First in a three-part series
Long before there was a Meadowview Village, that particular section of North Bergen was officially called East New Durham. Unofficially, however, it went by a much more colorful name: The Jungles.
This article is the first of a series detailing the fascinating history of the region as it morphed from Jungle to Village. Meadowview Village is a series of brick homes, both apartments and rowhouses, in the area of 58th to 61st streets. The neighborhood was built in the late 1930s under a federal low-income housing program enacted by the Roosevelt administration, clearing shacks that had populated the area before. But the “Jungle” residents weren’t sure they wanted the area to change.
“At the turn of the century, the ‘Jungles’ was a district of sprawling woods and farms. For years afterward, the district annually crowned a ‘king,’” according to an article published in the Hudson Dispatch on Aug. 2, 1940. “The youth of the district [do] not remember those coronation days when contests were held to determine the cake-walk championship at Decker’s old place at the foot of Liberty St., and the boisterous days in Pete Brunner’s saloon in the old Morro Castle on Newkirk St. where, when the going got a little rough, men used to emerge bodily out of windows.”
“How will I be able to pay the rent? I’m paying $7 a month for my place now.” – Miss Anna Heisler in 1938
Then, North Bergen took advantage of a new federal program aimed at developing modern housing for low-income residents. They razed the neighborhood, constructing Meadowview Village in the late 1930s.
The history of that project is meticulously chronicled in a scrapbook of newspaper clippings found by Gerald Sanzari when he took over the role of executive director of the North Bergen Housing Authority early last year. While cleaning out a closet in the offices, he came across a box that contained not only the scrapbook but a series of faded and water-stained photographs documenting the monumental transformation of the neighborhood.
“There’s a picture where a guy was in a shanty shack and he’s freezing, like in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’” said Sanzari.
Many residents of The Jungles got their water from public wells located just off Liberty Street near the bluff. Two had hand pumps, while a third utilized a bucket and rope, which citizens would toss down the hole and haul back up manually.
The district was a “nightmare” to the police, according to an article from the Hudson Dispatch, one of numerous newspapers that detailed the evolution of the neighborhood.
NB one of only 11 cities funded
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the United States Housing Act of 1937 on Sept. 1 of that year, creating the United States Housing Authority within the United States Department of the Interior. The act, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act for the legislators who proposed it, provided for subsidies to be paid from the U.S. government to local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families.
The North Bergen Housing Authority (NBHA) was created on April 16, 1938 under then-Mayor Paul F. Cullum, who immediately applied for federal aid to address the “slum problem” in the township. The NBHA submitted three possible sites for renovation as required by the Housing Act, but the goal was always to clear The Jungles.
On Oct. 21, 1938, President Roosevelt approved a $863,000 United States Housing Authority loan for North Bergen, one of only 11 cities to receive funding for low rent housing projects.
“This was really ahead of its time,” said Katherine Paletta, director of social services for North Bergen. “We were a progressive community even then. The country was in bad times but our forefathers were able to provide adequate housing for low-income residents.”
Not everyone agreed with the proposal at first. Landlords in The Jungles were almost unanimously opposed to the project, as were many residents. An Oct. 26, 1938 article in the Dispatch took to the streets for public comments. “Miss Anna Heisler, a little gray-haired old woman, who lives alone in a shack at 1237 Newkirk St. and who does housework on one or two days a week, said she ‘didn’t like the idea at all. How will I be able to pay the rent? I’m paying $7 a month for my place now. Where will I go? Why do they have to do this? Everybody is happy down here.’”
Rents in the proposed development were expected to go for the astronomical rate of $7 per room. The country was still suffering from the effects of the Depression that gripped the country in 1929, despite the New Deal that President Roosevelt had instituted when he took office in 1932. Many family heads were employed by the Works Public Authority (WPA), a national relief agency that drastically increased employment across the country.
Still, residents like Mrs. Margaret Wende, used to paying $10 a month rent, asked whether “anybody could pay $25 to $35 monthly on WPA wages, and with eight mouths to feed, and eight bodies to clothe.”
The Dispatch went on to say, “Across the street, in a similar shack, is the home of Mrs. Fina Morgan, Negress, 1253 Liberty St., who, according to neighbors, has lived in the ‘Jungles’ ‘since Noah was a pup.’ Repeated knocks on the door finally brought her out. ‘I don’t understand any of that stuff,’ she drawled. ‘All I know is that this house is the only one I knows.’”
The terms of the grant required the razing of 172 units, with an equivalent amount of new units built. Eight buildings were proposed, with the total cost estimated at about $1 million. Approximately five acres of land were included in the area to be developed, with houses or apartments to cover no more than 20 percent of the area in order to provide plenty of space for light and air, and make possible the development of parks and playgrounds.
“The structures planned will be two and three-story brick dwellings, comprised of three, four, and five-room apartments,” read a Nov. 15, 1938 article in the Jersey Observer. “Every room must be an outside room. Every home must have an indoor toilet, a bath or shower, hot and cold running water, and provision for cooking and refrigeration.”
Dispelling a rumor that the ulterior motive was to drive out the poor and provide housing for policemen, firemen, and other municipal employees, the NBHA issued a statement that resident families could not have an income more than five times the amount of the rent, or six times for families with three or more children. Township employees were immediately disqualified by the requirements.
Families with the most children would receive preference in renting apartments, along with current residents of The Jungles. By March of 1939, long before any work had begun, people were already calling the NBHA to request apartments.
Although landowners initially grumbled at the prices offered for their properties, most eventually came to an agreement and turned over their leases to the township. In a few cases the Housing Authority was forced to condemn the properties to acquire the leases.
Sealed bids for the construction work were accepted from 53 companies beginning in April, and in May the job was given to the lowest bidder: Macreal Co. of Paterson.
Third in the state
North Bergen became the third municipality in the state to have ground broken for a U.S. Housing Authority Project, on June 30, 1939.
Mayor Cullum, wielding a spade, was the main speaker at the groundbreaking, with many others joining him in front of a crowd of about 500 residents.
One week later, 200 skilled workers got to work on the initial stages of construction on the grand, visionary project that was now being called “Meadow View Village.” (“Meadowview” had yet to become a single word.)
Read about the construction and bitter early controversies at the housing complex – as America went to war – in next week’s North Bergen Reporter.
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.