For decades, Orange’s Valley neighborhood was known nationwide for one product: hats. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this small community in Essex County was the heart of the country’s hat manufacturing industry, with corporations such as F. Berg & Company maintaining factories along the city streets in the shadow of the First Watchung Mountain near the railroad tracks.
“110 years ago, this area was known as the hatmaking capital of the world,” explained Patrick Morrissy, the founder of Housing and Neighborhood Development Services, Inc. (HANDS). “There were 34 hatting factories in a 20-block neighborhood.”
Although today, this part of Orange is referred to as the Valley Arts District and has a far smaller industrial presence than it had a century ago, plenty of remnants from the area’s past can be found.
One of the structures in the Valley that was leftover from the Second Industrial Revolution is the F. Berg & Company hat factory, which still stands at the corner of Nassau and South Jefferson Streets. However, after sitting abandoned for decades just two blocks from the Highland Avenue Train Station, the massive seven-story complex is now being utilized again, but for a far different purpose than it was originally intended. Below the words “F. Berg & Co.” that remain inscribed atop the main structure, dozens of residents are living inside the edifice, which is now known as Hat City Lofts.
Last Thursday, after several years of planning and construction, politicians and community members joined leaders of corporations and nonprofits to cut the ribbon on the $10.7 million adaptive reuse project.
“The city of Orange has always been a wonderful community full of talented people,” said U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne, Jr. “The Hat City Lofts and the Valley Arts District are a testament to Orange’s forward thinking community leaders.”
The project, which includes 32 condominiums along with 10 studio spaces, was developed by HANDS, a 32-year-old organization that is based in the city. It was completed with the assistance of New Brunswick-based New Jersey Community Capital, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with multiple additional partners.
Jersey Digs was given a look inside the finished structure following the opening ceremony. The units in the development range from 780 to 1,215 square feet and are a mixture of one and two bedroom units. Most of the condominiums are designated as “affordable” housing, according to HANDS, but all 32 units have already been sold.
The redevelopment of the Berg hat factory comes as other structures are being built or adaptively reused in the Oranges. For instance, construction was recently completed in the Valley on the Harvard Printing Apartments while the former Edison Battery Company complex in West Orange was just converted into the Edison Lofts mixed-use project. However, the Hat City Lofts project is one of only a few to be directed by a nonprofit developer.
“We will fail if we do not work to make sure that the people who are already in this neighborhood who have been here for decades do not, in fact, benefit in their own lives from what it is that we’re trying to do here collectively,” Elliott Lee, the chair of HANDS’ Board of Directors and a new resident of Hat City Lofts, stressed to the audience. “We will hold ourselves to making sure that it is not just a place…to live for ourselves personally, but that this becomes, in fact, an engine for change for everyone in this neighborhood.”