Over Columbus Day weekend, curious Jersey City citizens gathered at the newly opened First Street Park for a tour of the Italian Village, the neighborhood spanning the lower Western side of Downtown. The tour, which was organized by Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, highlighted the previously prominent (and still present) Italian community of the late-19th century.
From Casa Columbo, to Brunswick Street between First and Tenth Streets (dubbed “Bushel Ave,” due to the rows of fruit and vegetable merchants), to the Holy Rosary Church on Sixth Street, the history of the Village is culturally and architecturally significant today. Read on for the highlights.
First Street Park (390 First Street)
Eight years in the making, the modern park, opened April 2016, is a significant mark in the Village rebirth. The “vest-pocket park,” had been closed since 1984 when the chain links were locked, and it suffered irreparable damage due to vandalism and abandonment. Deteriorated, it sat as an eyesore for 30 years until the Village Neighborhood Association (VNA), determined to reclaim the park, began planning and getting funding through donations and then the City. The park’s design was completed by the Brooklyn design-build firm, Future Green Studio, whose imaginative rendering, using recycled and sustainable materials, was chosen out of four competitors in a design competition.
361 First Street + 367 First Street
This First Street house is 11,000 square feet and has a 1,200-square-foot roof deck and an indoor pool and a wine cellar. It has six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a white jade staircase, and was converted from a former meat smoking factory. The home was on display on Open House NYC and has been rented for theatrical uses.
A few doors down sits a modern, just-built property of the owners. Formerly a tenement building which burned down and sat as an empty lot, building here was an opportunity to utilize steel, making it more energy-efficient.
“Columbus House,” is a community center built in 1936 by Italian immigrant craftsmen, as an organizational place to meet and social center for Italians who settled in Jersey City. Architecturally, the exterior has gone virtually untouched.
Now home to CCAC (Center for the Arts at Casa Colombo), Heritage Hall on the third floor houses artifacts brought to America by Italians. On display is a typical Italian bedroom in the 1920s-30s, with a bed donated by the Bishop of Brooklyn (it was his parent’s).
Outfitted with a sewing machine, a wood-burning stove/heater for boiling and linens, it is a sampling of living at the time. The Educational and Cultural center also holds lectures and Italian educational classes.
Second Street Bakery and Antique/Pecoraro Bakery
The Second Street Bakery is widely popular for their specialty— sandwiches on crusty Italian loaves made in a coal-fired brick oven which the grandparents of the owner, Gino Siniscalchi, used when they operated it in the 1920s. Now, Gino and his mother run it.
The Pecoraro bakery, a signature old-school downtown spot known for its stuffed breads, and now bought by Hoboken’s Antique Bakery, is also flocked to for its signature brick-oven bread made in an oven that’s served generations, and which they’ll slice for you in an antique-y machine.
Mural Site at Conte School #5 (Colgate and Third)
The mural on the side of Public School # 5 (182 Merseles Street) was painted on August 14, 1945, the day World War II ended, as a tribute to those who fought in the war and serves to honor veterans today. Over time, memorials for the Korea and Vietnam Wars were also added to the mural. It was painted by Andrew Guzzi, Jr., Anthony Coiffi, Jr., and Paul Maiellaro. Paul, a Korean War vet, continues to watch over the memorial and restore it as needed.
295 Newark Ave
Look closely at the Art Deco building commanding a triangular lot on the corner of Newark Avenue near Third and Brunswick and you’d wonder what it is, was and will be. Built in 1929, it was formerly a bank, then a became a police station. Now it houses office space (some of which is available). The interior features a lofty, marble foyer, glass details on the floors, high ceilings, two-story windows and wrought iron along the exterior windows.
Once a railroad for livestock, The Embankment is a segmented stone structure spanning six blocks parallel to Sixth Street. As part of the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad freight-way, the landmark played a key role in the development of the Port of New York and New Jersey. The Embankment, on the State Register of Historic Places, now finds itself in a familiar predicament: preservationists envision it as a habitat-oriented linear park, part of the East Coast Greenway Maine-to-Florida trail, and for potential light rail service, while developers have their eyes on it for building. For more information on preserving The Embankment and to sign a grassroots petition, head to: www.embankment.org
Holy Rosary Church
Founded in 1885, Holy Rosary Church is the oldest Italian Roman Catholic Church in the state of New Jersey. Located on Sixth Street, it was a center of life for a burgeoning Italian community at the turn of the century. With a congregation beginning to number ten thousand and increasing rapidly, an expansion was completed and designed by Italian architect Eugene Ciccarelli in 1902. The exterior incorporates Greek, Byzantine and Roman architecture. The church still holds Latin Masses, and is known for its beautiful stained glass and statues inside. A relatively new small exterior garden completes the grounds.