In 1851, renowned American painter William Ranney settled in a quiet marshy area of farmland across the river from Manhattan, in a town that would one day become Union City. A pioneer in his day, Ranney’s famous paintings of rugged settlers are still celebrated today.
He may have been on to something.
Local artists are currently thriving in Union City and the neighboring immigrant towns on this side of the river – buoyed both by a need to preserve their native culture, and a realization that housing prices are slightly lower here than in nearby arts havens like Hoboken, Jersey City, and Manhattan.
Northern Hudson County’s waterfront towns like West New York, North Bergen, and Weehawken were once the center of the American embroidery industry, largely due to German and Swiss immigrants who brought their lace-making machines here after 1870 – but now the towns burgeon with a new wave of Latino residents who have brought parades, festivals, and a variety of musicians and painters.
Yet, some of these artists haven’t had the chance yet to bond with others in their hometowns, preferring instead to perform in New York City without realizing how many of their fellow artists are living right on their block.
In Union City, a couple who paints themselves and works as “living statues” lives just miles from a former silk factory full of artists, and a nearby theater where plays have been performed since 1931.
The North Hudson artists who know each other have dubbed the area “NoHu,” and some hope to eventually rival more established art Meccas like SoHo.
The resident artists of NoHu
Roxana Marroquin, whose family immigrated from El Salvador, grew up all over North Hudson and currently resides in West New York.
She recently became a founder of La Ola (www.laola.org), a local group that is meant to bring the area’s artists together.
“It’s a group of artists – we set up art shows around the community of North Hudson County,” said Marroquin, a photographer. “We just try to bring more art to the area. As artists, we didn’t have a space or venue of our own. So we said, ‘Let’s see who else is out there,’ and there’s lots of people.”
Marroquin said that La Ola started doing group shows every month at the Park Avenue Bar & Grill in Union City to get in touch with the community.
“I just want artists to be aware that La Ola is here to provide them with any kind of moral support, network opportunities, and we don’t charge a fee,” she said.
One problem in NoHu seems to be that the artistic community isn’t as aware of fellow artists or groups that may be working to make the area more artist-friendly.
Union City Commissioner Lucio Fernandez, a longtime resident and performing artist, said his city has been promoting the arts. Within its borders are the artist space on 42nd Street, as well as the Union City Arts and Crafts Festival held the second week of every September.
“Any artist from the county who wants to exhibit [at the festival] is given a 10-by-10-foot space free of charge,” said Fernandez. “The idea is that we want to promote the arts as much as we can in the area. The more art around, the more theater around, the more the community is going to flourish.”
Fernandez said that the city is seeking a location for a Union City arts building with gallery space.
“I think, not only as a politician, but as a fellow artist and community member, we should just support the arts as whole-heartedly as we can,” he said.
Sculptor Wendy Lewis, who settled in Union City after traveling abroad including Germany, Italy, and Russia, thinks that local governments need to do more to promote the arts – especially providing space that isn’t doomed for overdevelopment.
“I think we need more venues, and we need more studio space without the threat of eminent domain,” Lewis said. “[Local governments] don’t appreciate what artists bring to a community. Any place that has made a major comeback, the artists were there first – SoHo or Chelsea.”
Forced out by condos
She’s got a point.
Three years ago, a group of artists fled a building (111 First St.) in Jersey City that was about to be demolished for condominiums – and some of them moved their work to an old soap factory in Union City. But then, they began hearing rumors that they’d be forced out again.
Shortly after some of the artists moved into the Yardley Soap Corporation building on Palisade Avenue in 2005, they found out that the Union City Redevelopment Agency had taken over the building by eminent domain, intending to have it developed.
In October 2006, the 25 artists in the building held their second studio tour for the public, lamenting the fact that they might not be there much longer.
“It’s the same thing all over,” artist Jessica Lenard said at the time. “The artists fix up the place. It becomes hip and gentrified, and then the artists are forced to move.”
Today, the building is privately owned by Panepinto Properties, which has developed properties in Jersey City, but some of the artists remain while the building’s future is decided.
The development company did not return a call about their future plans by press time.
The Silk Mill
Several artists have moved to the old R.H. Simon Silk Mill on 39th Street in Union City.
So today, an embroidery building that once hosted a burgeoning area industry is hosting another.
Weehawken resident Emanuele Cacciatore, who uses oil on canvas, has worked out of the “Silk factory” for 10 years now, and he finds it affordable and convenient to have his studio in what has also been dubbed the Union Hill Arts Building.
“I think it’s a great place in terms of the space, and access to it is pretty easy by public transportation,” noted Cacciatore, who recommends it for other artists. “I know a couple of people that actually were in the Yardley building and came over.”
Orlando Brú, president of the Federación Mercantil association, whose family comes from Cuba, spends his days in Union City protecting the merchants as well as artists in the area. He helps them organize, get bank loans, and avoid foreclosure, while supporting local entertainment.
Each year, the organization hosts a show of work by Spanish-American painters, bringing hundreds to Hijos Y Amigos de Fomento, 522 38th St., Union City.
The other side
Virginia Mesones and her partner Victor Piedrahita have lived in North Hudson for seven years, and they make a living doing performance art as “living statues.”
However, the Union City residents don’t find much of an audience for their art form on this side of the river. Obviously, the foot traffic is better in tourist-laden South Street Seaport.
“I live in Union City, but I don’t really perform in this area too much,” said Mesones, who hails from Argentina and met Piedrahita in a local ESL class.
Lynn Early of North Bergen, a photographer and writer, set up the North Hudson Creative Alliance earlier this year in order to bring local artists together. She said she wants to put on a local show sometime in May, but finding the right space is hard.
“In the past, I’ve enjoyed attending all the artistic events in Hoboken and Jersey City, but when I moved to North Bergen, I saw a huge lack of cultural events in the area,” Early said last week. “My solution was to start this Creative Alliance. We’re seeking talent from all over Hudson County, and not just [visual] artists. We’re looking for songwriters, photographers, videographers, et cetera.”
She said there is space to be had, but it’s often an odd type of space.
“In January, our first show was held in a clubhouse on a local Little League field, which we turned into a gallery,” she said. “Some local art groups have held their shows in back rooms of bars, which are hardly ‘gallery quality’ atmospheres. I’d love to hear from an ‘angel,’ a patron of the arts who would be interested in opening an art space in the North Bergen-West New York area. There certainly is enough warehouse space available, and an event space can turn quite a profit, if planned out correctly.”
She has set up the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org so people can contact her.
Several other artists agreed that they need more local venues to exhibit and perform.
A few years back, a show called “NoHu Visions” used to run out of the Park Performing Arts Center, a major theater built in Union City in 1931. The theater still runs very popular musicals and plays all year, including their famous annual “Passion Play” about Christ, as well as programs for the community.
There are other up-and-coming venues.
Faye Rausch, general manager of the Park Avenue Bar & Grill, said her restaurant is happy to help: “It’s a strong artistic community, but there’s no venue for them to express themselves,” she said.
St. John’s Episcopal Church in Union City is another space that serves as a popular location for artists to gather, offering a group show called “Celebrate Art” every September for three years now.
Weehawken resident Toni Fukuda, curator of the show, enjoys bringing all kinds of artists to meet and greet.
“It’s like a reunion when we do some of these shows together,” she said. “They’ve become my old friends. And it’s really just one way of bringing the community together.”
Famous actors and singers
In Weehawken, a nonprofit group called the Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center (HRPAC) has spent many years raising money for an outdoor performing arts center on the Hudson County waterfront, specifically focusing on a riverfront site in Weehawken.
And even though they don’t yet have a venue, they haven’t let that stop them. They hold a free outdoor summer concert series each year in Lincoln Harbor Park, near the location of the proposed center, and also hold lunchtime concerts indoors during the rest of the year.
One of their featured performers was North Bergen resident Paquito D’Rivera, a Cuban native and famous jazz musician.
In fact, there are many singers and actors who live in northern Hudson County, and some who are about to become major stars. Michael Petolino, a West New York resident and casting agent for MTV’s programs, talked in an interview last year about how his company, Gotham Casting, frequently seeks out young Latino talent from North Hudson for the shows, particularly for the programs in Spanish and English.
And not all of the immigrants in the area’s arts scene are Latino. North Bergen resident Gina Picinic, a recent graduate of North Bergen High School, is considered the “Celine Dion of Croatia” and has seen her songs top the charts in that country.
Painting on skin in West New York
Union City resident John Vargas, originally from Ecuador, deals with the pleasures of the flesh, as he is a “body painter.”
He is, in fact, well known here, working out of his studio in West New York. He paints designs on people’s bodies and has made a celebrated calendar of women who posed wearing his body art.
“I just know that there are more talented artists out there,” Vargas said.
He said that he finds NoHu attractive because it’s removed from the urban jungle of New York City. He said that this area is quieter and more inspiring.
“Why go so far when we have everything at home?” he said.
Vargas has found his home community extremely encouraging in his endeavors, and he counts the West New York Lions’ Club and Union City Mayor Brian Stack as two of his biggest supporters.
“As a body painter, I’ve been blessed and accepted, not only in this community but worldwide,” Vargas explained.
He said that when he was chosen to represent the U.S. in the body painting world competition in Austria, the Lions’ Club, the mayor, and members of the community raised 50 percent of the funds for him to compete.
Comments can be sent to Mpaul@hudsonreporter.com.