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Goodwin, David. Left Bank of the Hudson: Jersey City and the Artists of 111 1st Street. New York: Empire State Publishing, 2017.
By David Goodwin
Jersey City, New Jersey—growing, diverse, and dense–sits right across the Hudson River from New York City. Ravaged by deindustrialization, depopulation, and disinvestment in the postwar decades, Jersey City gradually restructured its economy and urban fabric in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Today it stands as the fastest growing municipality in New Jersey. Unfortunately, Jersey City shares a predicament with much of the Garden State: it finds itself overshadowed by its much larger neighbor. Jersey City’s culture and history often remain underappreciated and untold.
Left Bank of The Hudson: Jersey City and the Artists of 111 1st Street chronicles the history of an artist community in a former Jersey City tobacco warehouse from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s. During that period, hundreds of artists lived and worked in the building. Through this community, my book explores the relationship between artists, cities, and gentrification. Additionally, the demographic, economic, and social changes underwent by Jersey City and even the greater metropolitan region might be witnessed through the prism of 111 1st Street.
Fifteen years ago, I moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. Why? Cheap(ish) rent and the accessibility to Manhattan. I knew little beyond those bare facts about my new home. However, I hoped to change that. To develop a sense of the city—its geography, its sites, and its neighborhoods—I began riding the light rail.
On one particular ride, I noticed demolition work beginning on a massive nineteenth-century warehouse. The building sat amid a small cluster of similar structures all anchored by the decaying former powerhouse for the subway trains linking New York and New Jersey. Why was this building being torn down? Why wasn’t it being repurposed for offices, studios, apartments, or a mixture of all three? Why wasn’t the industrial character of the area being preserved? I pondered these questions for the rest of my ride. Little did I know that this building—the former P. Lorillard Tobacco Company warehouse at 111 1st Street—would capture my imagination, and that I would spend several years on and off trying to piece together its history.
A few years later, I read a short article in a local magazine about an arts community operating in 111 1st Street from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. During their first decade in the building, the artists expressed a positive outlook for their community and its place in Jersey City. However, as Jersey City slowly transformed from a stagnant urban center to a burgeoning hub in the larger New York metropolitan region, the artists’ place in 111 1st Street grew far less secure. After fighting with the property’s management and owner for several years, the artists were evicted in early 2005. 111 1st Street itself was torn down in 2007.
This made 111 1st Street even more fascinating and puzzling. The removal of artists occurred when policy leaders and politicians began looking to the creative class as one tool to reinvent or reignite stagnant local economies (admittedly, this might set off a new set of challenges). At the New York regional level, Brooklyn was solidifying its identity as the dynamic, grassroots center of the artistic class. Why wasn’t the Jersey City business and political leadership strategically working to siphon off the creative exodus from Manhattan? Why allow it all to flow to Brooklyn? Why not nurture Jersey City’s existing resources, such as 111 1st Street, in order to attract the much-desired creative class? From a simple economic perspective, the willful death of the 111 1st community made little sense.
What really happened at 111 1st Street? What was its genesis as an arts center? Who wandered through its halls? What dreams did its artists once hold for it? What events precipitated, predicted, maybe even promised its destruction? Would I be able to answer these questions? Was the story of 111 1st Street lost much like the building itself?
My primary research involved two main sources: libraries and interviews. The New Jersey Room of the Jersey City Free Public Library proved to be a rich treasure trove curated by a staff generous with suggestions. To my delight and good fortune, the collection’s vertical files were bursting with clippings, prints, material, and ephemera on the building from its long life as a tobacco factory to its final stage as an arts community. During my initial research, I read in several local publications that 111 1st Street was advertised exclusively to artists in The Village Voice in 1990. What did I discover in the library’s files? The copy for that marketing campaign.
I conducted my initial research on 111 1st Street between 2010 and 2011—five to six years after its final days as an arts community. How would I track down the artists and residents? I had no names. None. Zero. Taking a shot in the dark, I stopped at a local arts supply store (now closed) and introduced myself to the owner. After an hour-long conversation, I left with several colorful anecdotes and a list of names. I contacted each person on the list. Many responded, eager to tell their stories and share more names. Eventually, I began hearing the same details and the same names. At that point, I believed that I had stitched together the core history of 111 1st Street.
Fordham University Press published Left Bank of the Hudson in October 2017, and I turned away few opportunities to discuss my book with audiences. I talked at conferences, bookstores, public libraries, and even a retro barbershop. Readers unfamiliar with Jersey City responded to the story of 111 1st Street. A Minneapolis crowd discussed policy mechanisms that might promote artist communities. Buffalo residents could not comprehend why Jersey City failed to protect its architectural heritage. A Philadelphia audience worried that the City of Brotherly of Love might experience the same high-octane investment and development undergone by the New York region.
When I began researching and writing Left Bank of the Hudson, the concepts of gentrification and displacement largely sat within the bailiwicks of academia and radical political circles. Today’s reality is much different: many cities and even certain states (e.g., California) face a dearth of affordable housing. Both members of the working class and college-educated professionals find their living options limited in many metropolitan areas. The housing question even arose during a Democratic presidential primary debate last November. Communities fear losing their color and identity. Individuals fear losing their personal networks and homes.
Left Bank of the Hudson presents an object lesson to citizens, civic groups, policy makers, government officials, and creatives—anyone invested in maintaining the fabric of their neighborhoods and cities. In many ways, the story offers a step-by-step guide of what not to do. I hope the history of 111 1st Street inspires readers to look at their communities, discern what gives them character, and fight to save their own 111 1st Street.
Featured image (at top): Erie Railroad station and rail yard, Jersey City, New Jersey, between 1880 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
David J. Goodwin is the Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a Wertheim Study resident at the New York Public Library. Currently, he is working on a book on the author H. P. Lovecraft. He blogs at anothertownonthehudson.com and tweets @DavidJHudsonJC.
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