Helene Stapinsky, author of “Five-Finger Discount,” claimed that people “didn’t settle ‘in’ Jersey City, they settled ‘for’ Jersey City.” Going back to the late / mid 1960’s – early 1970’s, I might have believed that Helene Stapinski had a valid point. I no longer have that sentiment.
I grew up in the Downtown section of Jersey City. At one time, Downtown was a “blue collar” community. There was a running joke about Downtown; specifically, you can find a bar on every street corner. Another popular yarn: Every candy store was a “bookie joint.”
It seemed that “playing the numbers” was a popular pastime in those days. I remember waiting with my father for the night owl edition of the New York Daily News to be delivered at the corner of Newark and Jersey Avenues. My father would immediately turn to the sports pages to see what “the number” was for that night. Come to think of it, back then, I had thought that the phrase “what’s the number” was a way of greeting folks in Jersey City.
Downtown was plagued with crime during the 60’s and 70’s. Believe it or not, people moved to the “safer streets” of Greenville to escape the crime-ridden streets of Downtown.
Because of the crime problem, my father had tried to sell our house on Fourth Street. To his dismay, he found out that the proceeds from the sale of the house on Fourth Street would have been insufficient to cover the down payment to buy another house in a “better area.” I remember his reaction: “Oh, well, this isn’t so bad.” And so we stayed. I guess my family had settled “for” Jersey City. And I just might be better for it.
Yet, despite all of its shortcomings, there was something hauntingly attractive to Jersey City. Perhaps it was that unique old world charm. Or maybe it was that special kind of chemistry that bounded a neighborhood together. As for me, it might have been all about the trains.
Miles of railroad crisscrossed Jersey City. I was saddened when the trains stopped running along the 6th Street embankment. I used to enjoy watching the trains rumble along on top of “Ferris’s Wall.” I also used to like to go to the freight yards – where the mall now stands – to watch the trains.
Downtown had a thriving Italian community. The Brunswick Street market was the center of the Italian community. Italian goods and fresh produce were sold along Brunswick Street, from Newark Avenue to Railroad Avenue. There were two Italian clubs, “Il Braccio e Cuore” on Fourth Street and “La Llega Cilento” on Coles Street; “La Llega Cilento” eventually moved to Brunswick Street. Pastry shops, such as DiFeo’s and La Magra, featured Italian “pasticcini” such as “sfogliatelle.” Fresh baked bread from Pecoraro’s Bakery delighted your nostrils as you walked past.
That is the Jersey City I remember. The chemistry has changed. To that extent, today, if one can afford it, a person would definitely settle “in” Jersey City. It is way too expensive for anyone to settle “for” Jersey City.
John Di Genio