The Village Guide: 1979
The Village Resurgence (“Risorgimento”) Program consisting of community murals, storefront designs, displays, street graphics, the Village Guide, posters, and promotion has been made possible through support, grants and cooperation from VITA (Village Italian Americans Take Action); the City of Jersey City, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many Village residents and merchants.
The publications of this Village Guide has been made possible through a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to VITA with matching support from the City of Jersey City.
This Guide was researched, written, photographed and edited by Urban Planner Jack R. Stokvis with the Graphic Design, Cover and Layout by Martin Holloway, and does not necessarily represent the vies or endorsement of VITA, the City of Jersey City, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, or any other group.
BENVENUTO! Welcome to Jersey City’s “Little Italy” – the Italian Village. Walk into this compact 20 block neighborhood and you are in a tiny Italian town. Behind the brick and frame storefronts lies another time, another place – a special place. Here they still do things the old way providing high quality goods, specialty items, reasonable prices and friendly service.
There are more than 150 food markets specialty stores, taverns and restaurants in the downtown Village Neighborhood. There are Italian bread bakeries using 50-year-old coal-fired brick ovens, fresh produce markets, Italian butcher shops, tiny grocery stores, live poultry markets, pastry shops, dairy and cheese stores. There are also clam bars, a fresh coffee and tea store, a spice shop, New Jersey’s only wine-making supply house, a 120-year-old hat factory, neighborhood taverns, restaurants featuring homemade pasta, and many more. Prices generally run 20-50 percent below those in New York City and New Jersey shopping malls.
The Village attracts shoppers from as far away as Connecticut and South Jersey. It has become Jersey City’s prime tourist attraction.
Three years ago, the Village was disintegrating and dying. Today, a resurgence of pride and activity – the “Risorgimento” – has brought the Village back to life.
At the turn of the century, the Village pulsed with life. Men played bocci on side lots. Mamas called out open widows to children. Brunswick Street, the main shopping street, was nicknamed “Bushel Avenue” because of it’s many pushcart peddlers and outdoor produce stands. People came from all over the city to buy fresh, high quality goods at low prices and the sidewalks were often so crowded that strollers were forced into the streets.
Many Italian immigrants settled in Jersey City, literally a stone’s throw from Ellis Island, and worked on the construction of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (now PATH subway) or the large construction companies building Jersey City, Hudson County, and New York City.
For the immigrants, the Roman Catholic Church was the focal point of their religious and social life. In 1885, they founded Holy Rosary Church at 344 Sixth Street. As the congregation grew, a new church building was constructed in 1903, enlarged again in 1927, and Holy Rosary School was started in 1909. Religious festivals, processions, and feasts were regular events.
Businesses flourished, families grew, the church expanded, and the area thrived during the first half of the 20th century.
Starting in the 1950s and accelerating into the 1960s, the Village, like most old city neighborhoods across America, underwent a slow and painful decline. The construction of a new Ferris High School, Public School 9, and the New Jersey Turnpike Extension destroyed large sections of the neighborhood and tore at the heart and soul of the compact and closely knit community. This “urban renewal” created turmoil in the Village, hastened the already growing exodus to the suburbs, and placed new strains on the rest of the Village.
In 1967, the closing of the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal on Johnston Avenue and the discontinuance of the Brunswick Street crosstown bus drastically reduced the number of shoppers and sounded a death knell to the Village. More stores left for other areas or went out of business.
In this time of need – rather than banding more tightly to survive – political divisions, jealousies, and frustrations caused the neighborhood to fragment. People stopped talking and started fighting. The Friendly Merchants of Jersey City, a businessman’s organization which only a few years earlier had built the Columbus Triangle Monument at Newark Avenue, Monmouth Street and Second Street suddenly disbanded. Without a unifying merchants association and strong local leadership, the once tightly knit neighborhood unravelled.
With more divisiveness and fewer shoppers, family-run businesses which had worked hard for two and three generations to build up a loyal trade, now couldn’t be sold. When they finally closed, often the vacant store front couldn’t even be rented.
Slowly people lost faith in the area and the “American Dream.” As recently as 1975, one pastry shop, three Italian butcher shops, two grocery stores, and six other small ” mom and pop” stores closed forever.
The decline spread rapidly as storefronts were vacated along Brunswick Street and Newark Avenue. First Street’s “Restaurant Row” literally started to burn up. The surviving restaurants either moved out Newark Avenue or closed. Elderly residents and shopkeepers spoke in the past tense remembering the Village’s good old days, when describing current conditions. Young people and families moved away. Holy Rosary School, once bursting with more than 600 pupils, declined to less than 250 students. Vandalism increased and many shop owners installed metal grates to protect their stores. Maintenance declined, and people continually complained about “City Hall” and social problems. Many who stayed did so because they could not afford to leave.
Decay was evident everywhere. Paint peeled on the doors and window frames of the old wooden buildings, some of which were faced with cracked fake-brick or aluminum siding. Buildings mysteriously burned and their charred timbers remained as a reminder of the troubled times. There were still specialty shops, but fewer people came to the Village to buy. Yet despite these changes, the Village still retained elements which made it one of the few unique places in Jersey City.
During the fall of 1974, three young, enthusiastic men – a high school teacher, a college art professor, and an urban planner – decided to try to counteract the decline of the Village neighborhood. Their task was to help renew self-respect and pride, and to attract new business to the area.
Tony Nicodemo, the high school teacher, was born and raised on Second Street in the Village. He still lived there and was dedicated to his neighborhood. As Executive Director of VITA (Village Italian Americans Take Action), a nonprofit, community oriented service organization, he pledged his organization’s help.
Martin Holloway, the graphic designer and art professor at Kean College in Union, New Jersey, became fascinated by the neighborhood and intrigued by the “risorgimento” concept. He adopted it as official college art project.
Jack R. Stokvis, the urban planner worked for the Jersey City office of Planning. He was attracted to the Village by the Brunswick Street product markets and became friendly with all the merchants. What enchanted them was the Village’s special meaning for all of Jersey City’s ethnic groups as a reminder of the City’s diverse heritage and as a symbol of people who through hard work, quality products, reasonable prices, and friendship, ad created unique neighborhoods.
The concept of revitalization gained an official name: “risorgimento” – Italian for resurgence.
Through a combination of many small self-reinforcing action projects such as planting colorful flower boxes and painting colorful community murals on ugly walls, they hoped to bring renewed neighborhood pride and confidence to the community. In addition, by improving the outward appearance of the Village with graphic designs and street improvements, they hoped to enhance the pleasures of walking through the Village. In this manner they hope to reveal the hidden beauty, tremendous diversity, and high quality merchandise and thereby once again attract middle class people to shop and live in the area.
At first, their plans were greeted with much skepticism and apathy. Few people attended their early meetings, so the program started slowly. As a first step, the Village joined the nearby Paulus Hook and Van Vorst Park brownstone neighborhoods in a program to plant and sell hundred of flower boxes. Local elementary school children sold flower boxes planted with multi-colored petunias or marigolds at wholesale prices.
The beautiful fully planted 24-inch flower boxes sold for $4.25 each. Not only was this much lower than the prices of an empty window box if bought in a store, but each youngster made a 50 cents profit on each box sold. The program was so successful that it received wide national publicity: it was the lead story in the September, 1976 Readers Digest, nationally syndicated stories in both the Associated Press and in King Features, and local news articles in the Jersey Journal, Hudson Dispatch, Bergen Record, New York Daily News and New York Times.
The flower boxes prompted others to join in. Residents cleaned up vacant lots and planted vegetable gardens.
Then, Ed Ruskin who owned Ruskin’s Paint and Hardware Store donated paint “to help out the flowers.” Art students from Ferris High School directed by Tony Guadidiello joined Jersey City State College art students guided by Professor Doris Muller an dart students from Kean College in Union, led by Martin Holloway. On Saturdays, they came out in brigades to paint all the Village street and sign poles as well as trash baskets with the red , white and green of the Italian flag.
A large dirty graffiti-covered railroad embankment at Brunswick Street and Railroad Avenue was transformed into a brightly colored mural, featuring a huge smiling sun, and the words “welcome to the Village.” On the top of the embankment, residents helped build and plant four, six-foot-long wooden flower boxes.
Many residents were caught up by the new color and excitement and repainted their doorways, window frames, and front stoops in the same colors. Next, two graffiti-filled walls were painted, and each decorated with a 4 by 6 foot map and street directory showing all the Village shops, restaurants, parks, monuments, schools, clubs and churches. Then, the City’s Department of Public Works repainted all Village traffic lights, fire hydrants, curb lines and painted an improved traffic pattern at the Columbus Triangle.
VITA then sought and obtained additional “seed money” from the America the Beautiful Fund in Washington which was extremely impressed by the unique and innovative program. Grants were then received from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. And the city of Jersey City matched the grants.
The National Endowment’s “Public Education and Awareness” matching grant paid for community murals, professional graphic designs for storefront signs, and other programs. Individual shopkeepers gladly paid students to paint and fabricate their own colorful identifying murals and hanging signs. Di Nardo’s Brunswick Produce received a colorful mural array of fruits on his store front. Tony Kane’s Luncheonette fantasized with a Venetian boating scene mural. Orlando’s Meat Market proudly displayed a cow and sheep cut-out hanging window sign. Next door, Feinstein’s White Front Live Poultry Market affixed both a hanging chicken cut-out sign and a large stylistic barnboard sign to the newly painted exterior. Then LaMonica’s Meat Market, Pecorraro’s Bakery, and Todisco’s Coffee and Tea Store all sprouted colorful new signs. And the “risorgimento” spread.
Other merchants improved their storefronts themselves. John Fiore painted large bands of red, white and green around the three sides of his famous corner store and then painted the Fiore seal – a red rose – at the store entrance.
On the Newark Avenue facade of Gargano’s Produce Market, a colorful pushcart filled with produce was painted. On the Brunswick Street side, there sprouted a life-like mural of an organ grinder with a monkey and a girl carrying three balloons reading “WELCOME THE VILLAGE.” Next door, in a vacant storefront used for storage by Gargano’s Produce, a full color, life-size likeness of Onofrio Gargano, complete with white coat, eyeglass case, and a cigar in his mouth appeared! And even more murals and storefront designs were planned to expand the “risorgimento.”
To help spread the message of the Village’s resurgence, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts provided a grant to assist in the preparation and publication of this illustrated Guide, a separate color flyer/map, and a colorful promotional poster.
The “risorgimento” program showed immediate results. The brightly painted “Welcome Mural,” colorfully painted street signs, flower boxes, new community and storefront murals, and street directories gave residents renewed pride in their community.
Neighborhood children stopped at the directory maps to proudly point out their home to their friends. Elderly people paused and smiled at the new neighborhood spirit.
Then in the fall of 1976, the Village sponsored a one-day street festival; then next spring a larger Wine and Cheese Festival was held’ and the following fall, after a 15-year hiatus, Holy Rosary Church sponsored an extremely successful five-day Italian Village Street Festival complete with religious processions and celebrations.
Many stores, including – for the first time – several new ones, added the word “Village” to their name: Village Grocery, Village Pub, Village Coffee Shop, Village Tropical Fish and even Village Florist! An old apothecary which had been vacant for more than 20 years reopened as the “Spice O’Life” spice shop.
In Spring, 1977, because of the program’s success and community request, the City of Jersey City allocated 330,000 from the City’s community Development Block Grant to pay for street improvements and an expanded neighborhood beatification program. Included will be new curbing, trees, bus shelters, benches, trash receptacles, and other street and sidewalk amenities.
Shortly thereafter, the pace of activities picked up. In Fall, 1977 two large CETA employment programs were funded by the city to provide a neighborhood service center and establish an immigration program in the Casa Columbo building on Monmouth Street.
Then Monsignor Francis R. LoBianco and his parishioners at Holy Rosary Church established the Village Restoration Corporation, a neighborhood planning center and non-profit Community Development Corp. to help provide new housing, housing rehabilitation loans, jobs, Small Business Administration loans, and other services for the neighborhood.
Newspaper articles, magazine stories, and television feature news programs including the New York Sunday News Magazine cover story, Jersey Journal, Hudson Dispatch, Bergen Record, New York Times, Italian Tribune, Hudson Magazine, Forum Magazine, WPIX-TV channel 11 “Action News” and WNBC-TV “News Center 4” told people from everywhere to visit the Village. And they did.
Thousands came to view Tony Siniscalchi’s 50-year old brick oven and taste his famous sausage bread; to devour pastries from DiFeo’s; to buy cheeses at Fiores, Fusco’s and Baccilles; and to purchase wine supplies from Meloro’s. They bought “mature” veal from Orlando’s Butcher store or LaMonica’s Prime Meats; selected spices, herbs or health food from Besante’s Spice O’Life store; chose fish from Larry’s House of Sea Food; purchased freshly killed poultry from Nick Vernese of the Feinstein brothers; selected vegetables and fruit from Nunnio, DiGregario, Larry’s or Di Nardo’s Produce Markets; tried on one of thousands of hats from Modern Hatters; and dined at Tripoli, Erk’s and Ducky’s Restaurants or the Barge and Triangle Clam Bars.
The Village’s resurgence had begun…and is continuing.
See, shop, and savor the Village and its specialty stores…and participate in the “Risorgimento”.