Neighborhood Spotlight: Bergen Hill
Row houses in Bergen Hill – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ
The continuing revitalization of a historic ‘hood in the center of Jersey City
“I live in a house designed by Edlow Wingate Harrison,” says Dennis Doran. For those of us unfamiliar with Mr. Harrison: Doran explained that he was the civil engineer who designed Hudson Boulevard – now Kennedy Boulevard – once lined with grand mansions, and currently one of Jersey City’s busiest and most important roads. Harrison also revolutionized Jersey City’s water supply, building a reservoir in Morris County and the 30-mile aqueduct that transports water from the suburbs to the city. So, a pretty important fellow around here at the dawn of the 20th century.
Dennis Doran tends to know these things, as a noted Jersey City historian (and a real-estate developer, and treasurer and board member of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy). Doran’s house is located in Bergen Hill, a square-shaped neighborhood in the center of Jersey City, approximately bordered by Fairmount, Cornelison, Communipaw, and Monticello Avenues.
The Old Bergen Hill
A Jersey City native who grew up in the Heights, Doran has been living in Bergen Hill for 40 years. And his home is just one of the existing links to the neighborhood’s rich past.
“Bergen Hill, once part of Bergen City in the 19th century, is a magical time capsule, a residential district pulsing with tangible history,” says John Gomez, founder of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy. “Peruse the property deeds of its stately brownstones, brick row houses and set-back mansions, and you will see the names of some of Jersey City’s most prominent citizens, ancestral families, and community legends.”
One significant Bergen Hill resident was Rev. Robert W. Castle. Rev. Castle, who passed away in 2012, was the rector of the now-abandoned St. John’s Episcopal Church (pictured in the gallery) and led the area’s civil rights movement in the 1960s. According to Gomez’s book Legendary Locals of Jersey City, Rev. Castle “was determined to lift local African American and Latino residents out of substandard living conditions and alter the apathy inside city government.” Rev. Castle was also the cousin of filmmaker Jonathan Demme and the subject of Demme’s well-regarded 1992 documentary, Cousin Bobby.
The church, though currently in disrepair, is considered a masterwork of 19th-century ecclesiastical architecture. Located on Summit Avenue and now owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, St. John’s Episcopal Church was designed by John Remson Onderdonk, built in 1870, and rebuilt after a massive fire in 1914.
Another notable neighborhood resident, E.S. Wells, was an experimental chemist and entrepreneur in the late 1800s. He opened a storefront to sell various medical potions, and built up his business into a world-renowned drug manufacturing company. Wells is best known for his “Rough on Rats” exterminating potion!
Just behind Wells’ former storefront — at the northwest corner of Summit Avenue and Grand Street — is Library Hall, now Library Hall Lofts. Built in 1865–66, the structure held the township’s first public lending library, as well as a town hall and a jail. By 1871, the library closed due to lack of interest. Over the years, the building was used as a meeting space, police precinct, warehouse, furniture shop, and carpet store. In 2005, restoration of the building began; currently, it houses 14 condominium units.
The Fall and the Rise
Doran recalls once taking a date to Bruno’s Restaurant, a long-gone, legendary Italian eatery in Bergen Hill, and noticing all the houses with beautiful stained-glass windows. A year later, he returned to the neighborhood as a reporter for the Jersey Journal, breaking a story about members of the Black Panther activist organization (prominent in the late 1960s and 1970s) hiding out in a brownstone.
Doran was surprised by the neighborhood’s changed condition, but an acquaintance gave him a new perspective. “I met a young guy who bought the best property on a corner while everything was going to pieces. Most people had fled. There were empty buildings and places on fire. This guy talked me into it,” recalls Doran. “I bought a furnished rooming house in late 1971 and took a year and a half to fix it.”
Since then, Doran has amassed a dozen buildings, with waiting lists to rent one of his apartments. As a result of his commitment to maintain the neighborhood, Doran is known to some as the “Mayor of Bergen Hill.”
“I have the nicest buildings on the street. They’ve won awards and have been in calendars,” he says. “An old-time realtor told me that I saved this neighborhood. I wish I had gotten some other buildings that had been lost.”
Over the years, Doran has watched crime vanish before his eyes. He recounts a time when residents had to put bars on every window, car windshields kept getting smashed, and newspapers regularly reported intruders climbing into houses. But Doran doesn’t see those things happening anymore.
Making a Home, Making a Neighborhood
Lissa and Peter Welles have been living in Bergen Hill since 1990, when they purchased a single-family home on Emory Street. “Our street is a beautiful, tree-lined street with lots of homeowners,” says Lissa. “The affordability was it, though.” (Bergen Hill is still relatively affordable. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the “Fair Market Rent” for a one-bedroom apartment in Bergen Hill is currently $861, compared to $1,109 for Jersey City overall. And prices for single-family homes can also be significantly lower than in some other sections of the city.)
The Welles have raised three children in Bergen Hill. For the past 22 years, they’ve also run a business, Basic Builders Inc. The husband-and-wife team, both with degrees in mechanical engineering, specializes in designing and installing IKEA kitchens.
Lissa says she is happy in Bergen Hill and has positive relationships with her neighbors. She is active in both the Emory Street Neighborhood Association and the Jackson Hill Main Street Special Improvement District (JHMSSID).
In 2012, JHMSSID was incorporated as part of the state’s Main Street New Jersey program, with the goal of rebuilding the business district in Ward F’s Bergen Section. Combining the business districts at Monticello Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, this organization strives to revitalize the Bergen Hill and Bergen/Lafayette neighborhoods and make them clean and safe places to do business and, in turn, provide shopping and dining for local residents.
The name “Jackson Hill” comes from Jackson Avenue, renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1968 and the backbone of this Special Improvement District. Thomas Vreeland Jackson and John Vreeland Jackson were brothers who lived in Jersey City in the 19th Century. Freed slaves, they bought land in present-day Greenville and pursued careers as oystermen. During the Civil War, their home was a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. (A plaque at the Martin Luther King Drive Light Rail Station in Bergen/Lafayette honors the brothers.)
Michele Massey is the executive director of the JHMSSID. (In late 2011, she was appointed by the Jersey City City Council to be the Ward F representative until the 2012 election.) Massey grew up in Jersey City and currently lives off of Monticello Avenue in a house built in 1896.
“I moved out of Jersey City for many years and, upon my return, I noticed a lot had changed and not necessarily for the better,” she explains. “I started getting involved and tried to learn: How did Monticello get this way? I started going to community meetings and saw the passion in the neighborhood. So many people care and are looking to be involved doing things in the community.”
Massey started by working with the West Bergen Neighborhood Association and the McGinley Square Special Improvement District. Currently, Massey and her team at JHMSSID work with commercial-property owners and businesses, encouraging them to maintain and improve their properties. According to Massey, the JHMSSID is the largest Special Improvement District in Jersey City.
“It runs through the neediest part of the city, and there’s a lot of work to do,” Massey says. “Slowly, we’re starting to see owners reinvest in their properties — businesses painting their storefronts and things like that — in order to attract even more businesses.”
A neighborhood business with true staying power is the Manzo Uniform Company, (pictured in the gallery) primarily known for providing uniforms to the Jersey City Police Department. Customers also include firefighters and police squads from neighboring towns. Saverio Manzo, upon arriving in the United States from Italy nearly a hundred years ago, opened a small uniform shop. It moved to Monticello Avenue more than 60 years ago and has been in its current location for half a century. Saverio’s son Sam (who passed away in 2013) ran the shop for decades, and now Sam’s son Mike is in charge. “Monticello is almost like an extended family for us,” Mike Manzo says. “The block has always treated me and my family very well.”
Also keeping the light burning on Monticello for many decades is the Aladdin Lamp & Shade Company. “We provide a complete service for decorators, antique dealers, and homeowners,” Mark Hauptman says, “working on lamps, chandeliers — rewiring, refinishing, repairing, and installing.”
Hauptman’s father began the business in 1951, moving into the current building in 1960. Mark has run the company since 1983. Beautiful antique lighting fixtures, statues, and vases fill the shop — as well as a couple of motorcycles, and some large sawfish bills (once popular as a decorative item). “It’s like a lost art,” Hauptman says of his profession. “There’s nobody doing this kind of work anymore.”
For a quick bite in Bergen Hill, a popular spot is O’lala Empanadas & International Cuisine. The eatery serves traditional empanadas with fillings such as beef and chicken, as well as some non-traditional fillings, including baked macaroni and cheese, pizza toppings, teriyaki chicken, and chipotle shrimp.
For nightlife, the place to go is definitely Moore’s Lounge, also known as Bill and Ruth’s. Established in 1969, Moore’s is well known for fish-and-chips and amazing live music. “One of the best rooms I’ve ever performed in; always a warm, welcoming vibe,” says Trish Szymanski, who has been a singer at Moore’s and has also booked many bands at the venue. “Miss Ruth, the owner all these years, still runs the show. It’s an old-school gem.”
Growing and Learning
The Unified Mothers and Men Initiative (UMMI) is a community-empowerment organization founded by Elizabeth “Alajwanje” Perry in 2003. UMMI was most known for their annual Kwanzaa celebrations. But in 2012, the organization entered the Adopt-a-Lot program and now oversees the Village Community Garden. The garden soon won an award from the city as best start-up program. Since then, the space has hosted live music, poetry, mural painting, and other events for all ages.
The schools within Bergen Hill are the Julia A. Barnes No. 12 Elementary School (PreK–8th gr.), Lincoln High School, and the private Al-Ghazaly School (PreK 3/4–8th gr.). Though not in the neighborhood, another popular school for Bergen Hill families is the Learning Community Charter School (PreK 4–8th gr.) on Kennedy Boulevard.
Lissa Welles says that Bergen Hill is much nicer than when she and her husband first moved there but “it hasn’t had the light years of improvement that other neighborhoods have had. Monticello Avenue had a huge redevelopment project, but there’s still no economy.” She especially wishes it were easier to reach downtown Jersey City by public transportation. Welles says, “There’s not a direct bus, and I think that that is a huge mistake.”
Dennis Doran, meanwhile, preaches patience. “I remember when downtown was desolate. It takes 20 years: you get the population and the commercial activity follows,” he says. “They’ve fixed Bergen Hill’s streets. But we need more businesses. It’ll come in time.”
And then there’s Michele Massey and her Special Improvement District team, constantly working to encourage that economic growth. “People want to see this neighborhood back to its former glory. You can see the potential. When you go down the side streets, there are beautiful, old homes. This neighborhood has a lot of charm left, and people want to see that maintained,” Massey says. “I just love the people in this community and the passion and the support that you get.”
Places to Visit While You’re in the Neighborhood
Aladdin Lamp & Shade Company
118 Monticello Ave.
Basic Builders Inc.
Humz’s Halal Cafe
90 Monticello Ave.
Jackson Hill Main Street
99 Monticello Ave.
Library Hall Lofts
704 Grand St.
(see JCI’s article)
Manzo Uniform Company
190 Monticello Ave.
189 Monticello Ave.
O’lala Empanadas & International Cuisine
600 Communipaw Ave.
(see JCI’s article)
St. John’s Episcopal Church
120 Summit Ave.
(see JCI’s article)
Teez N Things
181 Monticello Ave.
Village Community Garden
91–93 Harrison Ave.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 Fall/Winter issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.
Photos Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ