As Journal Square continues to develop, the community of Bergen Square, at the corner of Bergen Avenue and Academy Street, finds itself in a prime location to reap the benefits of residual growth. The area’s most recent accomplishment was saving the Apple Tree House on Academy Street from demolition and, as a result, the Apple Tree House has become the nucleus for current and future happenings in Bergen Square.
While many Jersey City residents probably don’t know about Bergen Square, or its historical importance, there is a small group of passionate residents who make up the Bergen Square Historical Society (BSHS), a non-profit organization that resides under the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy umbrella. Only six years old, it was established when local community members met to discuss the care of Speers Cemetery on Vroom Street. Their mission is to “conduct research and educate the public in order to convey to the world Bergen Square Jersey City’s unique place in America’s history.” They’re proud of the culture and history around them and have made it their duty to try and spread awareness, and engage in local groups, to promote a future for it.
Although small right now, Bergen Square’s community is active and slowly growing. Eonta Space, originally a commercial garage, was founded in 1999 and converted into a residence and art studio by husband and wife team Steven Dworkin and Lauren Farber. The future of Bergen Square, as Steve sees it, is promising. “With the sudden surge in development in this area right next to Journal Square, it’s imperative that we use this opportunity to bring Bergen Square’s history out onto its streets. It can be the center of a thriving new community that includes long-time residents as well as newcomers. As part of this, Lauren has also opened up the art studio, Eonta Space, for JC Fridays and JCAST tours.”
Vincent Marchetto, a trustee of the Bergen Square Historical Society and one of Bergen Square’s most enthusiastic promoters has created 3D printed models of the area — one depicting Bergen Square as it exists today and the other highlighting the potential for its future. The future model shows the original square which is currently parking lots as paved over pedestrian-only spaces, the intersection as a rotary, and Peg-Leg Pete back where he belongs.
Vincent describes this future model as “taking this random urban area, and turning it into a focal point for the city.” The design was influenced by local community discussions and what resulted was an urban plan with a very Dutch feel to it – single lane roads, safe bike lanes, and a large pedestrian plaza space. In addition to this, Vincent has worked with Steven and Lauren, and Katherine Quimbayo, to develop a series of murals. The murals, manifested as tapestries, are representative of the six major cultures that lived and worked in Bergen, from the original Native Americans, to the Dutch settlers, through today.
Pastor Jon Brown, of Old Bergen Church, also plays a very active role in the community using the church as a vehicle to fuel its growth. Being the newest pastor of the oldest church in Jersey City, as he likes to say, means he has inherited a rich history and a solid foundation to keep furthering the inclusive nature the church has progressed toward. Pastor John is cautiously optimistic of Bergen Square’s future, “I am optimistic about the future of this community, but I am also realistic to know that it will not happen without hard work and commitment from all across the community.” Old Bergen Church, going from an exclusively Dutch parish at its origin to becoming a multi-cultured “federated” congregation now, is reflective of the change that the community it occupies has gone through.
The church plays a huge role in the community today, providing space for religious and secular groups to meet and serving locals with a monthly food pantry. One of their most notable projects is JC Together – where they work with their interfaith neighbors to improve Jersey City. A chapter of NJ Together, this group of congregations and non-profits work together to make improvements all across Jersey City. In addition, they host afterschool programs and an interfaith summer camp, and even converted their church buildings to be solar powered. Boasting unity, and environmentally conscious efforts, the Old Bergen Church is a great resource for the Bergen Square community to have as they continue their growth onward.
Residents stress that there are crucial themes to shaping the future in a positive way – intentional city planning, multi-cultural cooperation, recognition of historical richness, mutual accountability and support. As for the short term, they believe there are important things that can be tackled right now, like affordable housing, streetscapes, and public safety.