Elizabeth Forum 2014
Broad Street Commerce and Culture
BROAD STREET COMMERCE AND CULTURE
PAUL H. MATTINGLY
HISTORICAL SOCIETY ; ELIZABETH NJ INC
Fire Engine on Main Street
Elizabeth by E. Opper (1880)
Many thanks to our historical sources: James Guerra, William Hart, Jr., William Holzapfel, Ray Londa, William Mealia, Merritt M. Duffy.
Special thanks for strategic help go to Nancy Smith of Elizabeth Public Library, Jennifer Costa of Drake Business College, William Schroh of Liberty Hall , Alonzo Jones of Elizabeth City Hall.
Financial support for this production came from the Community Development Block Grant 2014, Elizabeth Rotary Club, an operating grant from Union County [NJ] Historic and Cultural Affairs program and gifts from several supportive individuals. We thank them heartily.
Merritt M. Duffy
William Hart, Jr.
On maps plotting the Revolutionary era, the main thoroughfare in Elizabeth NJ is Elizabeth Avenue, arguably the oldest street (then Water Street) in the state. The city of Elizabeth concentrated its buildings and homes in the Elizabethport area and traffic on Elizabeth Avenue meant farmers from the hinterland bringing their goods to market or alternatively travelers leaving the city for other sections of the state or other colonies. The actual footprint of Broad Street is faint in the 18th century, but the beginnings of commerce could be marked by some small mills and industry on the upper portions of the Elizabeth River and by taverns like William Graham’s Sign of the Unicorn (today at the corner of East Jersey and Broad) or Samuel Smith’s the Red Lion Inn on the site of today’s Elizabeth Public Library.
Here military officers of both British and American forces would settle in tenuously, until such time as the coming of the opposing party argued departure. George Washington was known to have stayed at the Red Lion Inn and his adjutants, including the later president James Monroe, were known to have feted their general here. The Red Lion Inn occupied a strategic place a good distance from the Arthur Kill and Elizabethport, which were regular targets of Tory raiders from Staten Island. The shoreline became increasingly dangerous during the war and compelled anyone seeking a greater measure of safety to move away from coastal traffic, which meant into the area we associate today with Broad Street.
With the coming of the railroad in the 1830s traffic and construction on Broad Street intensified. Still, the primary activity of Elizabeth centered on Elizabethport and the water access of the Arthur Kill. But the Elizabeth River could and did accommodate ocean-going schooners well after the Civil War, all the way up the stream to the bridge near the present-day start of the Elizabeth River walkway.
While the larger factories like the metal working and lumber factories, ship-builders and (the centerpiece of the city’s economy before the Singer Sewing Machine Company) the Elizabethport Cordage Company, preferred proximity to the Arthur Kill for bringing in material and sending out heavy finished products.
By contrast, in the Broad Avenue neighborhood there was a contrasting set of industries: custom made products like silverware, furniture, clock-making and hand-made tailoring, began to locate themselves in the Broad Street vicinity, where they had access to stage and train travelers. These patterns would persist into the late 19th century.
BROAD STREET, 1795
Also structures that argued permanence and stability in the Broad St. neighborhood would be First Presbyterian Church (f. 1783) and St John’s Episcopal Church founded in 1706. St John’s was the smaller congregation of the two and for a time used First Presbyterian, although it was stipulated by the Presbyterians that no Episcopal missionaries could read from the King James Bible during the Anglican services. The anti-British animus pervaded Elizabeth even in these early years and was sustained by the Calvinist and Quaker allegiances of the city’s residents.
In 1706, largely through the philanthropy of Col. Richard Townley, the first Episcopal Church was built. Townley, an early (1683) settler of Elizabeth, had married the widow of NJ’s founding governor, Phillip Carteret, and had been supportive of the Episcopal congregation. He encouraged the conversion of Andrew Hampton, (-1738/39) from Quakerism to Episcopalianism.
It was Hampton’s house which eventually became the parsonage of St. John’s church. Still, the larger tensions between Great Britain and the colonies kept the congregation and the pastor’s salary small , resulting in a steady succession of ministers until the 1747 appointment of Rev. Thomas B Chandler (1726-1790), a Yale graduate, best known for his Tory sympathies and his self-imposed exile to Britain for the duration of the war.
Retrospectively Rev. Chandler would be remembered as the presiding cleric at the marriage of Elizabeth Ann Seaton’s (1774-1821) parents at St. John’s (Jan 9, 1769).
In spite of Chandler’s Tory example, St John’s produced a number of distinguished patriot officers during the Revolution including General Matthias Williamson and his son, Matthias Jr., Col Edward Thomas, Cyrus and John DeHart and most notably Jonathan Dayton (1760-1824), one of the signers of the US Constitution, and who is buried in St. John’s graveyard.
During the Revolutionary War St John’s became a livery stable and storehouse for the British military, and its pews were used for firewood. Its repair took many years, and it was not until much later that the church became truly functional. In the 1820s and 1830s, with the economic advantage of the railroad among other things, the Episcopal congregation began to flourish, so much so that congregants began pressing for a new church entirely. Actually the tear-down of the old church and the disruption of the graveyard spurred a faction of the believers to break off and build further north on Broad Street Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn (1828-1903), the creator of the Gothic revival. But eventually, with the design of John Welch, a noted architect and friend of Richard Upjohn, the current Episcopal church was built in a Gothic style and dedicated in 1860. The pews would seat 1000 congregants. Its notable 135 foot tower would become a distinctive part of the city’s silhouette from that time forward, a pivotal anchor to Broad Street’s culture.
In the first half of the 20th century St John’s had a colorful rector from Virginia, Dr. Lyttleton E. Hubard (1846-1931), who had the third longest tenure at the church. He had steered the congregation thru the first and second World Wars as well as the Depression. In those years he counted on the support of the Dix family (Supt of School, Augustus, and his son Warren, a lawyer and amateur historian and owner of the Belcher Ogden mansion) as well as the Hamilton Kean family. With such supporters not only did the church begin its endowment fund but enjoyed the elegance of the church’s Tiffany windows. Sadly as its fortunes declined in the 1970s and 1980s and the Sunday faithful fell below 100 persons, the church put the Tiffany windows up for sale, forfeiting a valuable resource for the church and the city.
With the population surge associated with the Civil War, the architecture of Broad Street began to move beyond small and large residences designed in an eclectic vernacular style. The need for commercial designs, with glass exposure at the street level and storage areas above, led in the 1850s to the earliest cast-iron structures. Although not fire-proof, cast iron buildings were fire –resistant, and many NYC foundries for pre-cast sections and columns enabled merchants to go beyond the usual three story alternative, often a conversion of a single family home. Well into the 19th century many of the custom producing areas of Broad Street were family affairs, especially tailor shops, seamstresses, restaurants and groceries.
ON BROAD STREET 1889
But even into the late 19th century all manner of architectural styles could be found, as indeed one can find today examples of classical, gothic and art deco in prominent buildings.
One 1882 map of Elizabeth shows a mixture of residences and storefronts along Broad Street. Landowner names appear on public spaces that were primarily commercial. Importantly names like Sarah Winans, Amos Clark, John Kean document that landlords of Broad Street properties kept ownership of the commercial district largely in the hands of Elizabeth residents.
Sarah Winans (aged 68 in the 1880 census but has appeared in the Elizabeth federal census since 1850) seems to be renting her property to John Coffin, a 48 year old “clothier” whose entire family of five resides at 72 Broad Street, along with the family of Thomas Van Horn, a 34 year old Merchant with 3 household members. Both Coffin and Van Horn were listed as sons-in-law of Sarah Winans. Clearly here there is a space used for residence and commerce.
The ties of blood and commerce are tightly woven in such an arrangement. Not far away – at 92 Broad St – is the residence of Dr. Job Crane, where, as a 54 year old physician, he resided with his wife and four daughters plus a servant. Primarily his presence on this site was as a resident but Dr. Crane could as well have used the space as his office. Photos from the 1880s suggest many of the buildings along Broad began as residences and were converted, street-side, to commercial purposes. But clearly in the back or above the store, people continued to use their space as residences.
In this 1880s Broad Street neighborhood, landowner Charles Russ’s neighbor would be one of the city’s most prominent citizens, John Kean (1814-). In 1880., John Kean listed himself as the 66 year old Vice-President of the NJ Central Railroad.
He still lived at Ursino (now Liberty Hall) where he was born March 27, 1814. He had major interests in the National State Bank (66-70 Broad St), which he had originally incorporated and continued to serve as a director.
He also held positions at the Elizabeth Gas Company which he had founded as well as the Elizabeth Water Company, later controlled by his son, a former congressman and namesake, John Kean (1852-1914). The elder John Kean was a graduate of Princeton and studied law with NJ Governor William Pennington (1796-1862). He passed the bar but never practiced law, preferring his other ventures.
In 1880 Kean also owned Broad St property, which included Williams dry goods store. His large family connected him through their marriages with many important personages and politicians – his own son and namesake John Kean [1852-1914] was both Congressman and US Senator from NJ – and communicated the aura of power to Elizabeth’s commercial center.
Another substantial residence a few doors south of St John’s Church was the home of Robert Chetwood, whose uncle had served three turns as Elizabeth mayor in the 19th century. Robert Chetwood, a NJ native and lawyer, resided at 51 Broad St. with his wife, four children, a 64 year old “lady’s maid,” his brother Francis and three servants. Chetwood clearly intended to continue that long family tradition at the center of the city’s activities through his own generation.
Held by Kean Family
Several landlords of Broad St property do not reside on their realty but at the city’s edge on Salem Road. Amos Clark Jr (1828-1912), a Brooklyn native, came to New Jersey and immersed himself in the real estate business. He did serve a single term (1873-75) as US Congressman from NJ (3d district) but thereafter bought up land all over the city. On Broad St he owns the West Grand corner occupied by the First National Bank and the Post Office.
His fellow Salem Road neighbor, Seth Ryder owned a substantial commercial plot on the corner of Jefferson and East Jersey, the site of a large livery stable, obviously a convenient asset to the train station and any commercial ventures in need of delivery. In the 1880 census Ryder is also the Union County sheriff, and in 1882 he will combine that office with the mayoralty of the city, at the time an unpaid role. In 1880 he was also the owner of an ample residence at 655 Salem Road (replaced today by commercial buildings). He was a Vermont native but clearly committed to the well-being of Elizabeth, his property and the civic order.
Broad Street commerce at the end of the 19th century clearly mixes residence and commerce in a comfortable interaction. The presence of substantive individuals whose opinions informed the city’s policies went far to project the city’s image of progress and prosperity. Equally important the Broad Street culture stirred in the professional class with merchants large and small. Its stately banks sent a public message of order and rationality, only corroborated by St. John’s elegant, Gothic profile.
It could not have hurt to have the steepled First Presbyterian Church and Elizabeth Avenue as a cross-street providing one bookend to the Train station and railroads arches at the other end of the central commercial district. At the end of the 1880s the Elizabeth Board of Trade would produce a widely circulated publication – The City of Elizabeth New Jersey Illustrated – underscoring a comfortable modernity, not only for the commercial district but for all of Elizabeth’s attractive social, cultural and economic features.
Broad and West Grand (1889)
(Broad and West Grand)
This image of responsible leadership and forward-leaning progress would continue through the 1920s. However, the very progress and upscale imagery projected by the Board of Trade publication made Elizabeth attractive to individuals far from its borders. Like the nation generally, Elizabeth from the 1880s onward experienced a dramatic immigration of non-English-speaking foreigners. It was precisely the timing of Elizabeth’s commercial and industrial expansion – especially the 1872 construction of the Singer Sewing Machine plant on the Arthur Kill – with the immigrants providing a largely skilled labor force that insured the city’s affluence and industrial expansion in the late 19th century. Between 1870 and 1900 according to the federal census, Elizabeth’s population increased from 10, 832 to 52, 130.
But as pronounced as this immigrant influx was in other parts of the city, especially Elizabethport, the Broad St area in 1910, including the Elizabeth Train station area, was a bastion of non-immigrant residents. In the Broad Street area no ethnic or racial groups represented more than 10% of the citizenry, and all together immigrants had declined to 21% of the whole by 1930. Also of note is that the immigrants that resided in this area were from Sweden, Iceland and other non-Eastern European countries, which sent the bulk of immigrants to the Elizabethport area. Remarkably one group to maintain a small ethnic presence were the Greeks, who mostly owned restaurants, floral shops and groceries in the Broad St neighborhood.
BROAD STREET STATS – OCCUPATIONS
BROAD STREET STATS –
NATIONAL ORIGINS, 1910-1930
|*Incl France, Spain, Sweden. Iceland and only one entry from Eastern Europe (Poland)|
In 1920 Peter Demestratos, 31, owned a fruit store at 43 Broad Street and on site sheltered two boarders who worked for him at that place. He had become an established businessman, even though he had immigrated only 13 years before (1907).
In this Broad Street population 40% to 47% between 1910 and 1930 represented skilled labor: mechanics, carpenters, pipe-fitters, etc. The unskilled labor force remained below one-quarter of the total. The combined managerial and professional classes remained at almost 25% throughout the period. In 1910 remarkably (because of the few medical colleges that admitted women in these years), Josephine Burpean identified herself in the census as a 42 year old New York native who was a “Doctor of Women,” with an office on East Jersey (1141). Elsewhere in the city, as one might imagine, the managerial and professional groupings were not as high. Unskilled workers tended to list themselves as drivers, wagon masters, porters, custodians or chauffeurs, reflecting the intensive need for personal transport and commercial delivery. Several livery stables near the train station and on East Jersey also provided employment to the unskilled. But the dramatic difference for this area was that the native New Jersey residents were nearly half the Broad St homeowners in 1910, and in 1930 native American born residents would increase to 89% of the population. A large portion of that 89% consisted of persons born in the Midwest and African-Americans from the South, especially the Carolinas after the 1920s.
Most of the African-Americans formed residential niches in Washington Street, which sometime in the 1920s became Dickinson Street. There one could find black proprietors of barber shops and groceries. In the 1910 census African-American Robert Vaughn, a 51 year old “mason’s helper” from Virginia, resided at 95 Broad Street and represented a recognizable pattern of survival. He undoubtedly had mason’s skills, but his income was substantially enhanced with the aid of his wife, son and daughter-in-law helping with the eight boarders, mostly Virginia-born black females who worked as laundresses. This strategy of using boarders as an economic buttress was used not only by recent arrivals in the city but especially by widows of any race who supplemented their income with boarders and lodgers. The census category of “Own Income” (roughly 15% in each year studied) generally indicated a widow, probably the survivor of a married couple who experienced the rising number of factory accidents.
This new surge of laborers and immigrants created new and widely different expectations, particularly in providing for the sustenance of new households. In larger metropolises, say in Paris with Bon Marché and in London with Selfridge, a new kind of store appeared, the department store, which not only reorganized the jumble of a traditional dry goods store and made them into departments with a wide array of goods and prices.
Broad St., Elizabeth, NJ
A. T. Stewart’s New York City’s Marble Palace in 1846 was generally thought to serve as the prototype for the American version of the department store. Elizabeth’s Goerke/ Shopper’s Shopper’s World) The owners bought in large lots, and kept prices low; they organized goods by genres on different floors – machine-made rugs, ready-made clothing, mass-produced household items, model furniture, etc., all had their separate echelon.
Prices were set to avoid haggling, and exchanges were made without fuss. Initially cash was the only money, but gradually competitors offered credit and the rest of the stores followed suit. The concentration of goods expanded traffic for neighboring stores, (especially if they privileged custom made goods) and shopping became more than a leisurely experience.
New architecture from the 1840s with cast-iron beams – replaced by steel 1880s – meant large ground floor windows, which quickly adopted themes for different holidays and made “window shopping” an essential entertainment. The new construction also meant multiple floors, elevators and, first at Marshall Field Department Store in Chicago, escalators.
The proximity of railroads affected supply, as much as large sales affected production. Department stores quickly took their initiative and accepted the responsibility of shaping public taste and standards with constant sales and newspaper advertising. In immigrant cities the department stores were thought to provide a genteel unification and uplift of social mores.
Goerke’s Dept. Store
(2014 Shopper’s World)
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, New York native and second generation German (Leipzig) immigrant, Edmund Goerke (1889-1961) appeared in the 1920 federal census as Manager of R. J. Goerke’s 6-storey Elizabeth Department Store, named after his kinsman. The origins of the Elizabeth store (officially named the Goerke-Kirch Company of Elizabeth) are not completely clear, but likely came after the founding of its Newark store. The founder, was Rudolph J. Goerke, a New York native. In Elizabeth Edmund Goerke began supposedly as a delivery clerk in 1913, close to the time when the Elizabeth store first opened. There may have been a general dry-goods store on the site before the construction of the building known today as present day Shopper’s World.
During his Elizabeth years the Edmund Goerke family, including his immigrant mother Selma, resided in Elizabeth at 601 Union Avenue. Goerke was able keep the Elizabeth branch tightly linked to its Newark origins. His kinsman Rudolph Goerke (1868-1939) was succeeded by his own sons, Rudolph and Howard , sometime in the 1920s. Young Rudolph had interrupted his education at Princeton (Class of 1918) to join the Navy in World War I, return to finish college and join the family firm.
It was the elder Rudolph who seems to have built the Rudolph J. Goerke Company into a chain with branches in Plainfield, Asbury Park, Red Bank and Newark (which later became S. Klein) in New Jersey with a fourth branch in Stamford, Ct. In 1929 Howard Rudolph succeeded his father as President of the organization. Three years before Rudolph had acquired a controlling interest in City Stores Inc., a holding company that controlled the Goerke chain and which young Rudolph ran as its president after 1935. The Elizabeth and Newark stores had been managed with other department stores in many other cities including Philadelphia and New Orleans. In the process young Rudolph not only became president of City Stores but also extended his institutional reach with directorships of Elizabeth’s Union County Bank and of Asbury Park’s Berkeley Carteret Hotel chain which had a branch in Elizabeth.
The Elizabeth department store was a commercial mainstay of the Broad Street neighborhood for all of the 20th century and was well remembered for its large role in the city’s festive Thursday night shopping which went on into the 1970s. Earlier in the 1950s and 1960s, William Hart recalled, there was a lot of cruising on Thursday nights with gas at 15 cents a gallon. “Kids would get in their cars and cruise from the triangle at Pearl and South Broad all the way down to the Railroad arches – the divider wasn’t there at the time, so you could make a U-Turn underneath the arch – and come back down Broad St. It became a very popular thing to do to show off your new hot rod and to see who you might meet.”
Goerke’s Department Store went through a number of institutional changes and mergers after World War I. In that period as stores sought to increase their market share, they created umbrella entities and merged with competitors. Sometime in the 1960s Supermarkets General Corporation (SGC) bought the Steinbach stores (originating in Asbury Park NJ), the Howland Department Store chain of Bridgeport and Goerke’s Department Store in Elizabeth. Edmund Goerke, the longtime manager of the Elizabeth store, had been an official in the Steinbach Corporation at the time and countenanced a name change to Steinbach’s in the 1960s The proliferation of shopping malls through the late 1960s and 1970s, compelled a further set of changes, when SGC in the 1980s sold its entire holding to the Netherlands based Amcena Corporation, the owners of the NYC-based Orbach’s chain.
The new owners converted all their stores to the Steinbach nameplate, while closing the flagship Orbach’s store in Manhattan. In the late 1980s Amcena sold the chain to several companies, including the Detroit based Crowley Milner Company, which itself was liquidated in 1999. Somewhere in all these transitions Edmund Goerke became president of a multi-faceted corporate conglomerate, named City States Inc. (est. 1923) and was its president, before retiring to Monmouth Hills, NJ.
In spite of the national reach of the Steinbach corporation, Elizabeth’s store, like so many of the shops and merchants along Broad St, were Elizabeth residents. After these changes the Elizabeth department store, once Goerke’s, then Steinbach’s, became known as Shopper’s World and currently is owned by Vissal Patel.
In the 1920s Elizabeth mirrored other cities and sections of the country with its postwar economic upsurge. The economic advance could be seen in the unbroken line of commercial establishments on both sides of Elizabeth Avenue, now in effect connected to the city’s commercial center on Broad Street. This connection of old Elizabethport and the Broad Street commercial sector was made explicit by the high-rise of the 14 story Hersh building and tower (140 feet) at the corner of Broad and West Grand.
Asbury Park, NJ
The taproot of this edifice began in 1866 with the creation of C. Hersh and Sons, dry goods store on First Street in Elizabethport.
C. Hersh’s son, Edmund Hersh had expanded the business and flourished from the 1860s into the 1920s. His son, Louis F. Hersh, continued the momentum by channeling the family’s good fortune into an iconic expression of Elizabeth’s commerce and culture.
He arranged for the Newark architect, Nathan Myers (1865-1937), to design an Art Deco building worthy of the city’s aspirations.
Its outstanding public features were its striking aluminum decorating bands and cornices not to mention its handsome entrance and its 1931 cost: $1,750,000.
The architect had already established his credentials and his reputation with the extraordinary synagogue he designed for Newark’s Jewish community, B’nai Abraham on Clinton Avenue in Newark, the largest such structure in the state.
Recently he had shaped a partnership with Princeton-trained Joseph Shanley, and together they created the plan for the Hersh Tower.
Sadly Louis F. Hersh passed away in 1933, and his $4M estate went to his daughter Dorothy Hersh (1899-1979) in 1939.
The family retained control of the building until February 3, 1950, when Dorothy, still a trustee of Hersh Company, bought the Tower and became sole owner. By 1979, when Dorothy passed away, she arranged for her estate to become the center of the Dorothy Foundation, which today funds (on an $11M base) projects for special needs children including a clinic in Elizabeth, named after her, now a part of Trinitas Hospital.
First St., Elizabeth, 1889
Hersh Tower Classic Art Deco
655 East Jersey
The 14-story Hersh Tower itself has passed through several owners over the years. In the late 1977 the last Elizabeth resident to own the building was Frank Beninato (1923-2005), an Elizabeth lawyer and realtor, who, architect James Guerra recalled, took special pains to renovate the structure with sensitivity, sensing that he had bought an architectural jewel. Beninato claimed it was easy for him to recall the buildings date – 1931 – because his father was one of the laborers on it.
Among several advanced features of the building, present-day architect, James Guerra, has noted, was the building’s self-contained vacuum system, where each unit had a wall receptacle to which one attached a vacuum hose and proceeded without additional machinery.
The building also sported a fire escape system – only two of which existed in the US – in which an internal slide would pass tenants from any floor to the street swiftly in case of an emergency. Guerra’s first architectural firm enjoyed the penthouse space of Hersh Tower with its commanding 360 degree view of the New York metropolitan landscape. Raymond Londa, a longtime Elizabeth lawyer, also had space in the Hersh Tower (8th floor) and loved to recall his witness of July 4th fireworks in every direction from Hersh’s rooftops.
The Hersh clientele guaranteed a special lunch-time traffic on the sidewalks and commercial exchanges in all the stores. In 1950 six floors in the Hersh building were rented by the Standard Oil Development Company for research purposes. Through the 1970s, the building contained many professionals – architects, doctors, legal firms etc. – and sported a restaurant, Rita’s, on the second floor. However, transformations in these professions – lawyers and doctors needing larger space and greater proximity to hospitals and court house – began to move elsewhere. Sometime in the 1980s Beninato sold the property, and in 1986 the Hersh Tower Company was formed.
Toward New York City
Today the building is owned by Brooklyn realtors – Edward Wydra and his brother – who publicly predict an uptick in the city’s fortunes, but they have invested minimally themselves in the building’s upkeep. Today the second, third and seventh floors, all in excellent condition, are rented to Drake Business College (f. 1883 in Jersey City), the only tenants. One should note the lucrative revenue Hersh owners derive from its rooftop Turnpike Radio System, installed in 1950 and linking Turnpike patrol cars, accident response, road maintenance, collection stations and administrative offices into a common communication network.
The status of Hersh Tower, partly refurbished in an efficient and stylish updating, interspersed with floors in need of everything, could serve as a commentary on the status of Broad Street’s present day commerce and culture. Elizabeth citizens with long memories enthusiastically share their memories from the 1950s and 1960s of shops like Claire Angiste’s, where one entered to purchase stylish clothing.
One did not, Theresa Matloz smiled, browse through racks of dresses and coats. Rather, one sat down, explained one’s needs and waited for clerks to retrieve from the back exactly what one needed. “I bought a coat with a Persian lamb collar, “ Ceil Mantia recalled. “It had large buttons, and I wore it such a long time.” One prized any purchase from Claire Angiste. “It was right next to St John’s Church,” William Holzapfel recalled,” My mother wouldn’t go there … too expensive.”
Stylish clothes seemed to have become a mainstay associated with postwar Elizabeth. “And don’t forget Levy’s,” another long-time Broad Street observer insisted. “Everyone went to Levy’s for shoes and other articles.” Indeed, like the Hersh story, Levy’s began with a family-owned shop on Second Street in Elizabethport in 1879. Morris and Minnie Levy had built their reputation with good prices and quality goods, until Morris died in 1894. His son Emmanuel (1879-1939) left coeducational Battin High School that year to help his mother with store operations.
A few years later, when Emmanuel’s brother, Bernard, joined the operation, they changed the name to M. Levy and Sons. In 1904 they built a three story structure on the original site and lived upstairs. (When this Elizabethport store was torn down in the 1930s, it became the site of Pioneer Homes). In 1910 the Levy’s made the jump to 80 Broad Street and built a 6-story structure.
City Attorney William Holapfel recalled his required legal clerkship at 7 Broad St in the midst of a vibrant legal community and a merchant class composed largely of Elizabeth residents .
He also remarked on the several five and dime stores, across from Hersh Tower: H L Green and Woolworth. Also next door to Hersh Tower the Atlantic Restaurant , owned by relatives of Mike Pappas, … a lawyer with the firm of Pollis, Pappas and Dillon with offices in the Hersh Tower.” The combination of high-end stores and professional activity made Broad St into the 1960s “the center of commerce in Union County,” according to Elizabeth attorney, Raymond Londa.
This coveted focus provided a conduit for enthusiastically attended parades. Again Londa recalled the 1948 campaign visit of Harry S Truman, “as if it were yesterday,” coming down North Broad, underneath the arches and onto Broad Street proper, waving his hat all the way. “From that day,” Londa noted, “I have always worn a hat.” “We used to have parades on Memorial day” and other occasions, he added, “with ethnic niches that included the Polish band and Italian floats.” They would sometimes come from East Jersey to Broad and break up at City Hall.
Other times they would turn and go north under the arches. In the Truman episode, Mayor James Kirk greeted the president and enjoyed a display of fireworks all along Broad Street. An estimated 30,000 persons listened to Truman’s excoriate the Republican Party as “know-nothings, an effective political line in the 1948 campaign which was full of surprises. “It was a big moment for me,” Londa admitted. The later absence of such inclusive events seemed to him, to reflect “no feeling of community.” Whatever the inference, through the 1960s, Broad Street was a venue that centered the city’s priorities.
Several factors seem to have contributed to the break-down of these economic and social standards. In spite of the precedent mall of Menlo Park and Paramus Park in New Jersey, Elizabeth’s central business district thrived into the early 1960s. In the late 1960s the prolific rise of the suburban mall began to draw away individuals who hitherto had been willing to drive or travel by train to Broad Street stores. The 940 shopping malls that existed nationwide in the U.S. in 1957 became 17, 520 in 1976, a nineteen-fold increase in twenty years. As William Mealia has pointed out emphatically, the constricted parking spaces put a brake on travelers to downtown Elizabeth.
But maybe most of all, increasingly long-time Elizabeth residents who owned Broad Street stores began – like the Levys and their move to a large suburban building in Clifton NJ – to move away and non-resident owners developed a more indifferent pattern, cultivating bargain stores rather than the high-end custom retailing of the immediate postwar years. The presence of non-resident merchants and transient renters, one observer has commented, has resulted in a “disturbing lack of pride” in the city.
Symbolically, the old Regent Theatre on Broad Street has become a shopping arcade rather than the entertaining cinematic highpoint of a day of shopping and a delightful restaurant experience. What would it take to turn around these dynamics and bring back, if not Elizabeth’s past glory, then at least a vigorous and attractive urban usage?
One frequent suggestion for Broad St improvement began with the observation of empty spaces between Broad Street and the Elizabeth River. Many residential homes that once was either in or adjacent to the commercial district are now gone. Many towns have benefited from recent demographic shifts of younger people, indeed newly married as well as retired couples, wishing to live, not in the suburbs but in center city where they can walk to all the amenities. Jersey City and Hoboken are often mentioned as comparable, urban prototypes. For some observers, affordable housing within walking distance of Broad Street is the sine qua non of a city turnaround. Many of the current Broad Street stores have vacant floors above the street level, not even used for storage or stock. One way to alter this useless space, one observer noted, would be to change the zoning requirements, now often restricting stores from revamping their upper stories for residential use. Are there not planners and elected officials who could assist such a constructive change? William Hart, a former attorney for Elizabeth’s Community Development Advisory Board, noted that in the 1970s and 1980s, when he served several development committees, that City Hall remained largely “reactive,” seemingly reliant on the tax-paying merchants to initiate suggestions for improvements. There was no Robert Moses as in New York City or Edmund Bacon in Philadelphia , much less any elected official, to catalyze a vision of a new and improved Elizabeth.
Business District, 1950s
Some Elizabethans recall Mayor Tom Dunn’s encouragement of a Latino influx, in the late 50s and 1960s which redeveloped Elizabeth Avenue into a more vibrant commercial sector. But apparently there was – in spite of the development of a Master Plan – no means of encouraging a city-wide upgrade, an inclusive plan to make a small city great.
Only cosmetic shifts, like the facials on Elmora Avenue stores, William Mealia noted, nothing really substantial to bring back stores attractive to middle and affluent class buyers. Merritt M. Duffy, president of B. B. Miller Insurance Co on Broad St., thought the shabby appearance of Elizabeth’s Train Station – “the only station in the line that has not experienced an upgrade” – set an image in the public mind about Elizabeth dynamics. “I remind the Mayor every time I see him that this should be a priority,” she insisted. Can the Chamber of Commerce show some leadership here? “I will,” Mrs. Duffy promised, “do my best.
Attorney Holzapfel recalled the vigorous debate about the potential decline of Broad Street commerce when proposals were offered to build Jersey Gardens. Wouldn’t that entity siphon off shoppers from Broad Street? Holzapfel has noted that Jersey Gardens had been built well after the surge of shopping malls. So they were not a cause of Broad Street’s present status. Indeed the commerce remains quite active.
Shoppers are no longer Elizabethans from the Elmora section coming by bus, but the bus stops are still quite busy carrying shoppers in all directions. In addition, Jersey Gardens is difficult to access by foot from, say, Elizabethport, and bus transport is complicated, often requiring transfers and delays.
Many of Jersey Gardens shoppers seem to have come by Turnpike and car from many other towns rather than from Elizabeth itself. The issue seems to be one of working class shoppers rather than middle class shoppers, and the change of merchandise reflects this shift.
William Hart, formerly Community Development Director of Elizabeth, thinks the city, especially Elizabeth Avenue, nevertheless got lucky with its recent Latino surge. “We are vibrant because we have a new identity. These immigrants bring a new set of skills and money. We benefitted from that.”
It is likely that no one strategy or plan will accomplish the invigoration of Elizabeth’s Broad Street commerce. However, new affordable housing, substantial remodeling of both storefronts and internal layouts, a public statement via a modernized train station, inexpensive yet secure parking garages (where spaces are not pre-empted by existing schools or government) and perhaps most of all, an urban vision informed by a sense of the past, could together contain the elements of a city for all Elizabeth’s inhabitants.
Once upon a time, the remembered city of Elizabeth had a cohesive sense of itself and welcomed immigrants from far away, drawing on their skills to make a city with a difference.
In the recent past, one considers the 1930s precedent of Elizabeth Mayor Joseph Brophy (1892-1949) in building the present day City Hall and revamping not only City Hall Park but creating affordable housing and athletic fields for youth in many areas of the city.
Such initiatives, especially channeled into grass-roots voluntary organizations, combined with top-down support from City Hall, might well serve as an historical inspiration for what must be done now.