Oral Histories

PAULUS HOOK AND THE HPHA: AN ORAL HISTORY

The Paulus Hook area of downtown Jersey City has a rich, winding history.  It is a community with roots that trace back before even the beginning of our nation, a place that maintains its small town feel while sitting at the foot of one of the world’s largest cities.  The story of Paulus Hook reflects both tradition and change, history and reinvention.  And the neighborhood’s story cannot be told without remembering the group of community advocates who decades ago saved Paulus Hook’s longstanding structures from demolition—the first act of the Historic Paulus Hook Association (HPHA). 

Below is a brief history of our neighborhood.  Interspersed throughout are audio clips of interviews recorded with long-time residents and HPHA members about their memories of Paulus Hook. 

We hope you enjoy.  Perhaps listening will bring to mind your own stories, and we welcome you to share. 

 

Battle of Paulus Hook

Originally settled by the Dutch, Paulus Hook was the site of a revolutionary-era, British-held fort, surrounded by a saltwater marsh.

On August 19, 1779, American forces undertook a nighttime raid of the British fort in the Battle of Paulus Hook.  The Patriots were led by Major Light Horse Harry Lee, and the “hit and run” operation was considered an American victory.  (The HPHA commemorates the Battle of Paulus Hook each year in August.)  The battle is marked by a monument in the park at Grand and Washington Streets, as long-time resident Sean Connelly describes: 

 

 

Early Days

The neighborhood was originally known as Gammontown--Sean offers one explanation for the early name: 

 

 

According to local lore, Abraham Lincoln had a number of unexpected ties to Jersey City: 

 

 

Father Joseph Lickwar, of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church on Grand Street, discusses the history of his church and the surrounding buildings:

 

 

In this clip, Sean Connelly gives an overview of the neighborhood and his memories growing up on Grand Street after World War II. Life in Paulus Hook during that time centered around the various local churches: 

 

 

It was the failure of a neighborhood bank during the Depression, that Sean Connelly calls a turning point for many residents in the area: 

 

 

Paulus Hook was always a tight-knit neighborhood, evidenced by the pranks that were played on one another—Sean tells one of his family's stories: 

 

 

On most corners in Paulus Hook there were saloons, where mainly men would congregate after work.  Sean describes his first drink at a bar where Iron Monkey is today, at the corner of Greene and York Streets:

 

 

Industry in Paulus Hook

By the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of factories flourished in Jersey City.  Industry was a major employer of area residents.  Colgate Palmolive produced soap in an expansive factory on the Paulus Hook waterfront.  During rainstorms, soap suds filled the gutters; and on any given day, the air smelled and tasted of soap.  The “Colgate Clock” still stands on the old Colgate site, adjacent to the Goldman Sachs tower at 30 Hudson Street.  Sean Connelly describes the dynamics between Colgate, residents, and the municipal government, as his family remembers it:

 

 

Onyx Chemical occupied a two-block site between Dudley and Morris Streets, and Warren and Washington Streets.  (After the factory was gone, and until the site was developed in the late 1990s, one could hear the sound of frogs from blocks away in the evening.)  Hart Chemical operated a chemical mixing and storage business, which closed in 2003.  Bel Fuse Inc. once produced only fuses, but now manufactures lighting systems for automobiles.  The business continues to thrive in the neighborhood.

                                    

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York Street, 1988 (credit: Diane Kaese)

 

Listen to residents Christine Jaworowski and Diane Kaese discuss the factories of Paulus Hook:

 

 

And they remember some of the ways that children will play, for better or for worse:

 

 

 

Birth of the HPHA

In the mid-1970s, Colgate Palmolive sought to expand its headquarters facility in Paulus Hook to the west of Greene Street to Washington, and from Grand Street down to Dudley.  Colgate also acquired additional lots east of Greene Street, including a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic Church and several five-story walk-ups.  After purchasing a property, Colgate would knock down the existing buildings within twenty-four hours of the sale’s close.  Some, looking to profit from the situation, urged homeowners to sell: 

 

 

But the residents of Paulus Hook resisted.  The preservation movement of Jersey City was born, and the community refused to allow the historic structures to be demolished overnight.   

Several local advocates met in the brownstone kitchen of 102 Grand Street.  These neighbors turned to colorful, local politician, Owen Grundy, for guidance and assistance in their struggle.  Grundy was the official Jersey City historian and the head of the Friends of Jersey City Library, as well as a retired reporter.  Under Grundy’s direction, Joe Duffy, Stella Hojnacki, and other neighbors formed the Historic Paulus Hook Association.  They publicized Colgate’s land-grab, and pushed the City Council to create the first historic districts.

The HPHA’s efforts were successful, and Colgate soon ended its buying spree.  We have been fighting for our community ever since.

Listen to resident Dan Katz describe Colgate’s actions and the beginning of the HPHA: 

 

 

Jim Horan, a student and then faculty member and administrator at St. Peter's Prep beginning in the 1960s, recalls the "curmudgeonly activism" of HPHA founding member, Joe Duffy: 

 

 

The Neighborhood, Then and Now

The establishments we are familiar with in the neighborhood today have, in most instances, experienced many reincarnations.  

Various social clubs once lined the streets of Paulus Hook: 

 

 

A candy store on Warren Street ran the neighborhood “numbers” game:

 

 

Sam a.m. coffee shop on Morris Street was previously a mosque, as one resident remembers:

 

 

And, where Surf City currently sits, neighborhood kids learned how to ride horses:

 

 

The stained glass in the St. Peter's Prep cafeteria on Grand Street serves as a reminder of the former church in that building:

 

 

Dan Katz describe the differences between downtown Jersey City in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now: 

 

 

And Father Lickwar talks about his move to the area in 1991:

 

 

Christine Jaworowski and Diane Kaese remember drag racing and squatters at the Morris Canal: 

 

                                             

 

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Washington Street pre-Portside Towers, 1988 (credit: Diane Kaese)

 

Resurgence

By 1980, a wave of artists and young professionals had moved in among the largely blue collar and retiree community of Paulus Hook.  By the mid-1980s, Colgate, Onyx Chemical, McConnell Oil Company, and others had shifted manufacturing operations to other locations, and had begun to tear down more than thirty-seven waterfront acres in anticipation of redevelopment that included Colgate’s high-rise office center and residential projects like Portside Towers. 

However, the real estate market fell into decline at the time of that transition, and for most of the next ten years, the land lay fallow and park-like along the Hudson River; some lots remained weed-covered, while other were used as commuter parking lots for the newly installed New York Waterways Ferry.  Dan Katz describes the real estate market in the mid-1980s: 

 

                                    

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Shantytown at the Little Basin, 1970 (credit: Jersey City Public Library)

 

The next development push arrived with the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and construction of several office towers.  Hundreds of units of rental housing, dozens of restaurants, and many condominiums grew in and around Paulus Hook at the end of the twentieth century.  Over a period of years, the waterfront walkway—along the Hudson River and Morris Canal—was constructed:

 

                                    

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Little Basin, waterfront just south of where Portside Towers sits today, 1954 (credit: Jersey City Free Public Library)

 

 

A Good Place to Live

Jim Horan began teaching at St. Peter's Prep in 1974. He watched the brownstones of Grand Street transform over the years through his classroom window: 

 

 

The diversity of Paulus Hook has always made it special, and different from other areas of the country: 

 

 

Father Lickwar describes what he likes about the neighborhood, and why he plans to remain in Paulus Hook for his retirement:

 

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  • published this page in Paulus Hook 2017-08-05 14:24:08 -0400

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