimes compared to the Brooklyn section known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Hoffman feels that the Heights has a branding opportunity to create its own identity as a “concentrated arts area.” Indeed, Jersey City recently designated a portion of the Heights as the Riverview Arts District, with zoning changes that allow work-live spaces for artists.

“Artists find the neighborhood less expensive and a place where they can establish roots. Folks here are not transients; they are residents who have a stake in the Heights and believe in it,” adds Hoffman.

The Distillery Gallery at 7 Hutton Street is one of the first established gallery and workspaces in the Heights. As a beacon for other galleries to follow, this venue also offers the popular “Yoga in the Heights” classes, which are available for all fitness levels.

The Central Avenue Special Improvement District (SID) located on Central Avenue is the Height’s main thoroughfare and business district. Full of retail shops and restaurants, it is home to both older established businesses as well as recent arrivals.

Goehrig’s Bakery is a landmark European artisan bakery established more than 75 years ago, while the Trolley Car Bar & Grill just opened on Palisade Avenue in 2012. Other newer arrivals to the Heights include Faded Royalty, an urban fashion boutique, and Jersey Cycles, whose co-owner Luca Gentile said the Heights reminded him of “Brooklyn’s Bedford- Stuyvesant neighborhood years ago.”

Bordering the north end of the Heights is the county-owned Washington Park. Pershing Field Memorial Park, located in the center of the Heights, offers green space, baseball fields, an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts, and an ice skating rink.

Adjacent to Pershing Field is Reservoir No. 3, which constitutes one of the largest patches of green space in the Heights. The retired city reservoir, which laid dormant for years, is now undergoing revitalization to become an “urban oasis” by the Jersey City Reservoir Preservation Alliance. Receiving the 2005 Theodore Conrad Preservationist Award, the Alliance has also added outdoor activities for residents and tourists, including kayaking and nature tours.

Congress Street Light Rail Entrance

Congress Street Light Rail Entrance – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Movie-making & European Influences

While the Heights doesn’t strike one as a movie capital, the district has a rich history in the silent film era of the early 20th Century. Pathé, the France-based company that was then the world’s largest film equipment and production company, established an American factory and studio facility in the Heights in 1910.

One of the most famous film serials, The Perils of Pauline, was filmed here in 1914, according to Dennis Doran, city historian and trustee of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy. Doran’s father would fondly recollect the days when children rented stoops for $1 per day to watch the filming of these low-budget reels. “When my Dad was a kid, he and his friends used to watch the movie scenery go up, and he often told the tale of Pearl White (who played Pauline) arriving daily in a Stutz Bearcat sports car to rehearse her scenes,” said Doran.

If one was to look for the studio today at the corner of Congress and Ogden Streets, all traces are gone, replaced by a brick apartment building. “Still, we note the location on our historic walking tours,” noted Doran.

For movie lovers, an interesting side note: the term “cliffhanger” originated with The Perils of Pauline, owing to a number of episodes filmed on or around the Palisades cliffs. (The Palisades are the line of steep cliffs situated along the west side of the lower Hudson River, stretching north from Jersey City to Nyack, New York.)

The area along the Palisades cliff on Ogden Avenue was also home to European emigrants during the last century. A predominant number of German artists and their families took up residence. “It was a ‘Little Bohemia’ or ‘Little Montmartre,’” said Doran.

“Germans formed a cohesive society at the time, where beer gardens, athletic clubs, and singing societies emerged as a result of the many German families who migrated from Europe to the Heights,” he added.

Arion Hall, dedicated to the German mythical god of music and song, is one of the last standing buildings representative of that era of German architecture. Located on the corner of Hutton Street and Cambridge Avenue, today it serves as the Elks Lodge.

Looking for other European influences in the Heights, one would be remiss if they did not include the refined craftsmanship of stained glass. The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy’s website describes this lost art as “invisible wonders, hidden behind edifices, discernible only from within, [they are] decorative windows of delicate beauty.”

John Gomez, a historian from the Conservancy, noted the magnificent windows designed by Katharine Lamb Tait in the quaint chapel of the Grace Lutheran Church on Summit Avenue. “In a world dominated by men, Tait not only distinguished herself as one of the few women in this field, but her Art Deco designs were a marked departure from the Munich-style popular at the time,” says Gomez.

Sadly, not all of Jersey City’s stained glass treasures have fared well over the last century. In fact, only a few houses of worship contain intact window collections.

Several have been extracted and sold off to auction houses and private investors. The Classical Church Goods firm out of Danbury, Connecticut, has purchased many of the J. Morgan & Sons windows, similar to the ones in St. Anne’s Church on Kennedy Boulevard. Selling restored windows is big business. Where prices might have been $500 a hundred years ago, today that same window might retail as high as $25,000.

If restoration keeps the past alive, then Barbara Meise, founder of Artbuilders (across from City Hall in Jersey City) is a primary flag-bearer. She specializes in the restoration of stained glass and is one of the last descendants and “living masters of the stained glass manufacturing era,” according to Gomez. Having worked for decades with Lamb Studios (started by Katharine Lamb Tait’s grandfather), “she’s restored the majority of stained glass in the Heights,” added Gomez.

While not exactly the Spanish Steps, the majestic stairway of 135 steps in Rome, Italy, the Heights’ “100 Steps” might have actually followed in their proverbial footsteps. Until the 1920s, this functional stairway served as the shortest route between Hoboken and the Heights at Paterson Plank Road. Since they were closed in the 1990s due to security issues stemming from disrepair, residents have continuously put pressure on the city to consider restoration.

As reported by JCI in June 2013, Hoffman stated, “We have many residents who commute to and from Hoboken, Downtown Jersey City and New York who need more direct access to and from Hoboken…We also need residents from below to come up here and enjoy our events and frequent the Riverview Arts District and businesses along Palisade Avenue.”

And now, after decades of advocacy, developer bids, cost proposals, and political wrangling, the work is finally completed – the steps opened to the public on November 6, 2013.

The base is all that is left of the Gazebo at River View Fisk at Hurricane Sandy

The base is all that is left of the Gazebo at River View Fisk at Hurricane Sandy – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Heights, Post-Sandy

Reflecting on the wrath of Hurricane Sandy last October and the amount of devastation wreaked throughout Jersey City, many thought of the Heights as the one neighborhood which might go unscathed. In reality, the old saying “stay high and dry” was not at all applicable as the Superstorm of the century was just too volatile, even at higher elevations.

The gazebo in Riverview-Fisk Park was completely destroyed by the storm, requiring Becky Hoffman and the Riverview Neighborhood Association membership to seek community and national support to address the restoration. During the countless meeting and brainstorming sessions that ensued, Hoffman indicated that the application submitted to FEMA was for a total of approximately $170 million.

One creative idea that surfaced during the public meetings was the possibility of an amphitheater to adjoin the gazebo restoration project. But according to Hoffman, “It was rejected and will have to be considered as a separate fundraiser altogether.

Along with FEMA monies still to be approved, the Association has run a number of fundraising events. This includes their weekly Farmers Market held in the park every Sunday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm through October 27.

Hoffman says that the Rock for the Park benefit concert, held at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theater this past May, was also a tremendous success. The event raised about $6,000, with help from local artists’ donated pieces for the evening’s silent auction.

On October 26, the also Neighborhood Association participated in the Jersey City Parks Coalition’s ”Big Dig.” Hoffman explained that in this city-wide event volunteers plant “more than 50,000 flower bulbs in an effort to beautify the park.”

Places to Visit While You’re in the Neighborhood

The Distillery Gallery
7 Hutton St.
(see JCI’s coverage)

Hudson Farmers Market
3437 John F. Kennedy Blvd.

Jersey City Reservoir No. 3

Jersey Cycles
510 Central Ave.

Kennedy Dancers
79 Central Ave.
(see JCI’s coverage)

Pershing Field Park
201 Central Ave.

Riverview Fisk Park
1 Bowers St.

Check out these organization’s websites for events and more information about the Heights:

Central Avenue Special Improvement District (CASID)

Farms In The Heights

Riverview Neighborhood Association

This article appeared in the the 2013 Fall issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Correction: Garrett D. Van Reipen was sited as Hudson City’s first mayor in the original printing. Photos Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Additional JCI Coverage of the Heights

Ron Callari

is a social media consultant and contributing writer for InventorSpot, and editorial cartoonist for the online kidd millennium cartoon series. He is the published author of Crude Behavior, Uncle Dubya's Jihad Jamboree and the just-released graphic novel Facebucks & Dumbs F*cks. He resides at Society Hill in Jersey City.