|ELIZABETH FORUM 2008|
NORTH AVENUE : COMING INTO THE CITY
We also wish to express special appreciation to Historical Society staffer, Leyde Calle, for her work with the US Federal Manuscript census of the North Avenue neighborhood.
None of these governmental developments drew attention to the power of countryside on Elizabeth’s social fabric. However dairy farms continued within the city limits into the Depression years; horseback was a familiar mode of transportation until after World War I; North Avenue kids, as Robert Jaspan has explained, went to nearby Weequahic Park to watch the trotters and use their hills for sledding; William C. Kister kept his Neck Lane farm near the city limits through the 1920s;
North Avenue residents today still recall the untamed meadowlands as areas of adventure and empty fields, as places for open-air boxing matches and occasional circuses. Nearby orchards became pleasant opportunities, and until mid-century local dairy farms made home-delivery of milk a special convenience.
The late 20th century generation has become sufficiently familiar with their built-environment that it comes as a shock to learn from this 1912 snapshot at North and Newark Avenues, looking north toward Newark, that only trees stand guard along the road, recently improved with trolley tracks! Until relatively recently a country landscape was a part of every American city’s early 20th century experience.
The electric trolley arrived in Elizabeth sometime in the 1890s and was very accessible, which is to say, both convenient and slow. People could climb aboard or leave the trolley, often without the vehicle coming to a complete stop. In the early part of the century, some young gents, trying hard to impress female friends, could jump from the trolley, order two ice cream cones from a convenient parlor and catch up with the trolley on foot. For a decade or more the trolley was sufficiently open that the conductor had no windshield and took the consequences of the weather. In rain, trolley passengers huddled behind the conductor for protection. In winter snow and summer heat, everyone bore the brunt of mother nature. Gradually the vehicle was enclosed, motorized and people dubbed the carrier a jitney. In our sample, North Avenue residents recalled the Jefferson Avenue trolley that ended its run at Kellogg Park.
By horse, slow jitney or by foot, coming into the city contrasted markedly by Elizabethans’ arrival by ferry at Elizabethport at Crane’s Landing or much later by steam locomotive at Broad Street station. In these latter places, unnatural speed set the pace of arrival; the landing and stations presumed strangers and posted large-print, orienting signs accordingly. By broadside and word of mouth one acquired the news and information for both survival, the next stage of the journey, and the future. Coming into the city slowly meant something else and usually it meant the opposite of speed, and reading the city was a serendipitous and more often a genteel affair. You chatted with those you encountered and adopted a neighborly style - elbows on the fence - whether you knew them or not.
In the North Avenue neighborhood - between Rtes 1 & 9 called Spring Street in earlier days - and, say Madison Avenue, no residences on North Avenue registered themselves in the 1910 federal census. By 1920 there were residences, shoulder to shoulder, the full length of the thoroughfare, both sides, seen here today much as it was then. So the area we are targeting was as woodsy and leafy in 1910 as Newark Avenue between Elizabeth and Newark. The houses we see today represent a new neighborhood and a residential opportunity by 1920.
1920 maps and the federal census also show that south of North Avenue in 1920 there are few empty lots; however, north of North Avenue empty lots abound and most existing houses have plenty of space around them for play, leisure or gardens. Most of the key side streets - Monroe, Jackson and Adams - have front porches, which we have come to respect as strategic places for neighborly encounters, information transfer and community solidarity, whatever the ethnic and racial mix. Helen McLaughlin, a longtime resident of Monroe Avenue, testified to the neighborhood’s supportive
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Between 1910 and 1930 (the latest years available for the U.S. federal census) this North Avenue neighborhood divided evenly between foreign-born (53% to 45%) and U.S. born householders (47% to 55%). The rise in so called U.S.-born over these decades actually includes many householders with immigrant parents. So by 1930 the rising “American” grouping actually masks somewhat the powerful medley of immigrant traditions, since these individuals are beginning to be a second-generation of their specific ethnic group. The dominant foreign group is German (26 % in 1910 to 9% in 1930) but substantive numbers of eastern Europeans (Poles, Slavs, Czechs, Austrians) plus some others from Belgium, Sweden, Ireland and Italy are also represented.
By 1920 on the border street of Newark/ Frelinghuysen Avenue as well as on North Avenue east of Rtes 1 & 9/Spring Street, there are now factories in place of green fields and woods, a very rapid transition. According to a 1922 Sanborn Map, east of Rtes 1 & 9 has Schmidt Machine and Tool Company and across North Avenue on the south side, Copper Plate and Tube Company plus Hutchins and Company which manufactures Burnham Boilers. Even more formidable, to the west of our neighborhood, west of Kellogg Park and the North Avenue Train station, the Willis Knight company, makers of automobiles, has erected another factory.
This sudden expansion of manufacturing components clearly accounts for the North Avenue neighborhoods demography. From 1910 to 1930 less than 16% of residents were unskilled laborers. Rather, the dominant occupation for the three decades we sampled were skilled laborers: 1910 47%, 1920 60% and 1930 52%. If one factored in a rising Managerial class, the two categories – Skilled Labor and Managerial – formed three-quarters of the neighborhood. Helen McLaughlin’s son Tom, now a curate at nearby Blessed Sacrament parish, recalled visiting his father’s office in what is now the present-day Jersey City Railroad Museum, where he served (in the 1950s) in the Central Railroad’s Real Estate Management Department. So a rising and commuting managerial class contrasts a bit with the early prevalence of residents listing their occupation as “machinists.” This brand of skilled labor strongly suggests that early on North Avenue homeowners walked to work. Betty Dahl’s father, for example, walked his entire life to the Spring St factory of American Furnace Company. Later public transportation – both bus and train – became increasingly important and enabled North Avenue residents to seek employment in a range of industrial complexes along the Hudson and north into Newark.
The outstanding factory of the neighborhood and indeed the entire city of Elizabeth was a building that arose about 1920 out of the woods along Newark Avenue. The first building there was an auto manufacturer, constructing Willis Knight vehicles and led by Walter P. Chrysler, who had worked at General Motors and would eventually create his own corporation named after himself. But in 1920 it became the property of Billy Durant who renamed the facility Durant Motors and expanded it to encompass 40 acres. There he built the first assembly line in New Jersey and with all of the gusto of the “roaring twenties” produced the STAR, which he intended to compete with both Ford and Chevrolet.
Durant’s base of operations was Detroit, but his method of operation was nation-wide. He sought to buy up many companies which supplied parts, materials, electric products, etc. Durant cared less about how these companies meshed and integrated their products and more on control of them to guarantee supply. With GM stock he bought the Buick company, the Olds company, the Oakland company (which would produce the Pontiac), and eventually the Cadillac Motor Car Company - all in a compressed 19 months. A slight economic downturn in 1910 found Durant short of funds, and GM was taken over by bankers and fired Durant. In 1911, irrepressibly, Durant partnered with inventor, Louis Chevrolet, to produce a wonderfully profitable automobile. With these profits Durant bought GM stock and in 1915 regained control of his old corporation. But he had not learned the lesson of merger dangers and continued his old style of buying competitors and suppliers. At the end of World War I he faced an extraordinary debt and once again bankers took over and fired him from GM a second time.
In 1920 Durant laid plans which involved the purchase and expansion of the auto facility in Elizabeth, N.J. He owned plants in Michigan but designated his Elizabeth property to produce the Durant auto he called the Star
and for the next seven years, enabled the Elizabeth factory to become highly productive.
The flamboyant Durant should underscore how important the car was for urban transportation and how dramatically it revolutionized the way citizens and visitors were coming into the city. Betty Dahl noted that, even though her father walked to work, the family owned a 1923 Buick. The principle use of the family car was driving to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, across from Elizabeth General Hospital, on Sunday. One memorable and freezing Easter morning the family drove to Warinanco Park for the sunrise service. The solid German congregation reinforced inherited traditions not only by Sunday services but by the myriad activities for youth, for young married, adult dances, sport and ferry-boat excursions. Even though their neighborhoods were ethnically diverse, each resident found ways to recall and reinforce cohering customs.
Betty’s life-long friend, Elsie Stermer, did not live close by but nevertheless remained close friends through church activities. “We were not in a wealthy area,” Betty insisted,” but everyone was comfortable.”
The family auto was also used for major grocery expeditions. The first major food store – “where you had to use a cart” – was the Big Bear, a business which took over part of the Durant plant after Billy Durant left Elizabeth. There was an A&P (like the one on Monroe and Julia) and National food stores (like the one on Jackson Avenue, part of national chains, but they were not much larger than
than the corner groceries, which always found favor among residents, not only for their sensitivity to special ethnic products but for offering credit. The Big Bear (1928-1938) was another operation entirely and involved fathers who ordinarily would not participate in these ventures. One child marveled at the things her father put in the cart, that the mother worried they could not afford. Impulse buying and male participation seemed to be some of the dividends of America’s new car culture and supermarket attractions. One might observe that the Durant/Big Bear building subsequently converted to accommodate the baking giant, Burry Biscuit, which produced many products like Girl Scout cookies until they were bought by Quaker Oats company in 1962.
In spite of the neighborhood’s history of car production, most neighborhoods did not have car traffic until after World War II. Until then, parents would sit on their front porches and socialize while their children played kick-the-can and hide-and-seek until well after dark. On sunny afternoons mothers strolled to the parks – Jefferson and Kellogg Parks for this neighborhood - for further socialization, monitoring of children’s play and enjoyment of the water-fountains in the parks’ centers. (The fountains were removed in the 1950s, a casualty of the concern for spreading polio). Neighborhoods were considered safe enough at night, for young working women to attend the downtown theatres and walk home along Broad Avenue without any fears or adverse anticipation.
Postwar car traffic began to alter these practices. In one instance, the city tried to respond by widening North Avenue by an additional lane. Residents recalled the 1950s intervention and leadership of Blessed Sacrament pastor, Rev. Claude Misic OSB, who objected to the expansion and insisted that North Avenue remain residential and not become a commercial thoroughfare with traffic jams, unhealthy exhaust and a threat to pedestrians crossing the street. This residential category apparently embraced the many mom and pop stores, like the North Avenue Bakery. Father Claude was also concerned about the threat of intense traffic to walking schoolchildren.
This particular battle Rev. Claude Misic won, not by organizing his congregation, but by working with City Hall and the effective intervention of its councilman, Maurice O’Keefe. O’Keefe, a congregant of Blessed Sacrament, memorialized Fr Claude’s victory with the statue of the ascendant Christ that even today overlooks North Avenue. In the old days, one observer remarked, pastors were very forceful individuals.
Coming into the City via North Avenue for the first half of the 20th century differed from a similar process via Elizabeth Avenue. Elizabeth Avenue separated, for example, a very distinctive Italian neighborhood in Peterstown from, say, the Newpoint Road neighborhood of Slavs and Eastern Europeans. On Elizabeth Avenue itself, the commercial stores had owners from many immigrant groups other than Slavs and Italians. Indeed, the intensive ethnic mix dramatically differed from the adjacent neighborhoods, and business itself became a powerful acculturating agent. By contrast, North Avenue only divided the neighborhood geographically. On both its north and south sides, the diverse ethnic mix held, and no one group gave either neighborhood a distinctive character. The stores were mostly convenience shops – small groceries, cozy bars, accessible bakeries and the like – catering to their clienteles’ special tastes, as they do today, though now favoring Latino priorities. North Avenue was not a social or ethnic divider, but rather the street deferred to the neighborhood rather than neighbors deferring to commerce or street traffic.
The skilled laboring component that prevailed between 1910 and 1930 sustained regular employment at family support scales. The new houses of the neighborhood became opportunities, often for individuals who had first resided elsewhere in the city. Their work at solid pay scales, many union-supported, meant eventually home ownership of single-family residences rather than the multiple family, rental options in the Elizabethport area. Homeownership, skilled work and family routines (especially married couples that united different ethnic traditions) enabled many North Avenue residents to subordinate nationalist biases and mythologies. They concentrated instead on the basic work and residential experiences that all their neighbors faced, whatever their original place of origins. “No one in the neighborhood,” several long-time residents testified,” was ever long out of work, even in the Depression or in the face of Singer Sewing Machine’s decline. To go on the government dole would be a source of community shame.” These self-help values endured both north and south of North Avenue in the first half of the 20th century.
DID NORTH AVENUE DIVIDE A NEIGHBORHOOD?*
COUNTRY OF ORIGINS 1930
NORTH AVENUE CORRIDOR 1930
In the post World War II period, North Avenue became one of the eastern entries to Elizabeth, substantially affected by the (1927) expansion of Spring Street into the eight lanes of Routes 1 & 9, itself a feeder to and from the NJ Turnpike(opened 1952), now (2008) the 5th most traveled U.S. highway. The airport that began so modestly in the interwar period, is now Newark International ) and includes a portion of Elizabeth city limits. Such a facility not only affects North Avenue traffic but the environment itself, especially the air quality via plane exhaust and noisy air traffic. However, even with these massive conduits of traffic, North Avenue experiences less truck commerce than many other routes for coming into the city.
More recently Jersey Gardens has created a new development, but, like the Turnpike and the Airport, they have not created accessible employment for Elizabeth residents, like earlier manufacturing establishments. Indeed there is little public discussion about the impact of these developments on the older central commercial districts of Elizabeth Avenue and Broad Avenue, where a majority of shoppers seem to be residents of adjacent neighborhoods. The modern modes of travel - auto superhighway, jet airplane - and of consumerism - the gigantic shopping mall - have replaced many walkers and may well have siphoned non-residents from Elizabeth’s core business areas, reducing outside shoppers and leaving day-to-day purchases to residents of the city. If the shopping mall and airport produce tax revenues for the city and accessible convenience, they also contribute pollution, reduce air quality and elevate noise. Inadvertently they also may well have contributed to the cohesive interaction of city residents, whose neighbors own Elizabeth Avenue stores and remain especially sensitive to their customers’ special needs.
In spite of cataclysmic events in the 20th century, North Avenue structurally remains today much as it was in 1920. Then the housing stock was new, and its solid construction has kept it durable. If the corner stores market different products, they still cater to local priorities. These corner concessions, once so attractive for providing credit - unlike the chains stores like A&P and National Foods - still continue to serve as places for meeting and talking with one’s neighbors. If there are new Latino neighbors settling in numbers in this area, there are also still families who have lived here for several generations, providing a surprising continuity in city life which is often thought to be excessively mobile.
Street traffic, especially auto congestion during rush hours, exacerbated by traffic lights out of syncopation, point to the greatest change to the neighborhood, its environment, and the experience of coming into the city. In 1900 the presence of country alternatives and manufacturing jobs within a comfortable, residential walk, are largely features of the past. However, many residents continue to walk especially in daytime and to savor walking to nearby stores as the essence of convenient city routines. Blessed Sacrament and
Madison Monroe elementary schools still provide quality education and the distinctive urban sense of “accepting” individuals unlike oneself, what one interviewee, Irene Melachrinos, characterized as a “more rounded outlook,” a value she and others attributed to their (walkable) Lafayette Jr. High School education. Backyard space and front porch conversation continue to provide flowers, garden produce and a sense of self-help and mutual solidarity that has long been a feature of this section. In one sense, the neighborhood solidarity has a collective perception that the city progresses in spite of its elected officials and national crises.
Today coming into the city via North Avenue requires a conscious transition across major 20th century thoroughfares and mass media constructions into another sense of place, one which is ordinary, accessible, familiar. So often in our present American culture, the olympic and sensational overwhelm commonplace routines. The history of North Avenue makes clear that both dimensions are part of modern life. Even more, the truly sensational part of modern life is the extraordinary endurance and necessity of neighborhood routines that create the determining value of American life and culture.
LINDA C. EPPS, CEO OF THE NEW JERSEY HISTORICAL SOCIETY AND LONGTIME ELIZABETH RESIDENT, COMMENTS ON “NORTH AVENUE: COMING INTO THE CITY”
In first grade I made an after school visit to the home of my friend, Karen Marcus. Her family lived above a grocery store they owned on Fairmont Ave. This was my first visit to a friend’s home who lived outside of Keighry Head. Fairmont Avenue was in the North End. My journey into North End was greeted by a change in landscape that might not seem much to us today. But 51 years ago the change to me was startling. I saw larger homes with front yards sitting back further from the street. There were no people of color living in North End at that time. Karen’s family was most likely one of the few Jewish family’s living in that section of town. It was a very European neighborhood with a tone much different from Keighry head. People from Keighry Head moved to North End when they were doing better. It was a move up.
As I advanced in grades at Lafayette, I became friendly with more and more schoolmates and visited more and more of their homes but it was not until Junior high that a real influx of North Enders entered my life. My friends’ network expanded. Although there were differences, there were many similarities. Our fathers worked in factories. My mother worked as did some of theirs, but, most mothers of the day were stay at home Moms. We all had a church or some kind of religious affiliation with close ties to other family members who more often than not attended the same church as we did. We were obedient in school, had hopes for a more prosperous future, loved music, and were devoted fans of I Love Lucy and American Bandstand. We were African American, Greek, German, Italian, Irish, and Polish – a bit of everything and wanting everything the American Dream promised. Yes, we believed in the dream and all its many ramifications.
In 1963, JFK was assassinated. We were in 7th grade. The fear that gripped the nation was present in North Elizabeth as well. We were dismissed early from school. I remember running home because my homeroom teacher hade me thinking that the atom bomb was going to drop at any moment. Although out of school for a few days, I regularly talked on the phone with my schoolmates. We were sad. We were confused. We needed each other to feel some sense of security. For the first time, our parents were rattled. They could offer no explanation, and they could offer little comfort. There seemed to be some kind of alien forces that were taking over the country. That’s what Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were – for whom but aliens could do what they did. Kill a president? Obviously they were both foreign invaders. Had to be. No one we knew would even dare to think of such a thing. We were somehow, at the age of 13, still very innocent.
Our masterful music teacher, Dr. Helen Grant Baker, saw our confusion and very wisely got us busy. We wrote a Cantata. The theme of the cantata was “ASK NO WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU, BUT ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY.” We performed at other schools, government offices, and churches. What was sorrow and confusion turned into productive energy. The Cantata was a mix of music and prose – all of it written by students.
I do not think we knew what we could do for our country, but that exercise of writing and performing gave us hope that there was something we could do. It helped us maintain some of our innocence with a few of our dreams intact. We were still believers in the American Dream, although it was a bit tarnished by the events that followed in that active decade of the sixties. There were civil rights demonstrations, the War in Viet Nam, introduction of drugs and hippiedom, and advancement into Battin and Jeff with their much wider than Lafayette halls and introduction to students whose Elizabeth experiences were much different than those we had in North End and Keighry Head. Somehow that our identity’s as Lafayette’s best remained and though we graduated from high school, went on to college and career, married, divorced, nurtured and buried parents, our identity still remains. We are from Lafayette.
In 2001, once again an alien force destroyed the Twin Towers of The World Trade Center. Once again, the class of 1969 – at least those who were from the North End and Keighry Head that had bonded in 1963, once again found comfort in each other – not over the phone as we had done over Kennedy, but over the Internet. On September 11th, the first email came from Pat Wojick, then Clifford Brownstein, then Nancy Trembley and Randy Dahl, and so on. We sent emails for weeks trying to sort things out.
In 2001 we also journeyed to the home of one of our former classmates in North Carolina to celebrate our collective 50th birthday. We reminisced, believe it our not, we were asked to show proof of our age at a bar, we compared notes on lives lived for better or worse. We found comfort in knowing that no matter the weight gained, the hair lost, the number of children or grandchildren or divorces, our identity as North Enders or Keighry Headers remained.
Paul Mattingly titled his remarks North Ave. Coming Into The City. He has talked about the unique character of the region in the first half of the 20th century when people walked, when phones may have been in homes, but it was via walking and visiting that communication was accomplished. My memories of North End span that era into the late 20th century when we still walked – or at least we walked more than we do today, and we still communicated in person. But the end of my early childhood witnessed the advent of the telephone as primary means of communication and bus and car as the primary means of transport to my adult years, today, when email is the preferred form of communication among my peers and where few of us have stepped foot on a public bus in decades. I do not know of any of my old schoolmates who still live in Elizabeth – Keighry Head or North End. We pass through Elizabeth. Our Coming Into the City is as a means to getting to the airport or Jersey Gardens Mall.
Our Coming Into the City may be with the speed and energy that modern technology can offer – the kind of technology that costs almost $4.00 a gallon, or the kind of technology that lets us click on a machine, type a few words and hit a send button, but our Coming Into The City is as meaningful and as heartfelt as ever. We still have the solidarity of friendship formed and cemented some 50 years ago. We are the best of products of Elizabeth, not Jacksonville, Florida, Naples, Italy, Lagos, Nigeria, or Berlin, Germany the home of our parents and grandparents; or the products of Newark, New Jersey, San Diego, Ohio, Eugene, Oregon, Cary, North Carolina, or Washington DC, our current homes. We are Elizabethans, specifically, North End Elizabethans and our City is ingrained in every fiber of our being, for we came into a city born, shaped, and molded by those factors that made for the formation of an American Culture – one of work and discipline, with a strong sense of self help, civic pride and responsibity and a need to form life long friendships.
Ask not what your country can do for you , but ask what you can do for your country? At the end of the Cantata we claim what we can do as individuals for our country, and there is the line – for we are so small in this big universe – North End, Keighry Head, two small adjoining neighborhoods in a medium sized city in a small state – for we are so small in this big universe – but we, as another pop poet said about 20 years ago, we are the world and what we model here reverberates throughout the world – proven with the Lafayette Jr. High School Class of 1966 who have representatives in all corners of the world.