Boomtown: The Rise of Jersey City

Jersey City's resurgence delights some, but worries others. We take a tour with Steven Fulop, a mayor committed to keeping his city gritty.

The Jersey City skyline will undergo significant changes in the coming years.
The Jersey City skyline will undergo significant changes in the coming years.
Photo by Jennifer S. Altman

Until a few months ago, 99 Hudson Street was the site of a parking lot, a full block on the Jersey City waterfront, overshadowed by neighboring towers. The parked cars are gone now, replaced by construction crews and heavy equipment. A tall fence encloses a deepening hole in the ground, a familiar sight not just here along the Hudson River, but throughout this city, where construction has accelerated at a boomtown pace over the last five years.

Steel beams will soon sprout from the hole on Hudson Street—the skeletal frame of what will be a 79-story residential tower. If the building proceeds as planned by China Overseas America Inc., a New York-based affiliate of a Beijing-based developer, it will first climb higher than 10 Exchange Place, two blocks north, which when erected in the 1980s was the tallest building in a Jersey skyline then emerging from the old waterfront rail yards. As 99 Hudson Street continues to rise, it will climb higher than 101 Hudson, one block north, the tallest building of the 1990s. It will climb higher still, surpassing the 42-story, 780-foot-tall Goldman Sachs tower, four blocks south and the tallest building in the state since its completion in 2004. When 99 Hudson is finished, it will be 900 feet tall, with 781 Manhattan-view condos.

The Jersey City skyline is younger than many of the junior bankers who work and live in its high-rises. It is an improbably large thing, visible from a great distance, arisen in a small place. The skyline has grown so tall and dense in recent years that, when seen from most angles around Jersey City, it seems to merge with the more iconic one across the Hudson.

“This was all empty,” Mayor Steven Fulop says repeatedly as he guides New Jersey Monthly on a driving tour through the city he has led since 2013. The mayor’s black SUV passes one construction site after another as his driver navigates the waterfront streets.

The once-empty spaces are filled now, or filling, or soon to be filled. Fulop ticks off one new project after another. The mayor, 39, acknowledges that the wave of development began long before he took office, but adds, “The growth in the last five years has been greater than anything anybody has ever seen.” Jersey City is the fastest- growing municipality in the state, its population rising from 247,597 at the time of the 2010 census to 262,146 in 2014. It may soon overtake Newark as the largest. “If I’m being conservative,” says Fulop, “I think we pass them next year and will be significantly ahead of them by the next census in 2020.”

All these new buildings are shoehorned into the densest corner of New Jersey, the Hudson County peninsula, which after serving so long as the grimy backyard to New York City has in recent decades evolved into what’s often called a sixth borough. Most of the new buildings are beehives of apartments, with rents that look low from a Manhattan vantage point, but high from the neighborhoods on the other side of the Turnpike extension that marks the western edge of downtown Jersey City.

“In the buildings that are going in,” says Fulop, “you actually see a third, a third and a third—a third people moving within Jersey City, a third coming from elsewhere in New Jersey and a third moving from New York City.”

The driving tour will take us through the parts of the city where its changes are most evident: to the restaurants, shops and nightspots around the Grove Street PATH station downtown; west to Journal Square, the historic hub, where towers that rival those on the waterfront are now rising; north to the Heights, where many former downtown residents, including Fulop himself, have been migrating in search of lower prices; and south to Bergen-Lafayette, where developers have been nibbling at the edges of a neighborhood they had  long ignored.

It will take us through a city that, like many old municipalities transformed by swift growth, is suffused with both hope and worry. Hope that the city’s diversity can remain an asset; worry that longtime residents will be pushed out by wealthier newcomers. Hope that the streets can be kept safe and that the schools can continue improving; worry whether services will be distributed equitably across the city’s varied neighborhoods.

The tour leaves the waterfront for the leafy, low-rise neighborhoods just west of it, passing brownstones and brick rowhouses now worth sums beyond the wildest dreams of those who owned them decades ago. “They were giving them away. You just had to pay the taxes, that’s what the deal was,” says Fulop, pointing out the mix of tidy old homes and new condo buildings around the oasis of renovated Hamilton Park, which was once enclosed by chain-link fence—and host to the kind of recreational activity that draws police attention.

“It was a lot of working-class and maybe not so working-class people,” says Maggie Veca, who moved downtown in the 1980s. She grew up in the Heights when it was largely Irish, German and Italian. “I stayed,” says Veca, a fourth-generation native whose five siblings all moved out of the city. “I didn’t feel threatened, and it was where I worked.”

Veca waited tables at the Hamilton Park Ale House, a corner bar and restaurant.  “It was the only game in town,” she says. She bought it in 1997 and sold it in 2006. Then Veca pioneered another downtown neighborhood, opening Skinner’s Loft—Skinner is her mother’s maiden name—near the Grove Street PATH station at a time when good downtown restaurants were scarce. They are plentiful now, and Veca’s stretch of Newark Avenue was recently turned into a pedestrian mall.

“As far as 79 stories, I don’t know what to think,” she says of 99 Hudson. “I think to myself, Can you sustain community when you start putting in such big buildings? You really do need neighborhoods. You do need some sort of community.”

Painted across a high wall around the corner from her restaurant is the signature mural of the city’s recent public art program. The Jersey City Wave, by Shepard Fairey—famed for his Obama “Hope” poster—depicts an ocean swell cresting in the foreground, with the Statue of Liberty on the horizon. The mural has a Rorschach-like quality for city residents. Some celebrate the renewal the wave has brought. Some lament the tradition it has washed away. Some ride the crest, unsure which way they want the wave to break.


The first wave of development lapped at the city’s edge in the 1980s. City Hall sits downtown more than half a mile from the river. When it opened in 1896, and throughout the decades when it was ruled by Frank Hague, the city’s all-powerful mayor from 1917 to 1947, the space between City Hall and the river was packed with rail yards, warehouses and factories. Trucks elbowed aside the trains, manufacturing fled the Northeast, and by the 1960s, the city was condemning and aggregating bankrupted land, assembling a blank slate on which to write a new chapter of its history.

“We had more fallow land than just about anybody, and one of the advantages we had was more infrastructure accessing that,” says Bret Schundler, who was mayor from 1992 to 2001. Like Fulop, Schundler worked on Wall Street and ousted the candidate of the vaunted Democratic machine. (The city’s elections are officially nonpartisan, but Schundler is a Republican, while Fulop, a presumed candidate for governor in 2017, is a Democrat.)

Less than a mile across the Hudson from Manhattan, rooted to the big city by the tentacles of the Holland Tunnel and the PATH train, the decaying shoreline was gradually cleared of its rotted piers and rebuilt. “The vast majority of people in elected office, when they’re at the end of their time, they’ll tell people the story of the dreams they had that were unfulfilled,” says Schundler, who later ran unsuccessfully for governor and served as state education commissioner, and who now helps run two charter schools in the city. “I can tell about all the dreams we had that were fully fulfilled, and sometimes it’s almost hard to imagine how completely the visions we had were being realized.”

Big developers built big along the river, starting with the city-within-a-city of Newport, on the site of Erie Railroad’s Pavonia Terminal. Small developers rehabbed old buildings.

“I remember in the early ’80s calling Paul and saying, ‘A woman just jogged by,’” says Eric Silverman, who with his brother, Paul, bought a vacant 15-unit building in Paulus Hook at the south end of the waterfront for $90,000 in 1981. The brothers borrowed $400,000 to rehab it, and then, with a small ad in the New York Times, rented it out in just three weeks.

“That jogger was a breakthrough,” Paul Silverman says. The brothers have since built or rehabbed 41 properties in downtown Jersey City, working out of an office across the street from City Hall, a former bank for which Mayor Hague cut the opening ribbon. (The brothers have an old photo of the ceremony.) The site was vacant for 20 years before the Silvermans bought it. “Now,” says Paul, “Jersey City is so much more than we ever imagined.”

The brothers will soon move their headquarters to their new building next to City Hall. They named it Charles & Co. for the rug merchant that had once occupied the spot. There will be retail on the first floor, a large coworking office space on the second, and 99 apartments above, some occupied by people who never expected to find themselves living in Jersey City. “Never ever ever,” says Mark Levy, who grew up in Manhattan and spent Saturdays as a boy in the early 1970s sweeping floors at his father’s downtown Jersey City factory on York Street, which made, among other things, grill panels for audio speakers and faces for wall clocks. “You were afraid to walk the street, that’s how bad it was.”

Soon to be divorced, with two grown daughters, Levy left Franklin Lakes several years ago for 77 Hudson, a 48-story glass tower in Paulus Hook, closer to his job as president of Vanilla Star Jeans in Manhattan. He moved last fall to Charles & Co., leasing a three-bedroom apartment the deck of which has a view of the New York skyline in one direction and sunset in the other. Levy opened a business downtown, Blackbird Gallery and Art Studio. “He would be amazed,” he says of his father, who ate lunch every day at the Flamingo Diner near Exchange Place before selling the business in 1979. “You couldn’t eat anywhere else then. My mom is 88, and I bring her over and she just can’t believe what it’s become.”

One of Levy’s neighbors, Keren Vered, also works in fashion. She moved from Tribeca with her husband, who works in finance, and their two young children. “I think a lot of families come here and they use it like a stepping gate into the suburbs,” she says, “but I want to stay.” Vered grew up in Paramus, her husband in Queens. “Those things that would otherwise be deterrents to a full life commitment here, I want to start now and commit to making them better, so that we can stay here long term.”

Over the last decade, the wave has washed farther inland. David Barry, president of Hoboken- and Manhattan-based Ironstate Development, one of the biggest builders in Jersey City since the early 1990s, marvels at how much has happened since 1999, when his company developed the Gotham, a downtown apartment tower in the Grove Street area three blocks from the waterfront.

“At the time, believe it or not, ludicrous as it sounds now, the Gotham was kind of pushing boundaries because it was off the waterfront,” says Barry. Last fall, Ironstate, with partner Panepinto Properties, opened a 50-story apartment tower even farther from the waterfront, 70 Columbus, the second of four planned towers near the Grove Street PATH station. “I don’t see that there’s a limit to Jersey City, because it functions as an outer borough….If Manhattan is healthy, you can bet that the Jersey City and Brooklyn markets are going to be healthy.”

When Helene Stapinski was growing up on Grove Street in the late 1960s and 1970s in a walkup apartment across the street from City Hall, the only office towers on her horizon were in Manhattan. Now she sometimes loses her way amid the new towers in her old neighborhood.

“When you get lost on the streets where you grew up, you know it’s different,” she says. She lives in Brooklyn now, but her mother still lives in Jersey City, and Stapinski often visits the place she chronicled so pungently in her 2001 memoir, Five Finger Discount. A documentary based on the book recently finished shooting and is expected to air on public television next year. “It’s just a whole other chapter really, about how this place that I ran away from is not a place to run away from anymore.”

But with new prosperity has come new issues. “The big job is not to have a tale of two cities,” says Stapinski. “You don’t want that poor, undeveloped area and then that rich, gleaming city on the hill. You have to bring those two together; that’s the challenge.”


Fulop’s tour has left downtown and crossed under the Turnpike Extension that carries drivers to the Holland Tunnel.

Until recently, the elevated roadway stood as a breakwater beyond which development halted. We head west, into the neighborhoods that are less easily mistaken for Park Slope or Lower Manhattan.

“I think we still have a grittiness to us as a city, which is a great thing,” Fulop says, using a word that is almost mandatory in discussions of Jersey City. “I think there’s a toughness to the city, which is a good thing. I think there’s a diversity component, which is a good thing. You have all these different types of backgrounds, which is a great thing.

“Those are the things that I’m most sensitive about, that I’m trying not to lose.  And I think you always have that kind of New Jersey chip on your shoulder, which isn’t the worst thing.”

As the SUV heads farther from the river and gently climbs Montgomery Street toward the Palisades ridge and the area known as McGinley Square, the tallest structure built in the city in the 1930s appears to our left. The 22-story B.S. Pollack Hospital, part of what was the Jersey City Medical Center, is now, after a long and fitful restoration, the Beacon, a 14-acre art deco complex of apartments and condos. The Hague—the last of the restored buildings, which opened in April—was once the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, named for the longtime mayor’s mother.

“The day after I was born, they wheeled my mother out in a wheelchair to what she described as a patio, but I guess it was the solarium, and she saw the Statue of Liberty,” says John Elefthrow, one of the 350,000 babies born at the Hague before it closed in 1979. Elefthrow grew up in a cold-water flat on First Street downtown. He was taught by nuns who spoke Italian better than they spoke English. His world was so thoroughly Italian that, when he was a freshman at St. Peter’s Prep, he didn’t understand why his fellow students asked him why he wasn’t wearing green on St Patrick’s Day.

“When I came here looking for a place to rent, that whole story about my mother came back to me, and I thought maybe I should live here,” says Elefthrow, a retired public defender who moved from a downtown brownstone into a first-floor apartment in one of the Beacon buildings in 2014, then moved in May to a ninth-floor apartment in another building that, from the bathroom window, offers a “very small glimpse of the statue.”

Elefthrow still frequents the venerable Lee Sims Chocolates nearby, but he also buys dates and feta cheese from the markets that cater to the Middle Eastern population in the neighborhood, and he gets his hair cut by a Moroccan barber. “I see the children speaking Arabic and translating for their parents, and it reminds me of myself when I was a kid, taking on that role for my mother,” he says.

Here in the backyard of Ellis Island— where for decades new Americans boarded trains at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal for points beyond, while others dropped their bags and went no farther—immigration is not just history. Last year, Jersey City was the second most “ethno-racially diverse” U.S. city, behind only Gaithersburg, Maryland, according to WalletHub, a personal-finance website. It has a Little Manila, a Little India, and one of the largest clusters of Egyptian Copts in the country. Its black, Asian and Hispanic populations are roughly equal in size. Students in its public schools speak 40 different languages, from Abkhaz to Wolof.

The students in those schools are also graduating at a higher rate (up from 67 percent in 2014 to 73.6 percent in 2015), and more of them are taking Advanced Placement classes, hopeful signs in a school system once so troubled that it was taken over by the state in 1989. But as the schools have improved, the state has been stepping away, and Jersey City is poised to become the first of the big urban school districts to regain local control.

“Who you might have gotten from one of the high schools four years ago wasn’t as prepared as who’s showing up at the door today,” says Sue Henderson, president of New Jersey City University—a vital Jersey City institution whose $350 million expansion plan is driving new development on the city’s West Side. The university also recently moved its business school to the waterfront. The new facility has its own trading floor and a studio from which NJTV broadcasts its nightly business report with the Lower Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. On the main campus, the flags of all the United Nations members hang in a long, colorful row in the student union, illustrating the international character of the students, who trace their origins to more than 50 countries.

Jersey City’s diversity is evident, too, in Journal Square, where Fulop stops to point at a 53-story apartment tower under construction. It’s by far the tallest structure in what was once the town’s nexus—and still the site of one of Jersey City’s four PATH stations. (The others are Exchange Place, Grove Street and Newport.) “I would anticipate when you look forward, say, 10 years from now, this will again become the heart of the city as it was the heart of the city 50 years ago,” Fulop says. “You have several billion dollars of investment coming in here right now.”

Several other large projects are planned here, rising like stalagmites around the busy transit hub. “When you’re 550 feet up off the ground, it’s pretty breathtaking,” says Jonathan Kushner, president of the Bridgewater-based KRE Group, whose cleverly named Journal Squared project include two more towers, one 60 stories and one 70 stories. “It’s a terrific neighborhood full of vibrancy and density. We’re enhancing the neighborhood, but we’re by no means having to build it from scratch. Down on the waterfront they started from scratch.”

Leaving Journal Square, Fulop’s driver continues north into the Heights, the neighborhood on a bluff overlooking Hoboken to the east. Fulop, who was born in Edison, recently bought a house in the Heights after living downtown since moving to Jersey City in 2000. Like many of his neighbors downtown then and now, he worked on Wall Street, at Goldman Sachs, but after 9/11 he enlisted in the Marines and served in Iraq. When he returned, Mayor Glenn Cunningham—a fellow Marine, a former cop and the city’s first black mayor—persuaded him to challenge Congressman Bob Menendez in a Democratic primary in 2004. Fulop lost badly, as expected, but a year later, at age 28, he won a seat on the city council.

“You can actually see this area changing one block at a time,” he says, pointing out new restaurants and coffee shops.

John Gomez, a language-arts teacher at Middle School 4, recently moved from downtown to a prewar apartment building near Pershing Field in the Heights. “I’m seeing the old Jersey City up here,” he says. “I hear the different languages, I hear Italian at the bocce court. It reminds me of Jersey City in the ’70s and ’80s when I was young.”

But Gomez didn’t move by choice. He spent most of his life downtown in the Italian Village, where his father, who grew up in the Lafayette Gardens housing project, owned an antiques store. The family lived upstairs. Gomez’s paternal ancestors worked at the sprawling Colgate plant on the waterfront that suffused the downtown area with the smell of soap for more than a century. When the plant was demolished in the late 1980s, leaving only its signature octagonal clock as a tribute, he was there taking pictures, trying to hang on to a piece of what was. Gomez later cofounded the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy and earned a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University.

“Developers are there, and they’re making offers people can’t refuse,” Gomez says of his old downtown neighborhood, which until recently seemed of little interest to developers. The house where he lived with his wife and young daughter was sold by his landlord to make way for condos. “I think the line is now Journal Square, and when that line is drawn in Journal Square, where do you go from there? Do you go north to the Heights? Do you go south to Greenville?” he asks, referring to the predominantly African-American neighborhood at the city’s south end, bordering Bayonne.

Ed Morris also wonders where the wave is headed. “I’m one of those people who have been here my entire life, and I see the changes that are happening in the city, and I don’t know if they include us. I don’t know if what I’m seeing going on all around downtown and all over now in Journal Square is for another class of people to come in and ‘make it yours,’” he says, using the slogan of the city’s recent marketing campaign aimed at attracting new residents.

Central Avenue in the Heights has run through most of Morris’s life, and when he walks along it now, he is greeted by the people who have long known him and by the artwork for which he has long been known. He started as a graffiti artist—his tag was T.Dee—but in recent years, he has painted several large murals in the city, before the launch of the public art program. “Two months by myself, and about 200 cans of spray paint,’ he says, standing at the biggest of them, reaching 16 feet high and stretching 185 feet across the side of a Rite Aid pharmacy. It’s called The Dream, and it depicts children doing what he has always done—painting an imaginary world.
“It’s very, very strange,” he says, “to walk around downtown and to sort of maybe just feel like I’m being looked at, like Who the hell is this guy?”

The driver turns south and takes Paterson Plank Road back into  downtown, where growth was long fertilized by tax abatements to developers, but where Fulop’s administration is now trying to direct some affordable housing. Near the Newport Centre Mall, he points out a large 80-20 project just underway; 20 percent of the units are earmarked for low-income residents.

“When you don’t have policies that really keep a diverse city in place and really kind of minimize that tale of two cities, your risk ultimately is that you lose the things that make a city most appealing,” he says. His administration has been phasing out tax abatements for waterfront developments—99 Hudson, for instance, got none—and using them instead to encourage development in other neighborhoods. “We’ve started to build affordable housing in the waterfront, in the nicest neighborhoods, and we’ve started to build market-rate housing in the more challenged neighborhoods.”

But who bought and who sold and for how much remains the topic of the moment in the city. “You feel a little bit like you’re living in a casino,” says Tris McCall, a musician and writer who moved downtown in 2003 from neighboring Union City. “You feel like you’re at a craps table, and the dice are hot and everybody’s cheering, but in the back of your mind you know the seven’s coming.”

McCall was an early and prolific blogger about the politics and culture of the city—“The Ballad of You and Me and Bret Schundler” has been a requested song at his gigs, and former mayor Jerramiah Healy sings in the background chorus on another McCall original, “Sunrise, Rte. 7” (“He’s the one who sounds the most like a mayor”)—and little irritates him more than to hear it called, as it often is by developers and fresh transplants, “the sixth borough.”

“Oh, I hate that, I hate that,” McCall says. “First of all, by calling it the sixth borough, you’re taking the Jersey out of Jersey City. If there’s anything about Jersey City, it’s a very Jersey city. Jersey City is a very good name for it. It should not be absorbed into New York. Why would you want to beg the big boy on the block to be his crony, when you could be your own guy?”


Leaving downtown, the SUV crosses into Bergen-Lafayette, one of the neighborhoods that have long felt left out of the city’s boom. “They just started moving ground over here, we’re going to condemn this one over here; this is all going to be residential,” Fulop says, pointing to one block after another, not far from a Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station—a desirable feature for revivified neighborhoods. “We’ve got for the first time some real development going on over here.”

The driver stops on a dead-end street just south of Communipaw Avenue, where a five-story building with 83 apartments has replaced a long-abandoned paint factory.

“Two years ago, everybody was saying this was not a great idea,” says John Fio Rito, a West Point graduate who built the Baker Building, which opened in April, the latest of the 300 residential units in neighborhoods he has built all over the city in the last 12 years. “There’s a lot of dumb money coming in, and things were getting overbid downtown. I’m not talking about high rises on the waterfront. I’m talking about guys who had a little bit of money who would come in and just buy something because they read in the Wall Street Journal that Jersey City’s hot and they want to get in it. Dumb money results in a speculative market.”

But April was also when Fulop faced a crowd of residents skeptical about the city’s growth—the first public meeting of a new community group called Jersey City Together. Almost 900 people squeezed into Old Bergen Church in McGinley Square to air their concerns about crime, schools, housing and taxes. Their demand for a property-tax revaluation was particularly loud. It has been 28 years since the last revaluation; homeowners away from downtown believe their properties are overvalued now, and carrying an unfairly large share of the tax burden. A few days after the meeting, Fulop agreed to the reval.

“People feel that downtown has been the focus and that they’ve been forgotten about,” says the Reverend Mona Fitch-Elliott, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in the Heights and one of the leaders of Jersey City Together. She grew up downtown in a house her father was proud to buy, but that her mother sold after his death. “People just got pushed out of downtown, and all these new people came in. We don’t want to see that happen to all of Jersey City. Last time we didn’t see it coming. This time we see it coming, so how can we do this different?”

Among the speakers at the meeting was Lawrence Alexander, a retired letter carrier who lives on the street where he grew up in Bergen-Lafayette, but is planning to move soon to his wife’s native Georgia. “We had an opportunity to raise our children here before it really got like the Wild, Wild West,” he says. Their children moved away after college. “They come back to visit, that’s all. To live? That’ll never happen again in this life.”

When he was growing up on Atlantic Street, the neighborhood was safe enough to leave the doors unlocked and for a 5-year-old boy like him to take a city bus alone to kindergarten at Number 14 School. Jackson Avenue, which is now Martin Luther King Drive, was a bustling commercial district—a focal point of the city’s African-American community. “Doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, professional people, we had everybody on this street,” he says.

The city’s crime rate ticked up slightly last year (4.1 percent, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting Unit of the New Jersey State Police), but it had many fewer murders (25) than neighboring Newark (105). Those statistics aren’t too comforting, though, when the violent deaths come in clusters (two in 9 days this spring, five in 12 days last November), or on your own street.

One afternoon last May, Alexander’s wife was reading on the front porch when she heard a shot and hurried inside. “It was right outside this dining-room window, on the opposite side of the street,” he says, pointing to the spot where Larry Freeman, a local auto mechanic, was hit in the head while making a curbside fender repair by what police believe was a stray bullet. Alexander has seen some new buildings and some new residents in the neighborhood and he expects MLK Drive to thrive again one day. “But it won’t be a bunch of dark faces,” he says.

Heading east, the SUV passes under the Turnpike extension and turns into a dead-end street. This one leads to the footbridge over the Morris Canal Basin that links downtown to Liberty State Park. It is to be expanded into a long-awaited vehicular bridge soon.

“That’s going to be a game-changer for this whole area” says Fulop. “It’s going to connect this entire community over here with that community over there.” Fulop gestures across the narrow canal to the downtown that looks so near, but is not so easy to reach from here—two sections of the city, straining to remain one.

The tour is nearing its end, though there are other stops we could have made—like Mana Contemporary, the massive art studio and gallery space that hopes to draw creative types to the Journal Square area. As the SUV heads back to City Hall, the wide green plain of Liberty State Park stretches out to the left. So beloved is the park that even one of Fulop’s presumptive gubernatorial opponents, Stephen M. Sweeney, president of the state Senate, joined with Fulop when the mayor initiated the fight against privatizing the park. Like the waterfront, the park was a neglected wasteland that grew into an improbably large and inviting new thing. It was in 1958 that Morris Pesin, who owned a children’s clothing store in McGinley Square, paddled a canoe in about eight minutes to Liberty Island, showing just how close the Statue was, and just how valuable this land might be for the quality of people’s lives.

“Attention of the nation would be focused on the great waterfront of Jersey City adjacent to the project,” Pesin told the City Commission (now the City Council) after his canoe trip, launching the campaign to reclaim the land as a park and imagining what might happen along the rest of the waterfront. “The possibilities of its development would be brought to the forefront.”

Pesin’s son, Sam, is now president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, which opened in 1976. Morris Pesin died in 1992, just as those possibilities on the adjacent waterfront were starting to rise. Could he have imagined just how high? “I think not,” Sam Pesin says.

Kevin Coyne is a freelance writer and teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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