InstaBlog Collection: Jersey City

Author's Notes: This post combines many more images & stories! Make sure to click read more!
Also: Warning—these are blog-style posts originally from social media. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

Exchange Place

Over the past few decades, Jersey City has exploded, sprouting towers far into the air which, especially from a distance, rival those of lower Manhattan. Once you are on the ground, though, it becomes clear that things are quite a bit uglier.

I began my walk through the city at Exchange Place. The PATH station is very deep due to its proximity to the water; the only way up or down is via elevator. Indeed, the station is quite reminiscent of the London Underground's deep-level tube lines.

Fun urban history fact: most of this Jersey waterfront was originally composed of railroad terminals. Before the construction of tunnels, passengers to or from New York had to change to ferries across the Hudson. This led to the neighborhood's name: streetcars, rails, and ferries all met here as the place to exchange passengers. It also, once tunnels were built and transfers were no longer required, left the land for this explosive growth.

The plaza overlooking lower Manhattan has a gorgeous view, especially at sunset, even if it is relatively bare. The surface is *still* a cornucopia of transportation options, including many bus lines and the very busy Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.

But that is where the good news ends. The explosive growth of Jersey City may have brought density, but at the street level, this might as well be a city in the Sun Belt. Streets are wide, featureless, and encourage high speed driving. The buildings offer little streetscape, just bare, windswept plazas with few details for people to latch on to. Long vistas make even short distances seem immense. There are few other people walking, and who could blame them? The only textural interest comes from the few remaining, older buildings, so tucked in between modern and featureless glass fronts that they are easy to miss.

The architecture of "Wall Street West" may look intriguing from a distance, but up close... well, let's just say this *not* how you build an urban city.

Based on an Instagram post.

Islands of Urbanity

Walking down Montgomery Street away from the waterfront and deeper into Jersey City reveals a strange environment: islands of urbanity floating in a sea of roads and parking lots.

In this part of the city, the buildings vary tremendously in age. A block of late 19th Century buildings is surrounded on all sides by modern luxury apartment towers, and behind lies 60s, 70s, and 80s Modernist buildings, each surrounded by a parking lot and empty, fenced off greenery. Normally, varied building ages are something to be celebrated, but here, it feels almost as if a bomb—the bomb of urban renewal—has gone off, carving out giant empty spaces and giant roads while leaving behind fragments of an old neighborhood.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been valiant attempts to rebuild urbanity here, however. Bus stops and bike lanes are clearly demarcated on the pavement, which is very welcome, even if the bike lanes themselves aren't protected. The old buildings have their wonderful varied fronts, and the towers built in the last 15 years or so all have retail on their ground floors, even if it is limited and oversized.

It isn't enough, however, to counteract the giant vistas across empty parking lots and the blank faces of Modernist buildings. Useless open spaces are far worse than no open space; they make everything feel cold and distant. There are people on the street, but fewer than the density of the neighborhood would suggest: this isn’t an overly pleasant place to be. Modernist urbanism was truly awful for those on the ground: it may have looked spectacular viewed from above, but it was fundamentally designed for cars, and as a walker, it shows. The small touches help improve the streetscape, but not quite by enough. There is the spark of real urbanity here; it just needs more physical support to bring it out.

Based on an Instagram post.

Victorian Masterpiece

All of the sudden, as I continued to walk inland in Jersey City, the neighborhood changed, almost as if with an audible clunk. The broad highways, glass towers, and parking lots of the 20th Century had suddenly disappeared, and, as if by magic, a 19th Century, truly urban city took their place. The contrast of this— part of Jersey City’s traditional downtown— and its modern counterpart could not have been starker.

It all began as I passed City Hall, a gorgeous Renaissance Revival/Victorian building which sits on a nicely landscaped square. The streets surrounding the square are lined with small, independent shops, which keep the area lively and active, even on a cold, late-weekday afternoon such as this. Although the economy is clearly shifting, modern “experience economy” restaurants sit next to low-rent butchers’ shops and the like, the old buildings continuing to support different rents and different uses.

Almost all of the streets running into or out of the square are narrow, human-scaled, and inviting. Three story townhouses peppered by the occasional garden create a sense of deep intimacy—soft spots where the public and private worlds meet. Sidewalks, while cracked and old, are canopied by gorgeous trees, creating comfortable, gorgeous vistas. Moving cars are few and far between.

Continuing, I found myself at Van Vorst Park—a traditional, Victorian square—and its surrounding, eponymous neighborhood. It’s hard to overstate just how beautiful the architecture here is. Individual townhouses sit next to ones built as ornate sets. Rowhouses are mixed with the occasional tenement-style building, with spaces for retail, creating a great mix. The span of architectural ages is wide: while most buildings are clearly from the end of the 19th Century, many are noticeably older, giving the streets an amazing texture.

Simply put, this is a gorgeous (and gorgeously preserved) 19th Century residential neighborhood, one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. It demonstrates the amazing power of small-scale, street-focused urbanism to create places people want to be in, neighborhoods that drive you to walk, and that in turn, drive human activity. Most New Yorkers only know the Jersey City of towers; this part is a hidden gem.

Based on an Instagram post.

Grove Street

Continuing north in Jersey City, I found myself at the surface of PATH's Grove Street station. Here, the intersection of Newark Avenue & Christopher Columbus Drive makes a small, triangular space, which has been converted to a public square. A farmers market—the Downtown Jersey City Farmers Market—was just closing up shop, and people were everywhere, especially for a cold winter's day.

It is a surprisingly pleasant place. A tall apartment building, which in another location might overpower the street, acts as a counterpoint (probably because it stands alone), making the entire square feel warm and welcoming, like a living room. Little touches like closed streets, planters, and the like made the public space feel like a *place*, a truly multifunctional social and commercial center for the city.

Turning, you find that the first block of Newark Avenue—the major shopping street in the area—has been completely pedestrianized. It’s closed off at both ends, and the street has benches, tables, planters, and decorations. There can be no doubt that this makes it a nice place, but it also demonstrates how pedestrianization is not always a panacea. While there are definitely some thriving stores, many are clearly suffering, or already out of business. At least in part, this is attributable to the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Closed or suffering stores seem to be either chains (the troubled Guitar Center or more discount-oriented ones like Fabco Shoes) or tchotchke & gift shops. The area may be stuck in a transition, where rents are rising faster than existing businesses can keep up or new ones can move in. What is surprising, however, is that the surrounding streets are thriving with newer, busy businesses, and it is hard to tell exactly why from the street.

No matter what, however, Jersey City continued to surprise. Beautiful spaces, a lot of beautiful architecture, and a lot of high-quality urban function. While clearly going through some pains, it is a busy, nice place to be, and a far cry from the windswept highways of the city's new downtown.

Based on an Instagram post.

Newark Avenue

A walk down Newark Avenue, the heart of urban Jersey City's historic downtown.

While it begins with a pedestrianized block leaving Grove Street, Newark Avenue itself continues as a normal, major urban corridor. It meanders slowly to the northeast, forming a great counterpoint to the surrounding grid. It is a wonderful street, with a mix of shops, parks, apartment buildings—a place that is still full of people on cold winter's day.

This part of Newark Avenue epitomizes the human scale. Buildings are scaled gracefully to the street, while towers in the distance form beautiful terminated vistas. Sidewalks are wide enough, and while there is far too much traffic, the street is only two lanes wide (not including parking). As the street meanders, it bends and creates many non-standard intersections, both of which keep visual interest very high. Buildings form a street wall that is far from monotonous. Varied structures, changing frontages, and a new vista every hundred feet or so make walking feel effortless. New interventions, like neckdowns, are very much appreciated, and will hopefully eventually be made permanent and turned into even more active space.

It is interesting that this stretch seems to be thriving, while the pedestrianized block seems to be struggling—the pros and cons of total pedestrianization remain hotly debatable.

With all of that, however, Jersey City is still a town cut into pieces by expressways, and you feel it as you approach what clearly feels like the end of the street, at NJ Turnpike approach to the Holland Tunnel. While the street actually continues to the Journal Square neighborhood, the streetscape peters out, making the street and neighborhood *feel* like it ends—a sad tale repeated almost everywhere that there are urban expressways.

Still, it's a deeply pleasant place, with plenty of public spaces, seating, vistas, shops, people, etc… It's a good example of what an urban environment can be.

Based on an Instagram post.

Harismus

Walking through Harismus, a residential neighborhood in Jersey City's historic downtown, very near the main shopping streets.

One of the first things you notice walking down the tree-lined streets is the tremendous variety of architecture. By American standards, Harismus is an old neighborhood, with major developing having started in the 1840s and 1850s—and in essence, it hasn't stopped changing since then. Old, wooden row houses sit next to brick apartments; mid-century low rise houses sit next to brand new, modern architecture. The mix is enthralling; this is neither a neighborhood preserved in amber, nor one built all at once, but built over time, while maintaining a clear lineage from old to new. It is history lesson in various types of local vernacular architectures. And while the 20th Century building typologies tend to be a little garage-heavy for such an urban place, the streets are still tremendously walkable (and bikeable, albeit without protected lanes).

One thing that is nice is the presence of intermittent corner stores. In more modern neighborhoods, zoning often prohibits what are wonderful community additions—amenities that not only make for shorter shopping trips for residents, but also making the streets more active and community-oriented.

Last but by no means least, at the north border of Harismus lies the Harismus Stem Embankment, aka the Sixth Street Embankment. Originally built by the Pennsylvania Railroad to bring freight to cross-river carfloats at waterfront yards (the space now taken up by Jersey City's modern towers), it has sat abandoned for years. Not only is it an unobtrusive link to Jersey City's industrial past, it seems a ready-made spot for a park exactly like the High Line. In fact, local residents have been pushing for just such a transformation, only to learn that Conrail (the current owner) could not sell the property, because their predecessors had not followed the correct abandonment procedures! This is extra humorous considering that bridges over local streets have not only been removed, but the waterfront has long since been built over, making resuming service impossible.

Hopefully these issues are worked out soon—a linear park here would be a tremendous addition to a gorgeous neighborhood.

Based on an Instagram post.

Houston on the Hudson™

While there is a lot to love in Jersey City, its relatively new, booming waterfront is truly "Houston on the Hudson"™...

From New York, you can't miss the new downtown’s booming skyline. Towers, which have seemingly appeared overnight, rival those of Lower Manhattan. Better still, these new developments are heavily transit-oriented, based around PATH and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. Finally, have we learned how to build an urban city from scratch?

Sadly, the answer is no—no way, no how, and it’s not even close. The various waterfront neighborhoods of Jersey City may be dense and tall, but they’re also ultimately car-oriented. Giant, six-lane roads prevail, encouraging drivers to treat them like the expressways they essentially are. Buildings are set back from the streets by either parking lots or useless green areas, emphasizing the vast distances and making walking feel incredibly unpleasant. Crossing the street feels like an expedition. There may be sidewalks, but there is no street life—no stores, no frontages, just blank walls, garages, and parking lots. Almost all of the “neighborhood’s” retail is inside the Newport Centre Mall—a traditional, suburban mall surrounded by endless parking. It is a truly unpleasant place, and that’s reflected by how few people are on the street. Who would want to walk here, and where would you walk to?

In the not-so-distant past, all this land was rail yards, where the various railroads from the West and South met the Hudson for people and cargo to transfer to ferries and barges. Today, with trucks, tunnels, and the like, that world is long lost—and the waterfront got a second chance at life. But instead of organic development, or even truly mixed construction, this is a neighborhood solely built by the massive capital of monolithic developers. The result is a near-dystopia of technically mixed-use, but fundamentally single-owner developments, from LeFrak's Newport to Forest City’s Hudson Exchange to Mack-Cali's Harborside—each almost their own, suburban world.

It is no way to develop a truly urban city, and demonstrates two equally important things about urbanity. One, density does not necessarily equal urbanity. And two, a diverse economic system is generally a prerequisite for urbanism to truly thrive and come alive.

Based on an Instagram post.

Warehouse District

I ended my walk through downtown Jersey City in its waterfront warehouse district, which forms a literal and metaphorical bridge between old and new Jersey City. Once, these warehouses served the massive railroads that moved people and goods via ferry to and from New York and the rest of the country. Today, they are the only part of that old world that still exists, sitting between the historic downtown and its newly-built "Houston on the Hudson" counterpart.

Like so many aging urban warehouse districts, Jersey City is trying hard to convert these buildings into galleries and artists’ studios. An artists’ district itself is not a terrible plan, although far from an original one. But it seems that the city’s plan, rather than to try and attract actual artist class, is to jump to the chic end-product; to skip the gradual money of unslumming and speed right to the cataclysmic money of redevelopment, to use Jane Jacob's terms. It is a deeply limited approach. Warehouse neighborhoods already lack texture and life, and skipping to the homogenization of wealth—no matter how cultured that wealth might be—isn't necessarily a great path for developing a truly urban environment, even if you ignore questions of equity.

However, perhaps I am only this cynical because the neighborhood is so clearly in pieces. Many blocks feel cold and empty, with decaying streets and blank walls, only to be punctuated with the occasional window into a high-class, high-cost world, highlighting the artificiality and consumerist nature of the development. It’s certainly hard to consider this entirely a bad thing—there is no one to displace from decaying warehouses—but it seems to preclude the creation of fine-grained, functional urbanism. You can't have an "instant city" where you just need to add people—cities are far more complicated than that.

One thing that is disturbing is the prevalence of raised sidewalks: almost all the redeveloped blocks have sidewalks that are raised a good 5-10 feet off the ground. I don't know why this was done, but it nearly precludes an active street life. Entrances are far and few between, require steps or ramps, and crossing streets becomes a chore. The raised walks are quaint perches once you are on them, but they seem to reserve the street for cars and trucks—ironic considering that the area's streets have almost no traffic.

To me, this is sad. This neighborhood could have been something akin to Portland, OR's Pearl District—a vibrant, truly urban neighborhood that stays that way even as prices rise. I’m not sure the city is building the bones that will lead to a sustainable, desirable neighborhood. But only time will tell!

Based on an Instagram post.

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