As with all urbanites, Jersey City residents think of their own hoods as little towns where they chat with their neighbors and shop in local stores. But Jersey City also has some pretty big shopping districts: downtown, the mall, Journal Square—and Central Avenue.
Central Ave., in the Heights, is bursting with personality. All kinds of stores line the sidewalks. On warm summer days, folks stroll down the street, and in every season, the aroma of ethnic cuisines fills the avenue, and you can feel the energy of a thriving commercial hub.
The same was true in late January when Victor and I stopped by to look around. There was bright sun and cleared streets after a huge snow storm.
David Diaz is a tireless advocate for the avenue. Since 2002 he’s been district manager of the Central Avenue SID Management Corp. The area roughly goes from Manhattan Avenue to North Street, and from Washington Park to Pershing Fields Park.
We caught up with Diaz in his office. After giving us a little history lesson—he loves talking about how Jersey City came to be—we strolled down the avenue, stopping in at Hauptman Floor Covering Company.
The store has been around for 100 years, selling every kind of flooring you can imagine. Inside scoop: Vinyl is in, and it looks just like wood.
SIDs are Special Improvement Districts, and in 1992, Central Ave. became the first in Jersey City and the 10th in the state. The philosophy is that there is strength in numbers: A group of businesses can do more to make change and improve the area than individual businesses working alone.
Ironically, the whole thing started with something pretty mundane: holiday decorations.
“It was a big issue before the improvement district,” Diaz says. “One group of businesspeople was collecting funds for holiday decorations, and another was doing the same thing. There wasn’t any harmony in decorating the main streets.” Now there’s harmony on the streets.
Buying advertising provides another opportunity for businesses to get more bang for the buck. Before the improvement district was established, “some businesses were not able to afford advertising on their own,” Diaz says. “Their combined buying power allows them to promote their businesses and the district.”
Life on the Street
“Central Avenue is a family-friendly community,” Diaz says. “It’s a great resource for people who live here. It has a small-town feeling in the middle of Hudson County and near New York City.”
The word diversity may be overused, but this part of town may have written the book on the subject. The Everything Jersey City Festival, a one-day extravaganza, was staged on Central Avenue from 2008 until 2012.
“That festival shows just how diverse Jersey City really is,” Diaz says. “All walks of life, all social backgrounds, it was great to see everyone come together. It’s a melting pot.”
Shoppers have a lot of options.
“There is a great variety of things,” Diaz says, “but not as much retail as there used to be. But there has been great growth in the foodservice industry with a variety of restaurants.”
Diaz points to a number of Latin eateries, including Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Salvadoran. Others include a Thai restaurant and OZU, a Japanese restaurant opened by a New York City chef who wanted to have a place in the Heights. “We’re very excited about it,” Diaz says.
Diaz, who was born and raised in Jersey City, has seen a lot of changes in his hometown. “Jersey City is bursting at the seams,” he says. “There is a lot of housing development, and it continues to evolve. As people change, the community changes, and so does the shopping district. New things are happening,”
He cites such additions as Zipcars, Uber, and Citi Bikes—there are three bike stations in the district—and a bus service to Port Authority, a 20-minute commute to New York City.
“More people are discovering Central Avenue and the Heights, and we’re seeing growth,” Diaz says.
Two new events are attracting visitors. In spring, the auto and music show features classic cars, and in the fall the annual Halloween party draws close to a hundred kids.
“I’ve been serving the district for 14 years,” Diaz says. “It’s a pleasure serving the community, which speaks volumes about the character of the businesspeople I work for.
“They’re great people trying to do the right thing, do their part for the community, and achieve the goal of making Central Avenue and the Heights a better place to live and work.”—Kate Rounds