Elizabeth Forum 2011

Old Elizabethport: By Michael T. Simon

Special thanks need to go to our Old Elizabethport interviewees: Hassan Abdellah, Hedwig Bitow, Millie Robinson, Janet Pipala and John Simon. Thanks also to HSE staffers, Leyde Calle and Glen Lauterbach. Strategic assistance along the way was supplied by Nancy Trembley and Nancy Smith, the historical staffer at the Elizabeth Public Library. Financial support for this Elizabeth Forum came from the Infineum Corporation (via Liz Garcia) and the Emsbo-Mattingly Family Trust.

Hassan Abdellah
Hedwig Bitow
Janet Pipala
Millie Robinson
John Simon

The first European to lay eyes on “Old Elizabethport” was likely a Dutchman by the name of John Colman back in 1609. Colman was sent to explore the area known as the Achter Kol, which means “back water”, named for its location behind Staten Island. Of course Native Americans, notably the Lenape Indians, inhabited Scheychbi, the area encompassing Elizabeth, for a long time and they did not appreciate this encroachment. Legend has it that two canoes filled with Native Americans attacked the Dutch and killed Colman which prevented the Dutch from settling the area. The Dutch did, however, create a route from the point of the Achter Kol in order to travel to their settlement in Delaware. Today, we call this route Elizabeth Avenue, the oldest road in the State of New Jersey. One important inference we can draw from this historical episode is that the Arthur Kill actually determined where the city of Elizabeth would arise. Its water access was not a passive resource but rather actively shaped the boundaries and character of the city. For at least two centuries the Arthur Kill provided both food and commerce to Elizabeth. The city’s role as a transportation depot indeed has continued uninterrupted throughout its history but this continuity has not been without its own variations. This presentation seeks to explore not only “Old Elizabethport,” the city’s earliest and oldest neighborhood community, but also the broader question of how water and land have interacted differently over time in this Middle State region.


When the Elizabethtown Associates finally did settle in the area next to the Arthur Kill in 1664, they first had to step foot in “old Elizabethport”. Today, the general boundaries of the neighborhood consist of everything between Trumbull and Elizabeth Avenue, from Third Street down to the waterfront. Much like Bayway to its west, Elizabethport is industrial on Front Street and residential and commercial from First Street to its northern and western boundaries. The proximity of Elizabethport to New York and the Atlantic Ocean makes it the prime location for both intercoastal and international shipping.

Today, the Elizabeth Port is the second largest containership porton the east coast and one of the biggest in the world. In addition to shipping, this location was ideal for large manufacturers such as Singer Sewing Machine, Co., which called Elizabeth home starting in 1872. Along with several other industrial plants, Elizabethport rapidly grew in national importance and in population due to vast employment opportunities, that is, available land and a substantive influx of skilled, immigrant labor, without which American industrialization would never have occurred.

The Arthur Kill is a tidal straight, which means that itexperiences twice daily gushes of water from the Raritan Bay to the south and the Newark Bay to the north. In colonial days the Arthur Kill was ideal for fishing and gathering shellfish, especially oysters. Across the water in neighboring Manhattan, no early 19th century banquet could begin without “oyster stew,” a luxury item. The proximity to oyster beds may have had something to do with the rise of the waterside resort, the “Elizabeth Hotel,” which was accessible by steamboat from New York City.

For much of the century, the oyster industry wuld not only support Elizabeth watermen, it was a measure of water quality and was as important to community building as the 550 residents (1840) and the early Marshall Street Presbyterian Church (f 1839)].

Beginning in 1888 and continuing through the turn of the century, the Elizabeth Journal carried articles on oystermen complaints about unnecessary dredging of their beds and industrial discharge, which apparently began during the rise of large industries in the 1880s. By the 1910s pollution had become a sufficient issue that a Metropolitan Commission (instigated by NY Mayor William J. Gaynor) was organized to prevent NY Harbor from becoming “an open sewer.” But through the 1920s, in the United States Census, a number of individuals list their occupations as “oystermen.” As late as 1900 one Alfred Streep, age 36, living at 65 Little Smith Street in Elizabethport – a great uncle of actress Meryl Streep, is an Elizabeth Oysterman. This occupation experienced a serious decline by the 1930 Census when no oysterman can be found in the Elizabethport section of the census, due to the pollution from the factories, which made them unsafe to eat. Today, you shouldn’t find anyone swimming in its waters, but people do still crab and fish despite the erected signs which clearly state that eating the catch is prohibited. While it is unsafe to eat anything that comes from the bottom of the Arthur Kill, many species of birds and fish claim the salty marshes and estuaries as a natural habitat. In actual fact, the water quality has improved for migratory fish, due to the late 1960s federal environmental regulatory laws.


The number of species that takes advantage of this ecosystem, however, continues to be problematic. . During the Industrial Revolution, Elizabethport was quickly discovered as an ideal place for factories because of its location on the Arthur Kill, near waterways, existing railroads and the size of land available to store raw materials. In New York, coal, iron and lumber had to be packaged from the wharves and hauled across the city for use. These transportation delays limited the amount of raw materials a factory could use at a given time and also increased the cost.

In Elizabethport, coal from Pennsylvania came directly to Elizabeth and was basically dumped at the doors of the factories. The operable space also allowed factories to purchase raw materials in large quantities when the price was right, while competitors in New York were at the mercy of the market. 

Among the factory establishments that set up shop on the Arthur Kill Shoreline there were Eugene Munsell’s Elizabeth Stove Works, Samuel L. Moore’s Crescent (Iron) Works , Issac Worrall’s Foundry, and J. D. Heisenbuttle’s New Jersey Dry Dock Company, a ship-building establishment.

One of the key manufacturing units of this period was the Kean family’s utility production in Elizabeth of manufactured gas beginning in 1855. This industry produced manufactured gas for Elizabethtown but also commercial gas lighting which later developed into gas for residential cooking and the many manufacturing processes used in local industry. The Elizabethtown Gas company would continue producing manufactured gas from coal and oil until 1951 when natural gas became available in the northeastern United States. The Kean’s coal and oil gas manufacturing processes produced a waste product called “coal tar.”

This residual product was sold to several shoreline industries along the Arthur Kill: creosote, water proofing for ship-building, rope protection for the ships as well as street and driveway paving and roofing shingles. Coal tar was also used in chemical manufacturing. For a time the excess waste of one industry became the starting point for another manufacturing resource for Elizabeth and clarifies a pattern of industrial expansion along the Arthur Kill. This entire enterprise represented but an estimated ten percent of the Kean family fortune, which supported a New Jersey political dynasty in the US Senate and Congressional seats for decades.

But the coal tar helps explain the pattern within the different manufacturing enterprises along the Arthur Kill. Singer Manufacturing Company was perhaps the most significant factory to take advantage of Elizabethport. In 1872, Singer moved to Elizabethport and built a tremendous structure which extended from First Street down to Fifth along Trumbull. Singer placed itself right next to Central Railroad and on the portion of the Arthur Kill nearest to Newark Bay.

The plot was on 32 acres and had 800 feet of frontage on the water. Singer was by far the largest factory in Elizabeth and would gainfully employ residents of Elizabethport for over one hundred years before the factory was finally closed down in 1982.


But even before Singer, there was the Elizabeth Cordage Company, the largest manufacturer before Singer and the second largest afterward.

Their company stretched from Elizabeth Avenue to the Elizabeth River and not only was it a major employer, like, Singer later, it was a major city resource, with its adjacent park, garden and fountain. Elizabeth Cordage in the 1870s and 1880s took its city responsibilities seriously and saw itself not only as a profit-making enterprise – {Company Interior} but a city resource and civic enhancement. (Sadly in the early 1890s the Elizabeth Cordage Company burned.

The Kean family and its associates tried to resuscitate the enterprise, but the Panic of 1893 seems to have undermined these efforts.) Few of Elizabethport’s companies had Elizabeth-born owners and managers, – in 1889 Elizabeth Cordage’s General Manager Elisha M. Fulton (b 1832 in Pennsylvania) and its superintendent, Samuel Williams (b 1853 in NJ) were not – but the urban environment became a voluntary part of their leadership responsibility. 

One notable example of this breed was Pennsylvania-born but well known Elizabeth industrialist, William H. Rankin, who opened a roofing company near the Elizabeth Cordage Company on the Arthur Kill. W.H. Rankin Roofing and Sheathing Works was located on between First and South Front Street near Elizabeth Avenue. In addition to proximity to the Arthur Kill and the railroad, Rankin also received the benefit of the Elizabeth River. The factory occupied 65,844 square feet , and Rankin’s factory produced quality roofing materials that were used all across the country as well as in the developing nations in South America. 

Early on, Rankin resided nearby on 214 Elizabeth Avenue within walking distance of his factory. Indeed he had built workers’ homes on the factory property, reflecting a strong proprietary interest in key employees.

One of these employees was Meryl Streep’s great grandfather, Gottfried Streep, who in the 1880 census lived with his wife, Christina and seven children in factory housing at 68 Elizabeth Avenue. By 1910 however, William Rankin’s home is in the new (#332) Westminster Avenue section of the city, a distance from his factory. This separation of owner-home and workplace was a powerful and revolutionary shift, which clocked an increasing managerial shift from employee welfare priorities to stockholder satisfaction, one of the subtle but significant transformations of 20th century factory culture.


Being on the water brought tremendous advantages to Elizabeth industries, but one field of work that had a stronger affinity to water than any other was ship building. Lewis Nixon, a native of Virginia and a Naval Academy graduate (1882), had already made a name for himself as a battleship designer. He leased the Crescent Shipyard with Arthur Leopold Busch in 1895 (absorbing Samuel L. Moore’s Crescent Iron Works) and produced some of the finest ships the United States Navy had used up to that point: the monitor Florida, the torpedo boat O’Brien, and the cruiser Chattanooga. The shipyard was located on the Arthur Kill at the foot of Franklin Street. Nixon and Busch were seen as two of the best designers and builders of ships and sold many of their products for the United States and other allied nations. The Shipyard’s most notable achievement was building “the Holland”, named after its Irish-born inventor. This ship was the first submarine ship destroyer.

In March of 1897, Mr. Nixon successfully launched the submarine in the Arthur Kill before an elated crowd, some of whom doubted the possibility of success. Mr. Nixon proved his naysayers wrong and continued to build ships in Elizabeth until 1904. The company (with 780 employees in 1904) was later sold several times and eventually was taken over by the Bethlehem Steel Company, which incorporated in NJ (Dec 10, 1904) and operated in Elizabeth well into the 20th century, sustaining the power of the Arthur Kill on Elizabeth’s fortunes.

As industry continued to flourish in Elizabethport, the demand for workers led to an expansive population growth. The population growth was due in large part to the influx of European immigrants that came to establish a better life in the United States by finding gainful employment. The immigrants came in droves to “Old Elizabethport” and three Catholic Churches marked for them the cornerstones of both their faith and cultural impact on the community. First, St. Patrick Church founded in 1858, laid its church cornerstone in 1887. It was an Irish parish but led by the formidable (and prohibitionist) German-American, Rev. Martin Gessner.

Father Gessner permitted the Slovak community to organize a separate parish and use St Patrick’s basement. In 1895 a group of Elizabethport Lithuanians formed a small wooden church on Ripley Place, Sts. Peter and Paul.

(In the same period Italians created St Anthony’s a bit outside the Elizabethport boundary.) Then, in the early years of the 20th century the expanding Polish community petitioned the Newark Archbishop for a permanent pastor, not simply a monthly missionary.

 In 1905 a lay group – five saloon keepers and a baker – took the initiative in creating St. Adalbert Church (dedicated in 1906) as the Polish Parish and persuaded Rev. Vitus Masnicki to serve as pastor.

Masnicki successfully purchased land, bought housing for a school (originally the 1839 Congregational church), built a parish hall and a convent (once the residence of the city’s mayor, Lithuanian-American William A. M. Mack), and added multiple satellite social associations.

This expansion underscored the Polish community as the pre-eminent ethnic group in a highly diverse ethnic neighborhood. Eventually, Polish immigrants continued to grow westward towards Bayway and Linden, which necessitated the creation of St. Hedwig Church in Bayway. All of these churches still stand today; however, the number of parishioners has diminished from their original capacities. The drop in parishioners also has led to the closing of all three Catholic grammar schools of the older churches. St. Patrick High School struggles to survive but does so on the strength of its nationally ranked basketball program.

The sample for Old Elizabethport from the United States Census represents Elizabeth Avenue at the Arthur Kill and two blocks to the East and West up to Third Street. The actual specifications that were sampled for this study were : Elizabeth Avenue, #1-263, both sides, then on the East, Front, First , Second and Third Streets #1-40, Marshall and Franklin #1-260; and finally on the west, South Second Street 1-77 and Butler, Little Smith Street, then Erie, Geneva and Florida #1-77. In 1910, this sample amounted to 550 households and grew to about 680 households by 1930. The statistics also showed that in 1910, almost half of the Old Elizabethport population was born in the United States, mostly from New Jersey or New York. Fifty-five percent, however, were born in Europe. Poland had a slight advantage as the largest minority representing 15% of the “Port’s” population.



  1910 1920 1930
Unskilled 30% 41% 50%
Skilled 43% 38% 31%
Managerial 15% 12% 9%
Professional 2% 2% 1%
Unknown 9% 7% 9%


*[“Other “ had small clusters of individuals from Lithuania, Italy, Scandinavia, Hungary, et al]
  1910 1920 1930
EUROPE 55% 71% 66%
15% 44% 44%
12% 6% 5%
10% 5% 3%
9% 4% 3%
7% 5%
9% 5%* 6%*
45% 29% 34%
New Jersey
26% 18% 21%
New York
10% 7% 5%
9% 4% 8%

The English, German and Irish immigrants [Anshutz’s Ironworkers at Noon] followed close behind representing 12%, 10% and 9% respectively. In 1910, 43% of residents were categorized as skilled workers while only 30% were unskilled. This dynamic changes by 1920 as factories continue to grow and standardized corporate processes meant many skilled laborers eventually had to take “unskilled” jobs. In the Depression years and afterward, the American manufacturing establishment did not sustain economic opportunity and family wages in the 1930s the way they had at the turn of the century.

In the 1920 and 1930 Census, Polish immigrants were then by far the largest ethnic group in the “Port.” In both Censuses, the sample neighborhood consists of 44% Polish immigrants, while only 29% claim to be born on American soil. English, German and Irish immigrants decrease by more than half in these following decades, to numbers even less than a new immigrant group – the Russians.

The residents involved in unskilled occupations increase to 41% in 1920 all the way to 50% in 1930. It would then logically follow that skilled occupations fell sharply to 38% in 1920, down to 31% in 1930. The stress on downward wages and job skills set the context for labor action and strikes not only between the world wars but after World War II.

The Polish surge in the interwar years (1910 15% of our sample; 1920 and 30 40%+) was the result of both serendipity, ethnic lore and inter-ethnic interaction. In 1925 Janet Pipala’s father, who had immigrated from (the village of Bobrow Ka) Poland to Paterson’s silk mills, heard of Singer’s in his workplace. The attraction of a work upgrade (moulder), better pay and eventually homeownership (thanks to the local Jewish Savings and Loan) settled his young family at 351 Marshall Place, a two-family where they lived more than 30 years until the Turnpike displaced them.

On either side in 1925 both households were Irish, one of which – the Flynns – housed three single schoolteachers. But the neighborhood was ethnically mixed – German, Lithuanian, Scandinavian, etc.


A familiar neighborhood feature involved boarders, especially the percentage of homeowners who were widows made their homes their businesses and often had under their roofs many distinct ethnic groups represented. But Sunday church, St Adalbert’s school, homemade kielbasa, beet-stained horseradish plus the Polish deli – Urbanik’s – on Franklin and 

Third reinforced the family’s nationalist priorities. However, ethnic values did not trump, Memorial or Armistice Day parades, 4th of July fireworks in Warinanco, ball-playing in Jackson park or indeed the A&P on 4th and Elizabeth Avenue. Door-to-door hucksters – vegetables, ice, milk, scissor sharpeners, rag peddlers, etc – were a constant and presumed mothers at home. During the Depression many of these homemakers worked irregularly as house-cleaners.

Some of these patterns appeared also in Hedwig Bitow’s experience. Her father, came from Poland (the village of Gwozmica) to Elizabeth where his sister lived. He spoke no English and had to learn the language before landing a machinist job at Diehl’s, an electrical company and supplier to Singer’s. “He didn’t belong to a union; there were no unions here at that time,” Hedwig insisted. Later her husband, Joseph, belonged to the Ironworkers union but such organizations played little role in the family lore, probably because employers like Singer’s in the interwar years took nothing from employees’ pay and she was glad for the job. Hedwig worked as a secretary at Singer’s from 1935 to 1947as secretary in the payroll department. Everyone in the neighborhood walked to work. “Look down our block,”

Hedwig invited,” there are no garages because no one had a car.” Walking was so ubiquitous that car owners were looked down upon. After work she walked to Front Street, got groceries, came home and prepared supper. 

Walking was also a part of after-mass Sunday diversion: to the top of Goethals Bridge, to the repositioning of Sacred Heart Church, to the construction of St Catherine’s in Hillside and her father’s memorable commentary on gargoyles. “We walked everywhere,” Hedwig exclaimed.

The Arthur Kill was also a diversion, watching boys jumping from piers, riding the ferry boat to Staten Island – “Don’t charge me,” she pleaded to the captain, “I don’t want to get off, I just want to ride!” – and the Friday batch of oysters her father brought home (pre1932). Later ferryboat transport linked St Adalbert’s to other sodality groups and their activities, even as far as Staten Island. There was the occasional bus and train ride to connect beyond the neighborhood, but always there was walking.

The Census records indicate two major changes that the Industrial way of life impressed upon “Old Elizabethport.” The first change was environmental. Clearly the industries on the water caused pollution in the Arthur Kill as well as to the air breathed in by the residents. The Census records of 1920 and 1930 show how significant the damage was through the loss of a specific occupation. That occupation is the “oysterman.” The Arthur Kill at one time had a very rich presence of oysters. In fact, old, very thick oyster shells were discovered in the basement of the Belcher-Ogden mansion, indicating its role as a common delicacy for Elizabethans in the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1930, the oyster industry was completely decimated. Today, pollution is still too strong for oysters to thrive, however, efforts have been made to reintroduce the species back into the Arthur Kill. The reintroduction of oyster beds would help clean the polluted waters – a single, adult oyster can process one and a half gallons of water an hour clearing attendant organic matter – but they can do little about the chemical deposits that will not likely be removed or neutralized in the foreseeable future.



The second change caused by industrialization was sociological. Residents of our sample neighborhood who qualified as the “managerial class” fell from 15%, to 12% and finally to 9% from 1910 to 1930. The owners and managers were therefore moving away from densely populated area around the factories. As the population represented less and less of skilled laborers, however, employers took less responsibility for the employees’ health and welfare. With a seemingly endless flow of immigration, there also was a rising sense that anyone could be replaced, often with a cost saving. Such a shift of corporate attitude gave rise to a string of labor strikes, which historian Robert Bruno ( Labor History v. 35 (Summer 1994): 345-71) sees – in the case of the 1946 Phelps Dodge strike – as a demonstration of the multi-ethnic resilience of the Elizabethport community. In spite of manifest ethnic and cultural divides, Bruno argues, the workers’ own social routines shaped by community and shop floor interactions, created a mutually sustaining system that permitted their strike of 270 days to succeed in extracting a new contract and considerable wage gains.

In the 1930’s, many African Americans moved to North and Northeast cities to escape severe discrimination in the South and seek better jobs in factories and industrial plants. This mass movement in population is known as the “Great Migration” and Elizabethport was a beneficiary of this phenomenon. In 1930, the United States Census records several Southern Black families living in Elizabethport, living side by side with white neighbors, and generally holding jobs in skilled labor, such as a Moulder in an Iron Foundry. As time went on, Elizabethport became increasingly populated by African-Americans who took advantage of the neighborhood’s access to work, markets and shopping, recreation and most importantly, churches.

In the 1950’s Millie Robinson’s family rode the second wave of the“Great Migration” to South Second Street in Elizabethport from Newbury, South Carolina. Millie describes the neighborhood as mixed in the 1950’s, with strong representations from Southern Blacks and Polish. Although her father worked in skilled labor positions as a carpenter, Millie remembers that most men in the neighborhood worked in factories and “every family had a Singer connection” Other employers included Thomas and Betts, and Bethlehem Steel. Everyday at 5:00 p.m., factory workers would take a bus to Elizabeth Avenue where their children would excitedly be awaiting their father’s return for the evening. Millie, whose father did not work in a factory, followed her friends to this bus stop just to witness this daily joyous occasion. In the 1960’s, the factory life on Front Street seemed distant to those who lived in the “Port,” despite being merely one block away.



Unless you worked in a factory, there was no reason to travel Front Street when you could walk along First Street and visit the Mom & Pop stores and markets, much as they had been at the turn of the century.

Certainly people would walk to the pier on the water front, but Elizabeth Avenue and First, Second and Third Streets were the main thoroughfares for pedestrians. Both Millie Robinson and Hassen Abdellah recall Rex Department Store on First Street.

Millie stated that “everyone shopped there” because the store had everything you needed from shoes to any conceivable household item. One of Hassen’s favorite stores on First Street was Mo Leavey’s, which was a dream store for the city’s young athletes. If a new sneaker came out, you could safely bet it was showcased on Mo Leavey’s shelves. People would come to Mo Leavey’s on First from surrounding cities to make sure they had the right sneakers or pair of cleats.

Elizabeth Avenue and Third Street were also popular for shopping before the advent of the mall. Bakeries lined Elizabeth Avenue which also included an outdoor market, an A & P, and even a place where you could purchase live poultry. One of the most popular stores, however, was the Schwinn Bicycle Shop. This was particularly convenient for Elizabethport residents since Warinanco Park was more than just a stretch of the legs away.

Third Street contained less Mom and Pop stores than First Street, but still was very much commercial. City residents would shop for everyday items at the 5 and 10 store as well as the pharmacies on this street. There were also several restaurants between Broadway and Pine, however, the working class residents of the “Port” did not frequently dine out. In fact, Millie recalls that she did not go out to dinner with her family until after she graduated from Michigan State University.





Millie credits her educational success in large part to the Elizabeth AvenuePublic Library, although encouraging elementary schoolteachers like Mrs. Sutton at William Penn School and Mrs. Mary Hofstrand, Battin’s public speaking teacher, who would have students to her house and otherwise “took students under her wing.”

But Millie felt the Elizabethport Public Library was the most transformational institution for her – “it changed my whole life” – and went there to read through books faster than her teachers could assign them. The extensive reading at this library showed Millie worlds beyond Elizabethport and gave her the confidence to accomplish anything to which she set her mind. She and her close friend Linda Epps steered themselves more than the Elizabeth Public School system despite both being put on the “fast track.”

Unfortunately, many teachers and counselors did not encourage or give the proper attention to Millie that other white students received. Therefore, in order for her to gain confidence, she needed to supplement her education with numerous trips to the Elizabeth Avenue Public library so that she could develop the confidence and knowledge that would enable her to seek real opportunities and achieve success.

In addition to the library system, organized sports provided theopportunity for others. Hassen Abdellah spent much of his youth in Elizabethport constantly engaged in athletic competition which did shield him from discrimination. Unlike the educational setting, where an instructor can evaluate your ability with subjectivity, athletic prowess does not lend itself to willful blindness. For example, one could not deny Hassen his six points on the basis of his race when he would rush for one of his many touchdowns in PAL.

Engaging in team sports such as basketball and football: “It did not matter if you were black or white,” he claimed, “you played the game to win without thinking about what race your teammates were.” Sports had a way of making race inconsequential. Talent earned respect. There was no shortage of Athletics in Elizabethport. Eddie Grey was well known throughout the neighborhood, and the city at large, for organizing football leagues through the Police Athletic Union (PAL).

There were also basketball leagues which played at Battin High School and the Catholic School Basketball league which played games at Jefferson High School. As early as third grade, a youngster could get a pair of cleats at Mo Leavey’s, grab a glove and play in an organized baseball league at Brophy Field.

Brophy Field located off Trumbull Street, named after former Mayor Joseph Brophy (1935 – 1939), also had basketball courts where countless pick up games were played. If you could handle the competition at those courts, then you could go up South Park Street, between 7th Street and Trumbull, or to the Fulton Street playground and find more courts with players waiting on the sidelines for the next game.

Elizabethport had a great scene for sports. Many young men took part in the organized leagues to learn the right way to play and how to work as a team to win. The availability of these programs kept the youth constructively occupied and out of trouble. Out of all the major sports, basketball was synonymous with Elizabethport.



In the 1970’s Hassen recalled the creation of a summer league at George Washington School #1 that attracted some of the best players in the state of New Jersey. In fact, had the league continued to this day, Hassen believes that it could have rivaled the famed Rucker Park League that takes place every summer in Harlem. Although the program did come to an end, a man by the name of Buzzy Fox began to revitalize the high school basketball program at St. Patrick. Over the last two decades, St. Patrick has consistently been nationally ranked, including a ranking of second overall in the 2010-2011 national polls.

Second Street in Elizabethport was, and still is, mainly residential. In addition to the multifamily homes, Second Street was also the location of the Migliore Manor and the Pioneer Homes, which were built in 1940 and 1953 respectively for low-income residents. Unfortunately, the housing development quickly deteriorated and the area around the development became dangerous and ridden with crime. Millie Robinson’s grandmother lived there, but Millie’s childhood memory of Pioneer Homes was of a place with broken glass, shouting and noise, an “unsafe” place that her father insisted on driving her when she visited there in the late 1950s. This neighborhood, north of East Jersey Street, was largely populated by African-Americans and minorities while Elizabethport south of East Jersey Street would remain largely Caucasian. Another boundary line for the “Port” was created when the New Jersey Turnpike was built. Although some called for the turnpike to be built along the Arthur Kill, the industries resisted, including Singer, which threatened to leave the city if cut off from its water access. The end result was that the Turnpike would run straight through the Elizabeth, isolating the “Port” from the rest of the city and eliminating the Pipala family home among many others.

As the 1960’s wore on, the hiring at these factories was not as robust as it once was. Hassen pointed out that, although Singer closed down in 1982, the factory began its decline long before. If it was able to foresee the decline of these industries, the city might have more seriously considered the location of the Turnpike. But these were the days before “impact studies” were standard procedures for development. Nevertheless, the major employers for Elizabethport began a major exodus, causing the deterioration of the neighborhood that once strongly supported its growth. In the late 1960’s, the decline in the employment opportunities, the isolation of the African-American community in the “Port”, and the continuing presence of discrimination left residents of the neighborhood in a volatile state. Cities throughout the country were experiencing destructive race riots, including nearby Newark and Plainfield. The large population of African-Americans and minorities in Elizabethport were also angry and ready to take action against discrimination. The neighborhood was on the brink of disaster, but thankfully, there was never an outbreak of violence.

John Simon, a young Elizabeth Police Officer who walked the beat in the “Port” in the late sixties felt the palpable tension of civil unrest. An officer assigned to the walking patrol in those days was responsible for the length of either First, Second or Third Street from Trumbull all the way down to Elizabeth Avenue. Other officers also patrolled the area of Alexian Brothers Hospital on East Jersey Avenue and on Elizabeth Avenue. These thoroughfares covered a large, densely populated area where the slightest spark could have ignited a riot. Thankfully, there never was a spark.

There never was an event that would inflame the people to retaliatewith violence. John Simon credits that the absence of such a spark helped prevent riots from spreading to Elizabeth. Hassen Abdellah credits, and Simon agreed, that in large part, riots were prevented due to the leadership of religious leaders in the community and their peacekeeping volunteers.

The religious community in the “port” was diversified and vibrant. The neighborhood had three Catholic churches in St. Patrick, St. Adalbert and St. Peter and Paul, several Christian Churches including Greystone Presbyterian, Liberty Baptist (5th and Court Sts) , and also a small, but solid congregation of Sunni Muslims. As the Irish and Lithuanian populations declined after World War II, so did the attendance at St. Patrick and St. Peter and Paul. Likewise, the growth of the Polish population in Bayway caused a shift in the congregation from St. Adalbert to St. Hedwig. The other faith groups, however, did not experience this decline.


At different times Millie Robinson and her family attended different Christian churches – Liberty Baptist, Greystone Presbyterian and outside the Port Great Mt Teman AME Church – not for doctrinal reasons but because each church had a unique quality that set it apart from the others. Liberty Baptist on Fifth and Court Street was a conservative Southern Baptist Church that had an excellent choir.

The choir was so good that they would put on concerts and even toured in Europe. Other choirs from all over would come to Liberty Baptist to showcase their talents making Sunday services inspirational as well as spiritual.

Greater Mount Teman AME Church, on the other hand, did not have the same caliber choir, but was seen as more progressive than the conservative Liberty Baptist Church. Greystone Presbyterian was well known for their afterschool and summer programs.

Greystone would recruit kids from the “Port” to get involved with their programs and offered an educational and moral based alternative to the life in the streets. The Orthodox Sunni Muslim faith was lead by the Imam Hasham Jabar. The Imam stressed outreach to non-Muslims communities and nonviolent ways, which was vital in preventing a riot from taking place in Elizabeth. Although the congregation was smaller than other faiths, the Orthodox Muslims were well organized, tightly disciplined and vocal in the community.

In the late 1960’s, Elizabethport was about to encounter another dramatic shift in its demographics as it opened its doors to a new wave of immigration. In the early 1960’s, the storefronts on Elizabeth Avenue mostly had Jewish or Italian owners due to its proximity to Peterstown.

Seemingly overnight, however, those storefronts changed ownerships and began to represent the influx of Hispanic-Americans that were to embrace our city and upgrade the street. Initially, Cubans began populating the neighborhood and today every Latin American nation is properly represented in the “Port.”

Millie Robinson distinctly recalled the day in 1961 when the first Elizabeth Public School Hispanic faces – Angel and Maria – came into her elementary school classroom, the beginning of a major city transformation: “It changed all of Elizabeth,” Millie exclaimed. “It changed everything.”

The shift in population was sudden and caused those who lived and worked in the “Port” previously to adapt to them in many ways. For Millie, the impact of the Cuban migration was felt most poignantly in the Battin High School Class Presidential Election in 1969.

Millie remembers Beverly Horowitz, “one of the movers and shakers in high school,” being heavily favored, until seemingly out of nowhere, Cubana Heide Cedeno won the election. This election solidified the strong Hispanic presence in Elizabeth and made graduates change the way they reviewed yearbook pictures. 

For Officer John Simon, the Hispanic influence significantly affected the manner of patrolling the neighborhood. All of the sudden, not everyone spoke English anymore, and Frank Casas was the only Elizabeth Police Officer on the force who spoke Spanish. Officer Casas was constantly called all over the city to translate.

Today, there are officers on the Elizabeth Police force from every Hispanic nation and translation is no longer a problem. Initially, however, the influx of immigrants overwhelmed aspects of the police department, which was forced to adapt quickly in order to carry out its duty to the city’s residents.

Elizabethport is a constantly evolving neighborhood that has seen dramatic changes over the course of its history. The “Port” has survived the threats of invading British soldiers, pollution from manufactories, disruption by labor strikes, isolation caused by the Turnpike, the disappearance of factory jobs, a near miss on the race riots and a rise in crime.

The people of the neighborhood have answered each of these threats and continue to thrive as Elizabeth’s oldest, and perhaps most populated neighborhood.

The people stood up to the British at Union Square and fought for their rights as workers through labor strikes.

Fifth and Court Sts.


1969 L Battle, L Tedeschi,
Heide Cedeno, M Burton

When the sentiment called for peace, however, the religious leaders stood up and prevented riots which could have been disastrous to the city. Today, immigrants still face tough economic prospects since the closing of the major factories, but make their way up and down Elizabeth Avenue owning nearly every business on the state’s oldest road.

Though crime is still a serious issue in the “Port”, John Simon, who would later become Chief of Police in Elizabeth, sees the razing of Pioneer Homes and Migliore Manor as a strong start. With the destruction of those complexes, hundreds of new townhouses were constructed which gives “Old Elizabethport” a fresh new start. New construction can be seen throughout the neighborhood, and new immigrant groups continue to call the “Port” home.

The Arthur Kill, however, was not naturally amenable to heavy shipping and industrial use. The waterway underwent man made changes, such as dredging to make it possible for large ships to pass through. Also, the pollution caused by over a century of factory and refinery waste has caused the abutting the Arthur Kill to be dubbed the “Chemical Coast.” Not a flattering name by any stretch of the means, yet the residents of Elizabethport have benefited immensely through the employment opportunities given by these industrial plants. [Photo 63 Elizabethport Gantrys] Through all of these shifts, the Arthur Kill’s relation to the land has been a constant force, even though this relationship has changed dramatically more than once. If it was originally a natural haven and food source, by the early 19th century those features made it an attractive resort for the New York Metropolitan region. After the Civil War Elizabeth became increasingly less a source of seafood and more an industrial opportunity. If its original attractiveness was halved with the passing of the oyster and seafood trade, the city’s commercial and factory locus rose exponentially. Transportation of its manufactured products dominated.

These products were increasingly less water- related – sewing machines instead of ship-building and rope-making – as well as becoming an entrepot for railroad transport – coal, lumber as well as passengers going to Manhattan and beyond. In addition, as a first port of call for several immigration surges – Irish and German from 1840s through the 1870s, Eastern European from 1880 through the 1920s, Italians at the turn of the century, African American from 1915-35 and Latinos after 1960s – Elizabethport has produced multiple communal configurations.

At times residential groups indulged the temptation of seeing“ decline” as new groups enter, a function less of “decline” than of substantive change. Nevertheless, just as the Arthur Kill washes in and out along the coast of Elizabeth, new challenges will present themselves to Old Elizabethport, and Old Elizabethport will be ready to meet them.