Don’t Pump Your Gas: New Jersey, a Forgotten Destination

Assignment: 1000 word Place/Travel Feature

“Jersey City is the garbage dump of Hoboken.” I shouldn’t have said that, but I did.  I spent a weekend with my family who live in a four-story house on a street of deceivingly large homes crammed side-by-side.  Over the years—as I indeed make annual visits—the sidewalks of the block known as Romaine Avenue have developed more cracks and splits, just the way a face earns wrinkles over time.

I bit my tongue after I made that joke; it excluded all the charms of the neighborhood and harped only on a misconception that Jersey City is nowhere near a “Garden State” image that license plates claim in the state of New Jersey. 

In reality, this title has no proven origin.  Since 1954, despite a veto from Governor Robert B. Meynor, the label has been seen on freeways and neighborhood streets.  The Garden State grew with the Industrial Revolution as steel, silk and iron became heavily manufactured in New Jersey.  Remnants of the era have left the landscape looking like what some would describe as bleak.  Abandoned factories line the skirt of the city where my family now lives.  The empty storage and steel plants aren’t a pleasant addition, but there is much you don’t see at a first glance. 

My aunt’s house stands at the head of Romaine Avenue, which all the kids aptly call Romaineville due to the many fun-filled, fantasy-land-feel of family gatherings and late night parties held over the years. Though the interface of the street seems to reflect a general bleakness, when you extend your glance a little longer, you begin to see the regal stature of each of the houses.  There is an individual historic charm that exudes from each structure.  Imagine driving down Chapel Hill’s Historic District where grand houses stand boldly next to another, but now imagine it with less space between them.  Jersey City harbors a sense of stuffiness, which provides much for a spectator to see.

 Adjacent to Romaine Avenue there is a block of small crowded shops where people can buy Indian spices, tea, fresh meat, vegetables, incense and cheap luggage sets.  Singhas Pizza sits on the corner of the street; something about the way the thin dough rises beneath the rich tomato sauce has kept their South Asian patrons returning for the taste at this Italian spot for years.  There’s a Rite Aid steps away from a Duane Reade, which is steps away from Journal Square Transportation Center, which is steps away from Wachovia, Dunkin’ Donuts and a salon where you can get your eyebrows threaded for only three bucks.  There’s a Catholic church, many doctors and dentists offices, people selling jewelry, wallets and hats on the street.  Names like Sip, Tonnelle, and Garrison Avenue, John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Montgomery Street will wash over and get lost among many others leaving only Romaine Avenue clearly mapped out  in mind. 

Other than the fact that cost of living is insanely easier on the pocket and that the PATH Train to New York City is only a 10-minute walk away, it’s the quality of the community and the many memories built around the street that has held my family faithfully to Romaineville—and Jersey City at large. 

In the summer, residents can count on the tune of a Mister Softee truck at 6 p.m. sharp.  It double-parks on the corner of the block waiting for kids and their grandparents eager for the most deliciously preserved vanilla-flavored ice cream on the most perfectly crunchy waffle cone on earth, or, at least, it tastes that way during the months between June through August.  Backyard barbecues at night, a very common occurrence, with neighboring community members and family are accompanied with an eclectic playlist of songs.  Hindi, reggae, old-school hip-hop and chart-toppers on Z100 liven up the conversation while cold beers leave rings on tables and benches. 

In the winter, the broken sidewalk is hidden under a coat of snow.  This is the season to enjoy the internal effects of the block.  My aunt’s house is wooden, bright and open.  Artifacts from her daughter in India hang on the wall with some Pier 1 Imports purchases sprinkled around.  The living room is the point of entrance and entertainment.  The furniture is strategically positioned both to encourage conversations and watch movies with ease. 

On weekend evenings, Romaine Avenue residents can easily take the PATH into Manhattan or Hoboken to take part in the excitement of the nearby cities.  And, they know on their return that their home will be a quiet, peaceful haven to recover from a hangover. 

Jersey City falls under the shadows of grander cities.  There are parts of New York City that have a look and feel like this one, but there is no brand, persona or event to represent it like the way that holds Manhattan as “The Big Apple,” or Brooklyn with Jay-Z or Harlem with the Renaissance.  Hoboken, one of the smaller cities in New Jersey, is a thriving place on the west bank of the Hudson River.  Yuppies—Young Urban Professionals—and families buzz around and pollinate the restaurants, bars and boutique shops.  These locations make a nice spot to visit for a Jersey City resident.   A yearly visitor at Romaineville, such as myself, can make easy trips to Broadway in Manhattan or the fourth oldest technology university in the United States, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

The garbage dump, as I incorrectly labeled Jersey City with, is far from it.  It is rough around the edges, but at the core, it is a quaint and practical place for an urbanite to settle in.  And, as most moves go, the idea should start off with a visit.  The change of pace is quite abrupt and obvious.  Jersey City is not for the faint of heart.  Prepare for an unexpected adventure, in an unassuming place with endless possibilities at your fingertips.

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