The first known residents of Bayonne were a tribe of the Lenni-Lenape Indians called the Hackensacks. They had camps at present-day Constable Hook, Fifth, Eighth and Twenty Second streets and grew maize in the Jersey City Heights. They were different from the Western Indians shown in movies. They did not live in tepees but in bowl-shaped structures made with bent saplings and chestnut bark, covered with skins. They had no horses, and from the mounds of shells found, they ate oysters—lots of oysters. Following the arrival of Henry Hudson, off Bayonne in 1609, they deeded their lands to the Dutch. In 1646, the Dutch East India Company rewarded a gunner named Jacob Roy by giving him a large portion of what would become Bayonne. In Dutch, the word for “gunner” is “konstapel,” thus, Constable Hook.
By the mid nineteenth century, Bayonne was mostly farmland. The large landowners built their manor houses on the New York Bay shore—the Vreelands on 46th Street, the Cadmus family on 41st Street; their properties extended to Newark Bay. David Salter bought part of the Vreeland estate, and for a time this area was known as Salterville. For many years, his home stood on Plank Road and 50th Street. For two centuries the Van Buskirk family had a large home and orchard on 35th Street facing the Hook. It was said to yield thousands of barrels of fruit each year. The Van Buskirks were a prominent family; Major Hiram Van Buskirk was a hero in the Civil War. In 1890, Edward Van Buskirk claimed he could gather 40 to 50 crates of tomatoes a day from the orchard. Tanks now stand on this site.
Hamlet to City
In the space of about 40 years, Bayonne changed from small hamlet to a city of 70,000. This building boom ended with the Depression in 1929. With the large influx of workers, many immigrants, it is not surprising that in 1934, only 14 percent of the 20,000 dwellings were considered single-family homes. Many are still standing, in use, or being renovated today. About 35 percent of units then were two-family homes with the remainder, about 50 percent, larger structures. They were primarily wood frame, mostly heated by coal. For the 70 percent or so of the population that rented, rents averaged less than $40 a month. Parking was not an issue because there were only 4,414 cars registered; there was private garage space for 4,773 cars. Not built for cars, many still housed horses or old carriages. By this time, only 10 percent of the units lacked hot water and 98 percent had private indoor toilets. Eleven percent of the housing stock lacked a tub or a shower; the residents of 66 units still used outhouses.
The next boom was after World War II when veterans returned, married, and wanted to move out of their parents’ homes. There was available land on First Street where 14 three-story buildings were built each having six families per floor. Sea View and Island View Court were soon teeming with children from these 252 young families. There were also projects on Lexington between First and Second Streets and on Avenue C between First and Second. Three grammar schools below 8th Street were all jammed with children. St. Andrews, for example, had three classes in each grade with 50 students per grade. Apartments became crowded, and veterans wanted cars, so they began to move out.
Many grandparents expanded or redid their homes, welcoming their grown children with their families. This spurred the development of the “Bayonne Box.” Thousands of Bayonne boxes were built, or existing houses converted to boxes throughout the city: put as much house as you can on the existing lot, raise the first story, so you can have a carport, and you can house two or three generations of a family on different floors. It may not be pretty or an efficient use of the land, but it worked. Grandparents were happy to have their families nearby, and their children could drive or commute to their jobs knowing that their children would have a babysitter after school. You could even have a little green space in the backyard.
From the 1950s until recently, there was never enough land in Bayonne to give the younger generations what they wanted. After the war, they wanted more space to have a lawn, swing set, a separate bedroom for each child, and a place to park their cars. There were efforts in the 1960s and ‘70s to make more space by filling in the bay. Today Sunset Trailer Park has about 100 trailers on West 24th Street. The desire for more space coupled with the loss of some industries led many to question the future of the city. The younger generation and baby boomers now value time, convenience, and proximity to employment more than a lawn that must be mowed every Saturday or hunting for a parking space every night.
Warehouses to Rentals
In the town’s third building boom, the first areas to be developed were the old industrial sites. The 32-acre Elco site, where hundreds of PT boats were built, turned into Boat Works in 2004. There are now 160 townhouses costing in the $400,000-range on the site. In 2009, Maidenform became Silk Lofts, consisting of 85 studio and one- and two-bedroom units. The first residential units at MOTBY were opened in 2009. There are currently 554 residential units at Harbor Pointe with many more to come. Others followed, including Boulevard East with knockout views of Newark Bay and the park and 19 East on 19th Street. Huge cranes soar above the skyline at the Resnick site on 46th and Broadway, on 22d and Avenue E, and the biggest, two 22-story towers going up on North Street. Renovations of existing one- and two-family homes are ongoing. Air conditioners, computers, and hairdryers required upgraded electricity, and clothes- flush tenants required bigger closets than in the past.
How will we live in the future? What will Bayonne look like in 50 to 100 years? No doubt two centuries ago, the Van Buskirks envisioned larger family farms growing more fruit and cucumbers. One hundred years ago, John Rockefeller may have thought we would have huge factories, fueled by oil surrounded by workers’ housing. It did not turn out that way. So Bayonne may not turn into a place with many tall residential buildings and commercial space on the ground floor, but something entirely different. How about a drone center for deliveries of groceries and other goods throughout the region? Or something retro—an oyster farming community? Who knows?—BLP