Tales of Old Downtown Jersey City

Dear Editor:

Helene Stapinski, author of “Five-Finger Discount,” claimed that people “didn’t settle ‘in’ Jersey City, they settled ‘for’ Jersey City.” Going back to the mid-1960’s — early 1970’s, I might have believed that Helene Stapinski had a valid point. I no longer have that sentiment.

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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 the Downtown Section of 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” Downtown, Jersey City. And I just might be better for it.

Yet, despite all of its short comings, there was something hauntingly attractive to Downtown. 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. Indeed, I am a train fanatic.

Miles of serpentine rail crisscrossed Jersey City, and those rails all seemed to converge Downtown, along the waterfront. I was saddened when the trains stopped rolling 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 Newport Mall now stands – to watch the trains.

I attended P.S. Number 5, now Dr. Michael Conti School. How many times did I get in trouble because instead of paying attention to the teacher, I stared out the window to watch the trains thunder along the top of the trestle at the end of Ferris’s Wall, dash along the rails in the back of Mary Benson Park, or run on top of the hill that eventually gave way to the Railroad Avenue elevated line!

Downtown had a thriving Italian community. In my opinion, Downtown was the center of Italian culture, heritage, tradition, and legacy in Jersey City. 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 (now Christopher Columbus Drive).

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. The members of those clubs enjoyed playing traditional Italian card games, such as “tressette,” “briscola,” and “scopa.”

Pastry shops, such as DiFeo’s and La Magra, featured Italian “pasticcini” such as “sfogliatelle.” Fresh baked bread from the original Pecoraro Bakery delighted your nostrils as you walked past. The Italian restaurants, Ducky’s, Tripoli, and Erks, were all within walking distance of each other. A Friday night tradition at my house was to eat pizza and mussels in spicy marina sauce at Ducky’s. Let me tell you, the pizza was fantastic! And I couldn’t wait to dip the bread in that spicy marina sauce! What a treat!

That is the Downtown 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

Bayonne
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