Weekend Walks: Jersey City Heights, An Urban Enclave

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Weekend Walks is our weekend column where we explore the photographic beauty of various neighborhoods through the lenses of history, architecture, and commerce.

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A wide array of architectural styles and colors can be found in Jersey City Heights. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

When a neighborhood becomes popular and trendy, how does one prevent it from also becoming so crowded that its character changes completely? Often by the time politicians and the general public realize an area is getting attention, it’s too late to stop the transformation. But somehow Jersey City Heights — the community atop the Palisades overlooking Hoboken — has managed to maintain its neighborhood feel, with historic houses, tree-lined streets, and art festivals among newer eateries and bars.


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Many of the streets in Jersey City Heights have a neighborhood feel, with porches, wind chimes, and occasionally lawn ornaments. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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You know a restaurant is hip when it barely needs a sign. This is Corto on Palisade Avenue in Jersey City Heights. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

“Heaven on earth!” shouted resident Betsy Hamilton, a senior citizen, from the porch of her Ogden Avenue home on a recent Friday afternoon, when asked what she thinks of the neighborhood. She moved here with her family in 2003. “It’s a wonderful place for families,” she said, adding hastily, “And dog owners.” Her little black dog, Bean, pranced on the sidewalk, seemingly agreeing.

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A small park on Odgen Avenue in Jersey City Heights. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

“People said to us, you’re crazy to open a coffee shop here,” said Travas Clifton, a few blocks away, as he brought supplies to his popular coffee shop, Modcup on Palisade Avenue, across the street from scenic Riverview-Fisk Park. He opened the shop in 2014. Besides its coffee, the cafe is known for its refusal to give out a wifi password, an effort to keep customers chatting instead of staring at their devices.


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Modcup coffee in Jersey City Heights, across from scenic Riverview-Fisk Park, has become a place for neighbors to meet and chat. Owner Travas Clifton (pictured) stopped by with supplies on a recent Friday. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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The pink neon sign in the window of Modcup coffee, located across the street from Riverview-Fisk Park in Jersey City Heights, promises “Caffeine and Dreams.” Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Some worry about rising prices in the Heights — older single-family homes have sold this year for nearly $1 million — but they’re still glad to be here.

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Tiny house — This house at 66 Webster Avenue may be one of the smallest detached homes in Jersey City Heights. Zillow says, “This home last sold for $30,000 in July 1982. The Zestimate for this house is $515,002.” An old “Blue Book of American Shipping” found online indicates that it once belonged to a George Van Wagner. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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Much of the old housing stock in Jersey City Heights has been preserved. And because it’s increased in value, quite a lot of it is for sale or rent. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

“When I moved here [in 2010],” said resident William Spencer, a photographer who’s making a documentary about diners, “there wasn’t one shop where you could go sit down and have a cup of coffee. There wasn’t a cool place to eat lunch. It was pre-gentrified. But if people tell the secret, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, the secret’s over. There are too many people.”

Still, he says he’s made friends and expanded his worldview just by sitting in Modcup and other nearby shops. “There’s an arts scene,” he said, “there’s an LGBT community. I’ve heard every kind of political view.” (Modcup is in an area known as the Riverview Arts District.)

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The Fox and Crow, a popular bar/restaurant in Jersey City Heights’ Riverview Arts District, looks like a work of art itself. It hosts live music, a “Backroom Broadsides” poetry and spoken word series, and other events. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Clifton said that the newer business owners and artists are “risk takers” who don’t just conform to trends, and are more creative with their offerings.

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Holland Street, a Belgian block road near Riverview-Fisk Park in The Heights, is home to the Vault Allure festival/performance art series each summer. The building next to it has been renovated into a new residential project with a day care/school on the ground floor. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

While The Heights does have several larger residential projects underway and completed — such as Laidlaw Lofts, an adaptive reuse of an old laundry business that served cruise liners — those developments aren’t as common a sight as the smaller home rehabs. On weekdays, the sounds of power tools pierce the quiet and demolition dumpsters line the streets. (At one point, the mayor instituted a temporary demolition ban that received pushback.)

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Demolition dumpsters are a common sight in Jersey City Heights, where old homes are being restored. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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Many Victorian and Edwardian homes have been preserved in Jersey City Heights, and if you wander around enough, you’ll even find some from colonial times. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

“This is a nice quiet spot,” noted a nanny who was watching a toddler in tiny Janet Moore Park, a playground at the end of Ogden Avenue near a public garden and giant wall mural. “The people that come into the park are very nice. We’ve made friends with everybody.” She and a resident who just moved there, who was watching her neighbor’s child, agreed there were downsides to the area too — it’s hard to keep a car, for instance. But they liked the ease of the commute. (Residents can use the “100 Steps,” buses, or the Ninth Street light rail elevator to get down the hill to Hoboken’s train stops.)

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Historic houses abound in Jersey City Heights. This brick house sits on the corner of Ogden Avenue. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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This mural, painted by graffiti artist Gaia, can be seen from a garden on Odgen Avenue. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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The view — Pedestrians can climb between Jersey City Heights and Hoboken by using the “100 Steps.” The steps are two blocks from Hoboken’s Second Street light rail station. Background: lower Manhattan skyline. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Evidence of the neighborhood’s artsy feel is everywhere — on a bright red house with its own name on a sign, it’s called Rouge, and another house nearby that has a distinctive hand-painted door.

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This house in Jersey City Heights has a sign in front saying Rouge. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.
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Jersey City has become known for its commissioned murals. This bulldog keeps watch at the corner of Webster Avenue and Ravine Drive in The Heights. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

“It’s pretty quiet here,” said recent widower Larry Mason, 71, who was standing in the street outside his daughter’s house on historic Webster Avenue. After he lost his wife in January, he moved from a South Jersey retirement community to live with his daughter, son-in-law, and his teenage grandson. “I walk up and down the street,” he said, adding a warning about a passing feline: “Just don’t pet that cat.”

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Street art is everywhere in Jersey City Heights, not just in the form of the murals commissioned by the city. This content kitty can be seen on Palisade Avenue. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Webster Avenue is one of many streets whose turn-of-the-century homes feature hand-painted numbers on their doors and intricate roofs. Several houses in the area are leftover from the 1800s and even the 1700s, with stables-turned-garages nearby.

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A corner of a building on Franklin Street in Jersey City Heights. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Among them is the 1742 house of one of the founders of the colony of Pavonia, in New Netherland, of which The Heights was part. The Van Vorst family built the stone house at 531 Palisade Avenue, and it still stands today (see photo).

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The Van Vorst House, a stone house on Palisade Avenue, was built in 1742. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

It was in 1852 that what is now The Heights section was incorporated as the town of Hudson City. Later, in 1873, it merged with several communities to become part of Jersey City.

Over the years, The Heights has served as a home to bankers, members of the shipping industry, and veterans. Pershing Field, a 13.5-acre park in The Heights, was built on a former World War I military training ground.

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Jersey City Heights was home to several companies serving the maritime industry, including this ship repair factory on Fleet Street. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

The area is bounded by busy Route 139 and several highways that separate it from Journal Square to the south. That section of The Heights contains Christ Hospital, which opened in 1872, and nearby historic structures and old businesses.

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Jersey City Heights is bounded on the south by several highways separating it from Journal Square. Seen in the distance: the city skyline. The ghost sign near the top of the building on the left is for a Cadillac dealership. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

The northern end of town borders Union City. Near the western slope are several busy business corridors, such as Central Avenue, with its popular family-run businesses like the Andrea Salumeria deli.

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Fans of older businesses and signs should head to Jersey City Heights. Pictured: The corner of Webster Avenue and Prospect Street. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Several of the older establishments have survived even with competition from the newer businesses — and in some areas, that’s a lot of competition. On Franklin Street, a short walk from the 100 Steps, several small eateries have opened, including the Froth on Franklin coffee shop, which sometimes hosts spoken word performances. Just a block away is the new Green Pear Café.

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The Froth on Franklin coffee shop in Jersey City Heights provides space to work and a cozy corner to rest. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

That neighborhood recently saw the opening of The Franklin, owned by Union City chef Jaime Ramirez, who always dreamed of owning his own restaurant.

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The Ramirez family (pictured in background) prepares for lunchtime customers in their new restaurant The Franklin, a longtime dream of Chef Jaime Ramirez. Photo by Caren Lissner/Jersey Digs.

Mauro “Moe” Mazzilli, who has run the Moe’s Bait and Tackle fishing supply shop out of a garage near Palisade Avenue and South Street since 1970, recently put his three plots of land up for sale for $2.3 million. He plans to retire to Pennsylvania in the near future. But he thinks the changes in the community have been positive.

“It’s all for the better,” he said. “This was always a decent neighborhood.”

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I believe the Heights is more than just Palisades and Ogden avenues. This ‘tour’ didn’t go very far. Obviously done on the limited view of a gentrifier. And that is not and a view of Manhattan, it’s downtown Jersey City.

  2. the hipsters are so desperately trying to invade the Heights. hope they are open to learning Spanish as well as eating Indian curry. it’s that what makes JC beautiful, not the transplants from other states.

  3. I’ve been away from Jersey City a long time. I so enjoyed this article and all the photos. Thank you. I really need to take a trip back home.

  4. I used to walk home from dickinson high school along palisade ave in the late 70’s, and it was a rough place, for sale signs all around. I would walk up to paterson plank road, cut through washington park, to central ave. What a difference 40 years makes, for the better!

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