Jersey City has existed as a municipality since 1838, when the charter was formed to officially incorporate the city out of several communities.
But the city’s origins date back to November 1660, when the village of Bergen was formed by Dutch settlers, an 800 square-foot walled area now considered by historians to be the first permanent settlement in New Jersey.
Three and a half centuries later, Jersey City is a 21-square mile (15 of which are solid land) town with the second largest population in the state, a metropolis of corporate buildings and million dollar condos showing very little evidence of humble beginnings.
But the city is planning events this year to make the public aware of the city’s long and rich history.
“Kids need to know how life has evolved in their hometown in the past four centuries.” – Cynthia Harris
Cynthia Harris, the head librarian for the New Jersey Room of the Jersey City Free Public Library, is on the committee forming the contest, which will kick off sometime in March after final details are worked out. Harris said the idea for the essay contest came from the same kind of essay contest that was held for Jersey City school children in 1960, for the 300th anniversary.
The New Jersey Room, which is the library system’s repository for historical materials, has possession of 81 essays from the 1960 contest.
This year’s contest calls for students to write about a period in Jersey City history that occurred before 1975. Harris said this will require students to go to old-school sources such as books, photos, and maps for their research rather than solely using the internet.
Harris said the essay contest will be valuable for its youthful participants.
“Kids need to know how life has evolved in their hometown in the past four centuries,” Harris said.
From cows to condos
Harris speaks to school children who visit the New Jersey Room on the history of Jersey City, regaling them with stories of a place where there were once cobblestone streets, apartments with only cold water, and large swaths of farmland.
“Whenever I show kids pictures of Curries Woods from about 100 years ago and there are cows grazing, they never cease to be amazed,” Harris said. Curries Woods is the wooded area located at the Jersey City-Bayonne border where there is now public housing.
Parade in 1910
Harris hopes there will be other events to remind people that Jersey City has an extensive past. She has taken her cue not just from the 1960 essay contest, but also the 1910 celebration of Jersey City’s 250th anniversary during one week in October. That year, schools were closed for a few days and there was a parade.
Also hoping to shine a spotlight on the anniversary is Patrick Shalhoub, who works in the Frank J. Guarini Library of New Jersey City University and also serves on the committee for the essay contest.
Shalhoub, a native whose family first settled in Jersey City in the mid-19th century, said most people take for granted the “wonderful history.” He said as a start, people can take a walk around the site of the former village of Bergen, located several blocks south of Journal Square, and be transported back to those early settlement days.
There are landmarks such as the Old Bergen Church on Bergen Avenue, the third incarnation of the Dutch Reformed Church that was first built on the same spot in 1662. Across the street from the church is the Old Bergen Church Cemetery, on Bergen and Tuers avenues, where many of the original settlers are buried. A few blocks north are the Speer Cemetery on Vroom Street, originally part of an estate of Dutch settlers. And Public School 11 on Bergen Avenue and Academy Street is on the first school built in Jersey City back in the 1660s.
The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy is in fact planning a walking tour of Bergen Square in May as part of Historic Preservation Month. John Hallanan, the president of the conservancy, said seeing from ground view some of Jersey City’s past preserved reminds him of a quote from historian Lewis Mumford: “A great city is where time is made visible.”
Learn more about Bergen
There are a number of sources to find out more about the Bergen settlement as well as the history that came afterward:
• The New Jersey Room located in the Jersey City’s Public Library’s main branch on Jersey Avenue.
New Jersey City University’s website: www.njcu.edu/Programs/jchistory/home2.htm, “Jersey City Past and Present”, which lists an extensive chronology from the village of Bergen to the present time. Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.