This past week, I lectured about the work of Robert Smithson to one of my classes. Smithson, known best for Spiral Jetty, wrote an essay in 1967 called “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ,” in which he describes taking a bus out of NYC and into NJ, to photograph bits and pieces of what he found there – industrial pipes, a bridge, and a lonely sandbox.
In a weird way, speaking about his work lead me to wonder what the “monuments” of Jersey City would be. At least on the West Side, it seems to me that our collection of abandoned homes would at least be a contender. In just a few block radius of where I live, there are several properties that have, in the 15 years that I’ve lived here, gone from being vibrant, lived-in homes, to rotting; empty and alone. The reasons behind the transformation of the properties range from family illnesses, to predatory lending practices, unemployment, or devastating household accidents. Simple greed figures in as well.
But the irony here is that the West Side is undergoing a real estate boom. Housing prices are sky high, and it seems that the moment a house goes on the market there are many competing bidders. I quite often talk to young families who are getting priced out, forced to move because of a shortage of housing. This is to not even take into consideration the sizable homeless population of Jersey City.
I have no solution to any of this. But here’s an introduction to just some of the abandoned homes in within just a few blocks of where I live. I tried to tell the story of each place as best I could, based on my memory of it.
This is one of the more perplexing properties to me. It’s a huge, hulking home, right on the edge of Lincoln Park. The woman who last owned it was a very nice and seemingly very successful real estate agent with a second home in Vermont. She rented the second floor to a young couple with a little dog, and I recall them telling me with a laugh that the ad they responded to for the rental read: Apartment for rent in Jersey City. Most love dogs and hate George W. Bush. The last time I saw either the owner or the renters was about six years ago. Last year, I jumped their fence into their back yard to save a cat that had gotten trapped during a bad storm. As I was freeing the cat, I could see inside the house and thought it seemed like there were squatters living in it. Spooked, I got out of the backyard as quickly as I could. It got boarded up soon after.
This house was lived in by a family I didn’t know much about. About two years ago, the property – and the property next to it – was purchased by a real estate developer who is currently in the process of fixing up a third property behind it, turning it into “luxury rentals” (this is the huge project happening at the St. Al’s convent). The plan was, he was going to finish the convent project first, then move onto tearing down this house and the one next to it in order to build a new building. A few months after he bought the property, a huge fire broke out and the house is now completely burned out inside. But it’s still standing – now empty and black from the fire – for at least a year and a half. The convent project seems to be taking longer than was originally expected, so no idea when this place will eventually go. I don’t know what happened to the family living there, or if they were even still there when the fire broke out.
This one is just painfully sad. A nice woman named Donna used to live here. She was a single mom with a young son, and she’d sit on the porch and nurse a cigarette and say hi to everyone who walked by. She was one of those people who knew everyone in the neighborhood and all the gossip. I think the story was she grew up in the home, and that her father owned it, and he was now away somewhere because he was very ill and elderly. She swore up and down that when he died, she was going to be left the home – which, seemed reasonable, except one day she started talking about her father’s new, younger wife who hated her. Donna kept clinging to the hope that he would leave her and her son the house as he had promised her, but the new wife started popping up in our daily chats more and more, and I started to worry. Suddenly one day, I heard that her father had died, and it seemed like within a week Donna and her son were evicted. This was about six years ago; no one has lived in the house since.
This is an empty lot now, but about three years ago it was a dilapidated house, which stood more as a parallelogram than a straight, up-and-down structure. People in the neighborhood complained about it for years – it really looked like all it would take was a strong wind and the whole house would tip over, endangering the other homes nearby. It was first lived in by a woman who was rumored to be a cat hoarder (there were always a dozen or two cats hanging around the house) and then after she died (?), squatters moved in. This was really terrifying, because I genuinely don’t understand how that house was standing at all, so the thought of people coming and going into it was truly a recipe for a disaster. Anyway, one night the squatters lit a fire to keep warm; the fire burned down the house and also jumped to the house to the right of it, destroying the home of an elderly, disabled man in the process. The huge pile of burned-out house remained in the plot for months, with scores of cats digging around and trying to find scraps. I finally complained so much and offered to knit a scarf for the city employee responsible for clearing it out, that it did finally get hauled out. Now it’s just an empty lot filled with garbage (this pic is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it) and of course, lots and lots of cats. (Still haven’t delivered that scarf though. Oh well.)