A bygone era

Author talks about fate of 111 First St.’s creative community

Author David Goodwin and WFMU DJ Lynn Mullins talk about the history of 111 First St. artist community
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Author David Goodwin and WFMU DJ Lynn Mullins talk about the history of 111 First St. artist community

The standing room only crowd at Little City Books in Hoboken was more than a little nostalgic on April 4 when David Goodwin, author of “The Left Bank of the Hudson: Jersey City and the Artists of 111 First Street” read from his book and talked about the story’s implications for the arts community.
Goodwin and the audience seemed nostalgic about what 111 First St. had been, and perhaps more for what it could have been. The community of artists that once occupied the former factory building, in no small part due to Goodwin’s book, has taken on mythical proportions.
Many in the room seemed caught up in the same awe of that community as many of an earlier generation felt about the gathering of tribes at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
But instead of a coming together that lasted only three days, the community of artists that lived and worked at 111 First St. thrived for almost two decades before the dream collapsed.
In 2007, a demolition crew knocked down the old warehouse that had stood for more than a century and had served as a home for a community of artists since the early 1990s. The demolition came as the final chapter in a long-fought and bitter legal battle between the Jersey City government, developers, the property owner, and the artists who hoped to preserve the building as work space.
Today the building is nothing more than a pile of bricks in an empty lot, a structure stripped of its historic preservation status, leaving many of the artists to wonder just what cyclone had torn apart their lives.

Doing everything right; but it still went wrong

The community at 111 First St. was an outgrowth of an early 1980s squatters’ movement in New York City, where artists fought against the encroachment of gentrification by occupying buildings left vacant by developers. At the time, rising rents made it impossible for artists to survive in what had previously been a Mecca for the arts. Many artists fled New York seeking affordable space in Jersey City.
Some of these artists believed they had learned from the mistakes of the squatter movement by legally occupying 111 First St., and then by lobbying the city to put safeguards in place that would protect them against the rapid development of the waterfront a few blocks east.
In many ways, the Jersey City arts community had history against them as well as developer’s hunger to redevelop the waterfront. Studies on urban development point to a consistent trend where artists seek out affordable rundown areas, make them attractive to new development, and then get priced out by the new population moving in.
Goodwin’s book is a history of a battle that strongly resembles the conflict of The Alamo, where artists were pitted against overwhelming forces in their attempt to defy history and create a community that could survive.
Lynn Mullins, a local artist and DJ from Jersey City-based, WFMU, said the book is also about community.
“Arts make a community,” she said, noting that she moved to Hoboken in 1989 and has experienced some of the issues faced by the arts community.
“Many people don’t get to walk into a studio and see art in process,” she said. “They get to see the final product. But this book talks about in-between and how artist made community.”
She said the early history of the building involved an enlightened company that saw the factory as a place to provide an education and guidance for its employees. “This is more than just about the loss of a building; it is also about the loss of a community.”
In her blurb for the book, she said, “The P. Lorillard Tobacco Company at 111 First Street exemplified a failure of government policy and imagination cautionary tale for areas that are seeing rapid development and gentrification.”

Still a struggle

Reading from his book and talking about some of its aspects, Goodwin stirred up an emotional response from an audience all too familiar with the negative impact of gentrification on the arts in Hoboken.
Some in the audience had seen a former arts building in Hoboken knocked down because of mercury contamination, and an existing arts building on the west side rapidly altering its use to non-arts functions. Hoboken’s Neumann Leather building on Observer Highway still struggles to retain the artistic vision.
What happened at 111 First St. was not an inevitable conclusion, Goodwin said.
“There are points along the way when things could have become different,” he said. “Even after people left the building, the building itself could have been saved.”
He attributed the conclusion of the story to a “toxic nexus of bad decisions, stubbornness, and lack of imagination by the building’s owners and multiple city administrations.”
“To be quite frank, the artists themselves made some poor or questionable decisions,” he said.
Organized artists might have helped, but he said, this is not a trait common with many artists.
More than just a story of a building, his book is about a historic struggle in which artists are pitted against unsympathetic developers, incompetent landlords, and unreliable politicians.
Even new arriving residents appear to have little sympathy for the arts community and often do not support them.
“Sadly, many of these people are against the artists,” he said.
Mullins concurred, saying that artists are perceived as being “in the way.”

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“Even after people left the building, the building itself could have been saved.” – David Goodwin

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Not all bad

Inspired by an article in Jersey City Magazine, Goodwin – through extensive interviews with artists, politicians, and others – traced the history of the building, from its construction nearly 150 years earlier, to when artists were evicted in 2005, and the building’s demolition in 2007.
But local officials note that the artists’ struggle was not completely in vain. One great success of their fight was the establishing of the Power House Arts District that required future developers to preserve buildings and provide space for the arts.
Under the current administration of Mayor Steven Fulop, arts have become a priority.
Even though many artists have been priced out of downtown, a new arts district has been established in Jersey City Heights which have residential and working spaces. Another arts district is proposed for Journal Square, which will include a new arts center as well as the possible restoration of the Historic Loew’s Theater.
But this new vestige of the art scene isn’t the same.
Goodwin said New York, Hoboken, and Jersey City may have crossed a line and cannot go back to the scrappy artist community that 111 First St. symbolized.
The book and the story of 111 First St. have become larger than Jersey City, as people around the nation take interest.
“Many people on my book tour wanted to know why this was allowed to happen,” he said. “They saw a value in a rich community of artists and creators contributing to the city as a cultural and economic engine, and as a way to expose people to the community.”
Audience members in Buffalo asked about historic preservation as it related to the now-demolished building, while people in Minneapolis raised concerns about arts and culture and the need for artist housing.
“If there is one lesson to come out of this, it is that if we want to have artists in our community we have to provide them with a place to live and work, or at least the opportunity to get affordable spaces,” he said. “This could come through government policy. There would be zoning or construction of affordable housing and live/work spaces for the arts. As communities become attractive, government should be seeking developers or businesses that have an interest in building for artist studios or arts related businesses.”

Artists and development

Jersey City has a few artist-friendly developers such as Silverman and Manhattan Building Company, both which promote arts and provide artistic spaces.
But Goodwin’s message, while hopeful, also highlighted the continued struggle artist must endure to resist development trends.
“The fate of 111 First might present other artists with a rallying cry,” Mullins said.
While she and others in the audience hoped the book would stir up passion for defending the arts, all seemed in awe of the fact that 111 First St. was a unique experiment in the arts, something not easily repeated.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.