Jersey City knows something about bouncing back. With property values rising, a steady influx of retail stores, trendy restaurants and the arrival of some of the corporate world’s heaviest heavyweights, Jersey City has become a magnet for families, young professionals and others looking for a safe place to live that’s exciting, yet stable. Such was not always the case, however; Jersey City has survived harsh Colonial conditions, stock market crashes, and the onus of not being Manhattan, but yet as time passes, the area is beginning to thrive.
The Dawn of America
From its earliest days, Jersey City has been no stranger to struggle. Originally settled by the Delaware Indians, the area that is now Jersey City was colonized in 1630 by Michael Pauw, a member of the Amsterdam Chamber, the group created by the United Netherlands Company which claimed New Netherlands (a.k.a New York) as its own. Pauw originally named the colony Pavonia, after himself.
The first official settlement, Communipaw, covered an area from what is now Johnston Avenue to Caven Point. One of the area’s first houses was built there in 1633 for colony superintendent Jan Evertsen Bout. Between 1638 and 1647, the city got its first experiences with the rise-and-fall theme that would characterize so much of its future–the colony suffered a massacre at the hands of the Native American population, who had been mistreated by the colony’s governor.
By the mid-1600s, the city was home to New Jersey’s first church and school, housed in a large log cabin. Later in that century, the colony changed hands from England to the Netherlands back to England again. For the next century and a half, the area grew in size, bringing neighboring colonies into its fold. In 1838, Jersey City became its own municipality, breaking off from Bergen County, and welcoming its first mayor, Dudley Gregory.
In the 1800s, the city’s rail lines made it a hub of import and export. One railway tale put Jersey City in the annals of asterisked history. During Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Lincoln’s grown son Robert fell on the tracks at a Jersey City rail station. A bystander pulled him back onto the platform, saving him from certain injury. The helping hand belonged (ironically enough) to Edwin Booth–brother of future Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Also in the late 1800s, Robert Fulton opened a steamship factory in the region, supplying the ferries that made Manhattan less of an island and gave suburbs easier access to the big city.
Up and Down and Back Again
For much of the 20th Century, Jersey City was in the hands of a local government under the control of one or two powerful individuals. As the industrial transportation industry changed, moving from train conveyance to trucks, jobs began to disappear. Crime rates rose, and resident confidence dropped. The City underwent a short-lived upturn in the 1980s before the stock market crash in 1987. The riverfront became something of a commercial and retail wasteland. The vacancy rate in 1992 hit the 36 percent mark.
"In the 1980s, the area saw a whole wave of gentrification and condo conversion," says Robert Antonicello, president of ACI Group, a property management and commercial real estate firm in Jersey City. "Then came the stock market crash in 1987. By 1989, the boom was dead. Over the last three years, as a result of the influx of commercial office space, the co-op and condo market has gotten a second wind."
Corporations as diverse as Goldman Sachs, USA Networks, American Express, and other top-shelf players have moved offices to Jersey City, taking advantage of lower rents, an abundance of space and financial incentives including tax rates substantially lower than those found in Manhattan.
Hand-in-hand with the commercial and retail boom has been a residential upswing–one that’s improved the financial stability of most of the buildings. "Before, the condos in the area had a high percentage of investor-owned units," Antonicello says. "Most of them have gone from 30 to 40 percent owner occupied to 100 percent. That’s generally been the trend."
Antonicello believes this upturn is here to stay. "When the initial boom hit, they constructed nine million square feet of Class A office space, but there wasn’t enough critical mass to sustain it," he says. "There’s now almost 19 million square feet and now there’s enough critical mass. Even after the September 11 attack, there’s enough substance here to keep it going."
Why They Come, Why They Stay
Some people call Jersey City and Hoboken the "sixth borough" and it’s easy to understand why. Manhattan is accessible via PATH train lines, ferries and the Holland Tunnel, all of which take commuters into the City with little fuss. Much as the real estate agent’s mantra is "location," in Jersey City the word "proximity" bears similar significance.
"Jersey City is an attractive location because of its proximity to existing office space, proximity to rail and subway lines, proximity to retail, new restaurants and shops," says Lloyd Rosenberg, president of DMR Architects, based in Maywood, New Jersey. His firm is serving as architect on Jersey City’s Metropolis Towers project, a new 25-story co-op with 210 units. "All of those things make Jersey City a neighborhood. It’s a wonderful spot."
Metropolis Towers is just one of the many residential buildings that have sprung up along the Hudson Riverfront in recent years. "The skyline of Jersey City is changing," says Ralph Rosenberg, DMR vice president and director of design. "We’re keeping up with the pace of the city’s growth."
One of the most significant aspects of Jersey City real estate is the area’s wide-variety of price ranges and housing options. A one-bedroom condo tops out around $1 million or $1.3 million, according to Antonicello. "There are these luxury apartments, but you can also find condos for $35,000 to $40,000 in nice neighborhoods," he says. "The housing is affordable and there’s quality space." With the housing boom has come an increase in quality of life in general. Crime is down, the streets are cleaner, the parks are havens for families and the storefronts gleam. It’s a safe place.
Through all its ebbs and flows, Jersey City has maintained its personality. Young professionals are moving in, but "there are also families," Antonicello says. "And the community is a very large melting pot–we have residents from all over the world: South America, the Caribbean, Middle East. It’s still a multi-ethnic place."
A Bright Future
What does the future hold for Jersey City? Like all of New York and the rest of the country, the city is feeling the aftershocks of the World Trade Center attack. In the short term–according to The New York Times–many commercial leases in Jersey City have been signed by small companies relocating out of Lower Manhattan. But local residents and businessmen are more worried about the safety and well being of their neighbors across the river. "When New York hurts, we hurt," Antonicello says. "Jersey City without New York is basically Scranton. We’re intricately connected."
In the long term, the prognosis for Jersey City is extremely positive. "Once the Goldman Sachs building is finished (in the next 24 months), the area will get even better. It’s going to mature as a market," Antonicello says. "It’s a city whose time has come."
Liz Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan