Neighborhood Spotlight: Journal Square

Neighborhood Spotlight: Journal Square

Journal Square is our multicultural city center where old buildings find new energy and developers promise to stimulate activity.

Journal Square’s PATH Plaza proudly displays a 14-foot bronze statue of Jackie Robinson (pictured below). Dedicated in 1998, sculptor Susan Wagner’s tribute honors Robinson’s contributions as the first African-American professional baseball player for the Jersey City Giants, a former minor-league baseball franchise.

“When I got the call (to create the sculpture), I was flabbergasted and so honored because everyone knows who he is,” said Wagner. “I think this is one of the most significant works I’ve done, and I’m really proud of it.”

On April 18, 1946, Robinson took the plate at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium (torn down in 1985) and was booed by the crowd. A year later, he debuted on the Brooklyn Dodgers team as the first African-American major-league baseball player since the 1880s. The statue is not only a nod to history, but a representation of Journal Square’s leaps, especially those made over the past few decades.

The Journal Square of today didn’t exist until the mid-1970s, when the PATH transportation center opened.

“The Journal Square PATH is an extraordinary center. It’s the most comprehensive in Jersey City and the state. More than 8.3 million people come through Journal Square on PATH each year. This is more than Hoboken and slightly less than Newark Penn Station, which has Amtrak as well,” said Robert Antonicello, director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency. “What’s special about the station is that it has a 10-car platform. Most other stations have only eight- or nine-car platforms. It’s a brawny, vibrant PATH stop.”

The Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) commuter rail system links Journal Square to Manhattan and transports nearly 30,000 commuters through the area each day. In addition, local bus lines that stop at the Journal Square bus terminal move about 26,000 additional passengers daily. Particularly unique about these passengers is their racial and ethnic diversity.

Culturally distinct neighborhoods populate the Square. India Square, for example, is situated between John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Tonnelle Avenue on Newark Ave., and is home to the highest concentration of Asian Indians in the Western Hemisphere. In Little Manila, Filipinos own grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants. Establishments like Casa Victoria, Max’s of Manila, Fiesta Grill, and Red Ribbon Bake Shop offer specialties like kare kare, pancit, lumpia, and mango cake. Reminiscent of Italy, Puccini’s on West Side Avenue has been serving traditional Italian fare for more than 25 years.

In terms of historical landmarks, Journal Square is home to the Van Wagenen House, also known as the Apple Tree House (298 Academy Street). This landmark was built in the seventeenth century and is currently under renovation. Originally, it was one of the largest buildings in the village. As legend has it, Generals Lafayette and Washington dined in this location beneath the shade of an apple tree.

Unfortunately for history aficionados, however, just a few other buildings remain in Journal Square that hint at its past. The Labor Bank Building (26 Journal Square) is known as Jersey City’s first skyscraper. This 15-story building was completed in 1928 and designed in the Beaux Arts style by architect John T. Rowland. In 1984, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. It is currently occupied by the Trust Company of New Jersey and Provident Bank, and ranks only 23rd as compared the heights of other buildings in Jersey City.

Just two decades after the Labor Bank Building cut its ribbon, Journal Square began slipping into disrepair. In 1949, the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA) was founded with an eye on development and to preserve the Square’s vibrancy. JCRA became the city’s primary force for eliminating blight, creating opportunities, and attracting residential, commercial, and industrial real estate.

Holding fast to that mission still, the JCRA earned a grant of $125,000 in 2007 to study parking and growth in Journal Square, which is currently zoned as the only central business district in the city.

“We supplemented the $125,000 with a second grant of $110,000. The agency also added about $225,000 of its own cash,” said Antonicello, a lifelong Journal Square resident who joined the JCRA in 2006. “The plan (for development) was completed in 2008 and submitted to the city council in 2009. It was revised in 2010 so we could move forward. It’s a very unique plan that spans over 245 acres. It sets a vision for the city until 2050.”

As a part of that vision, local developers KRE (Kushner Real Estate) Group have been approved by the Planning Board to build three massive towers – ranging from 54 to 70 stories – with rental units and retail space called Journal Squared. “This is one of those transformational projects. It will be visible from as far as New Brunswick,” said Antonicello. “Half a dozen other projects are going forward now in Journal Square. For example, 87 Newkirk is a 70-unit building. Journal Square is going to start to see its own level of activity.”

87 Newkirk Street was recently acquired by Synapse Development Group who will include a multi-family project of at least 60,000 square feet in its construction plans.

“[The revitalization of Journal Square] has been a labor of love for a long time, and a lot of people have been working to make it right and put a plan in place,” said Antonicello, “It’s very easy to get seduced by the waterfront, but people began to believe what Journal Square could be…And all the neighborhoods around it began to get pulled in too.”

Surrounding neighborhoods include Bergen Square, Five Corners, The Hilltop, India Square, The Island, McGinley Square and Marion. At the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Bergen Avenue is “The Square” itself. The neighborhood covers just over one square mile and is home to nearly 24,000 residents. The population density (20,000 people per square mile) exceeds that of the whole of Jersey City (17,000 per square mile).

With these numbers as well as the pre-existing transportation infrastructure, numerous developers jumped at the opportunity to build up the neighborhood that sits only twenty minutes on the train from Manhattan.

In 2005, the former American Can Company (in the western section of Journal Square near Tonnele Avenue) began its conversion into luxury condominium lofts. In the first phase of the restoration, completed in 2007, two of the five buildings became 202 condo units and 160 parking spaces. The second phase added more than 100 residences in 2008. Currently at capacity, CanCo Lofts (50 Dey Street) is a beautiful combination of old meets new, setting a high standard for redevelopment in the area.

And this old meets new combination is exactly what Journal Square is aiming for. Take, for example, the two historic Journal Square theatres. Both The Stanley Theater (2932 John F. Kennedy Boulevard) and the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre (54 Journal Square Plaza) have undergone recent and massive efforts that aim to restore them to their former glory.

The Stanley Theater, once one of the largest movie theaters in the US, was built in the late 1920s. In 1978, economic hardship forced it closed until its purchase in 1983 as an Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Annually, more than 250,000 people attend programs at the theater. In 2013, the Jehovah’s Witnesses completed six months of renovations, which included new seating and a state-of-the-art-video system designed for American Sign Language presentations.

The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre opened only one year after The Stanley, and served the same purpose. And, like The Stanley, it was closed for financial reasons for years. Currently, however, it operates as a movie theatre once again, as well as host of special events and functions. In 2009, for example, a Geico television commercial starring the iconic Gecko was filmed in the theater’s lobby.

Colin Egan, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Loew’s, has been involved with the notable building since 1987 when it was slated to be torn down.

“I was a couple years out of school, and I was driving around Journal Square with a friend…There was the boarded-up theater, and I said ‘It’s a shame.’ My friend told me there would be a planning board meeting, and that’s how I got involved with what they called the ‘dying dinosaur,’” said Egan. “I didn’t have a film or performance background…I just thought the theater was historically, culturally, and economically important.”

Housed inside a 1920s-era brick industrial building (888 Newark Avenue) is another member of the neighborhood’s arts and culture scene, Mana Contemporary. Founded in May 2011, Mana Contemporary is a multi-use cultural venue that provides space and services for artists, collectors, curators, performers, students, and audiences. With more than one million-square-feet of space, Mana has room for more than seventy (occupied) artists’ studios, and plans for additional studio spaces are in the works.

Also nearby, The Hudson Pride Connections Center (32 Jones Street) has served the LGBTQ community since 1993. Programs and events include the Jersey City Pride Festival, transgender programming, youth groups, legal advocacy, health education, outreach services, financial assistance and social service linkages.

“The center originated out of a desire to not only work with the LGBT community but also to work with individuals who would be most impacted by HIV,” said Executive Director Jeffrey Campbell, “We’re in a somewhat low-income area and are finding parallels between economics and disease. We thought this could be a really good spot to start an organization for persons at risk for HIV.”

Another organization serving the Square is the Saint Paul Lutheran Church, one of many houses of worship. In 1906, the cornerstone of the present church building was laid. In 2008, a major renovation project created space for social service and non-profit organizations, including Sustainable JC and the Hudson County Court Appointed Special Advocates. Additionally, the Saint Paul Center for Caring is an independent non-profit organization that manages relationships with groups who use Saint Paul’s facilities and work with organizations who serve the poor, the abused, and the neglected.

Two centers of higher education, Saint Peter’s University, a private Jesuit university, and Hudson County Community College, a public community college are also helping to keep Journal Square on the rise.

Founded in 1872, Saint Peter’s is one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and maintains the goal of combining education with community service and involvement.

“One of our main ideals is ‘men and women for others.’ Part of that means that we make sure our students are involved in volunteerism from the minute they come here,” said Manager of Media Relations Angeline Boyer.

According to a community investment report published by Saint Peter’s in 2012, the university is making a significant economic impact. In fact, they contend, “It is estimated that the University’s economic impact for the fiscal year 2012…was $381,668,938” which includes their roles as “purchaser of goods and services (often from local companies), employer of more than 500 individuals and generator of highly skilled labor.”

And in March of 2012, Saint Peter’s participated in Journal Square’s development trend by opening theMac Mahon Student Center, a six-story, 90,000-square-foot facility.

“Mac Mahon is great for our internal community because it’s a great space to eat, relax, and have a cup of coffee,” said Boyer. “But we also do a lot of events for the external community. For example, the Duncan Family Sky Room is open to the public for rental. We’ve already had a number of community events and discussions there. Our goal is to bring in people from businesses in the Jersey City area to come here and see what we’re doing.”

The other college in Journal Square, Hudson County Community College (HCCC), is the eighth-largest community college in New Jersey. In 2011, HCCC graduated its largest ever group, including more than a thousand students. While buildings are spread around the neighborhood, the main campus is located at 70 Sip Avenue.

Not to be left out, HCCC is involved in the growth of Journal Square too. “In Spring of 2007, the college held the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Culinary Arts Conference Center, which includes six state-of-the-art kitchens plus dining rooms, seven “smart” classrooms, several multipurpose rooms, a library, and the Conference Center itself,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Eric Friedman. “This building is home to the college’s signature, award-winning Culinary Arts Institute and Hospitality Management programs, and the college has realized a 300% increase in the number of students since the building opened.”

And, in line with the diversity of the Square, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) awarded HCCC with the Charles Kennedy Equity Award in recognition of the diversity of the college’s student body in 2012. More than 50% of students are of Hispanic descent, 16% are African-American, 11% are Caucasian, and 8% are Asian-American/Pacific Islander. Remarkably, more than one-third of students were born outside of the United States.

“When you think about Jersey City, what gets lost is that it’s an immigrant city and has always been an immigrant city,” said Antonicello. “It’s easy to think it’s not an immigrant city when you eat and shop downtown. But that’s front and center in a place like Journal Square.”

Note: This story originally appeared in the the 2014 Winter issue of JCI Magazine.

To see the full article and photos, go to Jersey City Independent