Weekend Walks is our weekend column where we explore the photographic beauty of various neighborhoods through the lenses of history, architecture, and commerce.
The historic downtown area of Jersey City, like the city’s other neighborhoods, has a very distinct character. Filled with sturdy rowhomes, it’s missing the sounds that might be common in other areas — jackhammers, drills — and instead was, on a recent Friday, filled with the sounds of neighbors in a park who were trying to call to the squirrels in tall trees. In fact, two different people in Van Vorst Park were feeding the hungry critters on a recent visit.
Robert Daniels, 65, was there on a drizzly Friday, handing food to a few unusually friendly squirrels. Daniels grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, and moved here in 1990 when he got a job in New York City. Now that he’s retired, he’s planning to move out of his co-op and head to South Carolina soon. But there are things he will miss.
“I’ll miss this park,” he said, as a squirrel stood on its hind legs to be fed. “There’s no doubt about that. It’s very relaxing. I will miss the four seasons. But I’ll be on the beach.”
However, he said, the taxes are too high.
Others in the area aren’t ready to leave the state just yet. George Mercado grew up near the corner of Jersey Avenue and First Street, where he now owns Bouquets and Baskets, a flower shop that delivers for all occasions. On a recent Friday morning, the 28-year-old shop was selling Christmas trees and preparing to deliver flowers to a funeral.
Mercado said of the area, “It’s changed for the better. Years ago, you couldn’t walk around here without getting mugged. There were gangs and drugs.”
His daughter Melina, 22, who just graduated from Penn State, said, “I like going out down here. I wasn’t allowed to walk around when I was little. It’s safer. And it’s diverse. I love it. Being in Pennsylvania, I missed the diverse people and food.”
She has no lack of bars and restaurants to choose from. Nearby streets like Newark Avenue and Jersey Avenue are full of themed bars and restaurants.
A historic building up the road, at the corner of Third Street, is now occupied by Dames Coffee and its newer neighbor, a salon next door called LaKoet Deux. The salon, marked by its homey, old-fashioned decor, with fixtures and candles, opened on Tuesday, December 10. The salon’s owner has two other small businesses in Jersey City, according to stylist Elena McGuire.
The neighborhood is full of history, with alleys full of horse-stables-turned-garages between brick houses. Two massive parks at either end of Downtown — Hamilton Park between Eighth and Ninth streets and Van Vorst Park at Barrow and Montgomery streets — are bordered by dense blocks full of regal brownstones with turrets and stately steps.
The photogenic row homes of Barrow Street surround the historic Barrow Mansion, which was built by the wealthy Van Vorst family in the 1830s. Today, the mansion hosts tours, social services programs, and group 12-step meetings.
In a testament to the quirky arts community in the area, a naked mannequin was seen in a high window of a row home across the street, baring its backside toward the Barrow Mansion. Luckily, it can’t be seen from the children’s playground around the side.